The Doek Chronicles

When I choose to adorn my crown with material, it is what I say it is, when I say it is, however I choose to wear it. 

30/11/2016 05:58 SAST | Updated 30/11/2016 09:16 SAST
Neil Overy
The Iqhiya is the traditional headdress worn by a Xhosa woman. Colloquially known as the doek. The Iqhiya is the main part of the headdress and will either complement the outfit or contrast it. With the iqhiya Xhosa women sometimes wear a Santulo which is made up of different colours and adds volume to the headdress.

My head hurts and I'm not sure why. Probably because of all the politics that surround what's on my head and very little concern for what's in my head.

The burden of symbolism that is literally carried on the shoulders of the black woman has been a sore spot for me, mainly because the opinions that seem to get airtime on the topic in mainstream media are rarely from black women themselves. Over the course of my time on this planet, the debate about the black woman's choice of style or adornment on her head supposedly says a lot about her values, her worth and character. I learned this first-hand as a teenager who decided to take one of my mother's neglected hair scarves and use it as what I thought would be a very sexy and graceful head wrap, akin to the ones I'd seen in West African magazines and films.

When I recounted the tale to my mother, she reminded me of the symbolism of a head wrap in most African cultures; no matter how you wear it, by placing material on your head, you've signalled unavailability.

With pride and gusto, I wrapped what I thought was a rather gorgeous 'gele' even though the material that I had didn't quite live up to my fantasies, when I was done I gazed lovingly into the mirror; as far as I was concerned I looked great. However, my confidence was soon to be toppled as I arrived to the small soiree that I had intended to go when I was stopped by a middle-aged man, who asked me why I had done myself such a disservice at such a young age by making myself seem unattractive and unavailable, referring to the head wrap. I was crushed, I didn't even stay long at the party after that as I was so self- consciousness about my appearance. I no longer felt like I had a self-made African crown on my head but rather a crown of thorns that was making me bleed ugly at the altar of beauty.

Reuters Photographer/Reuters
A woman has her face painted as she prepares to perform in traditional costume at the opening of the All Africa games in Nigeria's capital Abuja, October 4, 2003. Clothing in Nigeria symbolizes religious affiliation, wealth, and social standing and women wear wrap-around garments or dresses, typically made from very colorful materials, and beautiful head-ties that may be fashioned into elaborate patterns. RS/MA

When I recounted the tale to my mother, she reminded me of the symbolism of a head wrap in most African cultures; no matter how you wear it, by placing material on your head, you've signalled unavailability and marriage. Great, so in an attempt to express my African pride, I presented myself as a possession because I am not in control of universal African symbolism. Fair enough, I thought, and I didn't dare wear a scarf on my head in public again.

A year later, as a first-year university student, high on my new found 'independence', I decided to reprise the 'gele' fantasy, this time, I chose better material and I got a wrap lesson from a Ghanaian seamstress whose workstation was around the way from where I lived. In an environment that seemed to be an incubator for expression, experimentation and tolerance, I didn't foresee any backlash from my peers about the symbolism of my beloved fashion statement and sure enough there wasn't any. In fact, I found myself being complimented and admired. I saw fit to make head wraps a regular part of my style, that is until I had a rather disconcerting chat with a young black man in my class, who because of my fascination with the West African styles of head wraps assumed I was West African. I was flattered, until he made it very clear that he as a South African was not particularly a fan of West African woman as he thought less of them and thought it unwise for me as a South African woman to look like 'them'.

This incident made me aware of how vulnerable to discrimination and xenophobia my non-South African counterparts were, in fact, I then became even more aware of how even in a seemingly tolerant environment bigotry is rife. Muslim women who opted to wear hijabs or shaylas on campus versus their 'more liberal' counterparts seemed to be more ignored on campus. It was apparent that many of us had the idea that these women were probably more conservative and less inclined to socialize outside their cultural circle. This was reiterated through talking to a friend of mine who decided to stop wearing her shayla on campus as she felt like wearing it was robbing her of a more integrated university experience and sure enough, when she came to campus with long flowing, shiny locks instead of what was seen as a symbol of illiberalism, she was able to make more friends and ceased to wear it on campus again until postgrad. I've since been convinced that no matter what a woman wears on her head or how she tries to wear her, her reasons and inspiration to do so become superfluous once she leaves her home. The 'ethnic' woman's beauty, values, character and intelligence are often judged by the standards of western patriarchy even by those who you'd expect to be less attached by those ideals.

Fatima, 12, attends Arabic classes at Imran Binu Hussein Primary School in the Hodan district, Mogadishu in this September 8, 2013 handout photo provided by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The Somali government in partnership with UNICEF launched on Sunday the "Go 2 School" initiative, which aims to get one million Somali children back to school.

The presence or absence of a mere cloth on a brown woman's head can apparently and yet, inexplicably represent what goes on in her head for those who have not yet let their minds expand ideas of beauty, fundamentalism, and expression.

Whatever name you may know it by; gele, hijab, shayla, iqhiya or turban, in some warped part of my South African mind, it is and will always be 'The Doek'. It is and has been an integral part of my life and lived experience as a woman in this country. I also believe that it symbolizes many things for many people in this country and through wearing it and it seeing be worn in whatever style, I have learned so much about being woman in my country, in my life. I've learned about how it can limit women and how it can command reverence and how the role of the doek is changing and how the role of the woman is changing alongside it. I'm going to use this platform to see if in my lifetime much like my womanhood, perception of beauty and my lived experience, that when I choose to adorn my crown with material that it is what I say it is, when I say it is, however I choose to wear it.