Athambile Masola

A curious case of the headscarf

Athambile Masola

Athambile Masola

by Athambile Masola

I love wearing headscarves, also known as a doek or iqhiya. The first time I wore a headscarf I must have been about 3 years old. It was part of my bedtime ritual because Mama had plaited my hair and the only way to keep the hair neat overnight was to make sure I wore iqhiya. Going to sleepovers and school camps became very awkward because my white friends couldn’t understand why I slept with something on my head. Sometimes it wouldn’t be iqhiya but my mother’s stockings. This became the source of great shock when I realised that not all women wore headscarves to be as I had been brought up to believe. I would try to explain that apart from wanting to preserve the plaits in my hair, I didn’t want to get the pillows dirty with the hair food I used. Hair food is also known as hair moisturiser-something black women swear by.

When I wasn’t around my white friends the headscarf was the norm. Most of my black friends wore them or the awkward, old stockings that chafed ones hairline (injibhabha) if worn for too long. As teenagers we began teasing each other wondering what would happen one day when we end up in a room with a guy and we are in the heat of having sex or getting ready for bed. Would a headscarf be an appropriate part of that kind of bedtime routine? Would men be able to understand the importance of wearing the headscarf? The joke was always about, what kind of black guy would want to sleep with someone who wears a headscarf to bed; it would remind him of his mother because chances are his mother wears a doek to bed. And woe to the black woman who ended up with a white or coloured guy who may never have grown up with his mother wearing anything on her head at bedtime. Even when I had no hair I still wore a headscarf. For comfort and for the chilliness that comes with having no hair.

Headscarves are not sexy enough for the bedroom. Whatever the bedroom ritual might be for a black woman and her guy, at no point does it allow for you to grab your headscarf just before bedtime. The truth is, the only vision we have of a woman wearing a headscarf is the “Mammy”, the maid. And no-one wants to look like the maid in the bedroom (unless you’re into role playing in the bedroom). I’ve begun to think of the headscarf as one of the symbols that remind us about what is or isn’t beautiful. When watching Hollywood movies and a black woman is lucky enough to be featured, there is no headscarf. Even where the movie has a “black cast”, there are no headscarves, mostly weaves and maybe braids. The image of the woman with a headscarf is reserved for the oppressed Muslim woman who wears a burka.

I also enjoy wearing headscarves during the day, especially in winter or when I’m having a bad hair day. I hear many compliments on the day I wear a headscarf. I’ve even been told “You look so African!” because wearing a headscarf is associated with the quintessential African woman. This representation of African beauty and the headscarf surprised me since images of black woman in any mainstream media don’t have the headscarf (except when headscarves became the rage a few years ago; a rage which was short-lived). Have you ever seen a news reader wearing a headscarf? Have you ever seen an actress wearing a headscarf (and not the one acting the cancer patient)? If it wasn’t for images of the two African women who are presidents, I doubt I would have seen any woman wearing a headscarf on TV.

Growing up, my mother never went to church without covering her head. For her, covering ones head was a sign of modesty. When we moved to the suburbs she made a conscious decision to no longer wear a headscarf during the day, especially when she went to a school function. She didn’t want to be misunderstood for someone coming to the school asking for a job. Living in Cape Town and being surrounded by Muslim women who wear headscarves has brought me some comfort. Granted, they wear their scarves for religious reasons but it’s comforting to know that there are many images of what it means to be a woman and to be beautiful: we don’t all have to aspire for the Hollywood look that aims to make all women look the same-thin, light or white skin with wavy hair- without any variety in our beauty.

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