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A toyi-toyi for Doek Fridays

On Friday, the department of arts and culture introduced a “Wear a Doek Fridays” campaign to mark Women’s Month. Women took to the streets of Twitter brandishing retweets of outrage. With each minute the Twitter numbers started to swell. A sign that those without a 3G internet connection were arriving at their places of work. Then the trending in the streets started. In South Africa a march is never just an idle walk but accompanied by energetic trending. I stood there like a bemused suburban and asked: What are they trending about?

My being a man and having never studied feminism did me no favours. So we waited for the marchers to present their memorandum of grievances. Nothing. Surely people cannot be trending in the heat of day and not a single protester presents a memorandum. To who should they present it to? To all the marchers failing to articulate why they are outraged? Finally before the sun had set on the outrage, the numbered-tweets arrived. @NombonisoGasa started articulating and breaking it down for us bemused suburbans.

My limited understanding of the chief grievance is that the history of the doek is synonymous with the oppression of women. Further that the doek is a symbol of the institutionalised policing of women. A symbol of the fraught relationship colonialism had with the cleanliness of black women’s hair. A symbol of marriage and possibly motherhood, thus the implication of hetero-normativity and the veneration of motherhood above other forms of female existence. Sjoe! All that from a simple call for doek Fridays.

Clearly this is not just another attempt to outdo Amcu, these people are serious. Phansi with my imagined suburbanism, phansi.

In so far as my understanding permits me, for me the root issue here is whether symbols used to entrench oppression can ever become redeeming. The core question is whether such symbols can ever be rid off the pungent stench of oppression and be used as transformative tools in the quest for more egalitarian societies.

This core question is the general form of a set of specific questions that appear often and do so in different and specific guises. A recent example is the guise of whether Die Stem being included in our national anthem can ever be legitimately transformative given its history. Another guise is whether the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes (eg Mandela-Rhodes scholarship, the Rhodes scholarship, Rhodes University etc) can ever legitimately symbolise projects aiming to create a more equitable society. Yet another example is the guise expressed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o — whether the colonial history of English bodes well for a language tasked with the liberation of Africans. Lastly there is the present guise, whether a doek can ever transcend its supposed history and become an affirming symbol of the aspirations of women.

The continuum that the general question straddles has no shortage of competing schools of thought. One school is that of the inverters, to which Jay Z (Shawn Carter) belongs. In this video he explains to Oprah Winfrey that using the symbol “nigger” (given its history) for him is a process of inverting its meaning and reclaiming his humanity. He says it’s important to reclaim hurtful words because you cannot go around banning every offensive word. Another school of thought on this same side of the continuum is that of those that parody. As an example of parody one may make a case for Tyler Perry’s Madea character and how s/he parodies the mammy archetype.

On the other side of the continuum you get bell hooks who argues that oppressive symbols cannot be reclaimed and are inherently disempowering. In this video (about 30 minutes in) she argues that Beyoncé Knowles’ Time magazine cover picture is sheer terrorism. She says it perpetuates the stereotype of women as infants. This she contends goes against the grain of latter-day feminism.

It’s not obvious which school might best represent the politics of the doek. Is it inverting the doek and wearing it by choice and thus subversively? Is it to wear an over-the-top doek to parody and make a statement? Is it to refuse to wear it and dismiss its politics?

I believe that symbols are hard drives for norms and values. The labyrinthine way in which they encode these norms and values often deny the unsuspecting mind of due process and thus condemns it to the bondage of prison. It is thus cleaner to construct new symbols and infuse them with the popular norms and values of present day. But ultimately these new symbols often end up being future prisons themselves. How many times in history has each generation thought itself to have the ultimate symbol.

Some symbols are so stained that even the hands of time cannot wash them clean. That said, some can be rehabilitated and juxtaposed with present life to serve as a source of critical reflection. I believe the doek can be one of those visible symbols that remind us, as a society, to reflect on women.

But I am not a woman and perhaps women think the doek will not engender the radical and critical reflection our public discourse on women needs. That it will institutionalise the policing of women further. Perhaps the truth is that many think the aspirational lives they strive for cannot be reconciled with a doek often donned by rural women.

Feminisms are many and this militates against easy monolithic representations of solidarity.

So what must happen now?

Twitter: @melomagolego