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Thursday, April 8, 1999 Published at 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK

World: Americas

Tradition triumphs at school

The Mayan people have a rich cultural heritage

By Central America Correspondent Peter Greste

Two Mayan Indian students in Guatemala have won a landmark ruling that allows them to wear their traditional dress to school.

Mayan activists have hailed the decision as a breakthrough for the Indians' right to express their ethnic identity.

In most parts of the world, the issue of school uniforms has focused on the need for student discipline. In Guatemala, it is seen as central to an ethnic struggle.

Now, three years after the end of a brutal civil war in which Mayan communities bore the vast majority of casualties, two Mayan women have won a victory that indigenous groups have hailed as a symbol of their returning self-confidence.

Badge of identity

Ever since the start of the school year, 17-year-old Claudia Tux Tum and her 22-year-old friend Virginia Guadalupe Toj, insisted on wearing their colourful traditional dress known as the huipil instead of the standard grey and white uniform.

The staff banned them from a number of classes and threatened them with expulsion unless they changed. But the pair stood their ground, insisting that the dress was an integral part of their culture.

[ image: Rigoberta Menchu: Nobel Prize winner]
Rigoberta Menchu: Nobel Prize winner
They appealed to human rights organisations and Mayan groups for support, and eventually to the Education Minister, Arabella Castro.

Under intense pressure, the minister finally overturned the school's policy. The ruling cleared the way for thousands of other Indians to discard their old uniforms and follow suit.

For Mayans, the brightly embroidered huipil is more than an item of clothing: it is a badge of identity that signifies which tribe the owner belongs to as well as their marital status.

But for centuries, it is also what had marked its owner as a target for discrimination. Mayan activists say this decision is an important step in reversing that trend.

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