Not a day goes by without spotting South African women from all walks of life donning a doek. You might wonder if it's because of a bad hair day, religious/cultural reasons or a fashion statement, and the answer would probably be a combination of all these reasons.
Across many different cultures in South Africa, the doek remains a prominent symbol of feminine strength, beauty, and pride. Headscarves may be worn for a variety of purposes, such as protection of the head or hair from the weather, for fashion, recognition or social distinction; with religious significance, to hide baldness, out of modesty, or other forms of social convention.
Even our local celebrities have embraced the power of the doek wearing it on magazine covers and red carpets.
TV personality and mogul Bonang Matheba once said: “wearing a doek gives an African woman a layer of confidence and strength. The headpiece is also associated with being an important expression of your heritage and it’s always fitting to grace traditional events wearing one.”
So how exactly did the doek evolve into the symbol feminist pride that we know today in SA? Well, there are probably several scenarios.
In the past, African women would don headscarves during traditional ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. The gele from West Africa represents this kind of elaborate, majestic headwrap that would see at a wedding. In Nigeria, Yoruba women wear a headscarf as a sign of marital status - if worn with the ends facing down, it means a woman is married and if worn with the ends up, she is single. In Muslim culture, the hijab represents modesty and privacy from unrelated males.
While this type of symbolism was very common across many different cultures and countries in Africa, during the slave colonies, headwraps were forced on women of colour. In the USA, slaves were banned from showing their hair.
According to Hlonipha Mokoena, Associate professor at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, historically it was not the slave masters who insisted on black women covering their hair - but rather the slave mistresses “because they said black women's hair confuses white men - so you have to keep it under wraps.”
She explained during a 702 interview that in slave societies, female slaves were “all shades of brown with many different hair textures. And white women felt that when they walked with their slave, men could become confused as to who was the slave and who was the mistress, hence forcing these women to cover their hair.”
Fast-forward to 1956 and headwraps can be spotted at the Women’s March where thousands of South African women took to the streets to demand the end of the oppressive pass laws of the apartheid government.
Apartheid rules were very biased/oppressive to people of colour, limiting the freedom of expression of cultural beliefs when it comes to fashion. These oppressive rules around black hair and expression are still rife to this day in the workplace and in schools.
In 2016, arts and entertainment reporter Nontobeko Sibisi, wore a headwrap for a segment on eNCA. The segment was never aired allegedly because she was wearing a doek. The journalist received an outpour of supportive messages on social media. This caused the hashtag #doek and #respekthedoek to trend on Twitter with many people posting pictures of themselves wearing a doek in solidarity.
The news channel management said there was no issue with her headdress, but to this day we will never know what exactly prompted the decision to pull the segment.
In 2018, the symbolism of #respectthedoek took on a whole new life when millions of South Africans wore the doek as a tribute to the mother of the nation, the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
The doek was solidified as a fashion accessory that symbolizes respect and feminist power in South Africa and will continue to do so in the future.
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