African women have worn headscarves for many years for religious, cultural reasons and even as a fashion statement but they were traditionally worn by older, usually married women. They are a common feature in ceremonies such as weddings and even funerals. Many also love the convenience of it – it can be a quick fix for a bad hair day.
One of the most popular forms of headscarves across Africa is the gele from West Africa. It can be incredibly elaborate and is starched so the material becomes stiff to hold its shape. In Nigeria, how a Yoruba woman wears her headscarf can be a sign of her marital status – if worn with the ends facing down its means, a woman is married and if worn with the ends up, she is single.
In South Africa, there is a necessary debate about the doek in the corporate world. Recently, a news reporter for ENCA, an independent news channel trended on social media after it emerged that her story had been taken off air because she filmed it wearing a doek. Cue social media storm. The hashtags #RespekTheDoek and #DoekTheNewsroom trended for a number of days last week with many people – including men and even women from all racial groups – wearing a doek to show their support for the young journalist. The channel, while explaining that its dress code does not allow on-air journalists to wear headgear to work, has said it is now reviewing that policy.
A new generation of young women have now reclaimed the headgear look – sporting a range of prints from all around Africa, they see the doek as an expression of what it is to be African and have grown to appreciate the delicate balance between ancient symbolism and modern identity – and made it my personal mission to celebrate its new-found power.
Kamogelo Seekoei, a Johannesburg writer, describes her headscarf as “a crown”. She says headscarves are a sign of “Queening” – a term used to refer to a social movement of black women from around the world who are embracing black beauty and power.
A selection of names for headscarves around Africa:
South Africa – Doek
Malawi/ Zimbabwe – Dhuku
Ghana – Duku
Nigeria – Gele
Sudan – Tarha
Sierra Leone – Enkeycha
East Africa (Swahili) – Kilemba
DR Congo (Lingala) – Kitambala
Rwanda/ Burundi – Igitambara
Uganda – Ekitambala (Luganda)/ Latam wich (Acholi)
Zambia – Chitambala
“Africans are going through a state of being woke [awakened]. Africans are coming back to themselves,” says Tumi Ndaba, the owner of Tuku Affair, a Pretoria-based company that sells headscarves from materials bought all over Africa. “The doek never left, it was just worn in a way that wasn’t really appealing us, but the more we fall in love with ourselves, the more we work harder at perfecting and beautifying everything that belongs to us”.