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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Take your doek and knot it

Two years ago, faced with the hypocritical sham-show of Women’s Day, I went into full volcanic eruption. One year ago, I was in utter despair. Today, almost everything that enrages or grieves me about the standing of women in South Africa and the world continues unchanged, against a backdrop of humans behaving so badly — from the global to the individual level — that I’m almost beyond words. So this year, I’m getting some help from pictures.

This is how I feel all through August, a month in which women will go about their daily work (often backbreaking, often poorly paid), care for their families, run the usual risks of being violated and beaten and exploited and murdered — but with the additional bonus of being patronised by the saccharine-fest that is “Women’s Month”:

I had no great expectations that someone in government would say anything inspiring or helpful — I was expecting the usual sentimental blether — when the “wear a doek” campaign was announced by the Department of Arts and Culture. Women were asked to don a “doek” (a head covering traditionally worn by domestic workers and married women) on Fridays, take “selfies” and post them on social media — as a gesture of “social cohesion”. And bang went my resolution not to rant and swear this Women’s Month. WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY SMOKING? WHAT BATSHIT TOMFOOLERY WAS THIS?

And even as I reeled, I read an article — on the 2nd day of “Women’s Month” — about how a rapist’s sentence was reduced because the 11-year-old girl he had repeatedly raped was allegedly “willing” and not particularly traumatised. At which point, this happened to my face: medusa

This kind of insanity — EVIL, in fact, and this link explains just how low a priority this is for the powers that be — is just the tip of the iceberg of what South African women and children deal with daily, and our Minister wants us to adorn our little heads with scarves associated with bringing Master his tea. Look, mocking this trite, patronising and spectacularly middle-class (“selfies”? “social media”?) little promo is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ve spotted some wonderful responses: the writer Helen Brain Faulkner immediately posted a selfie on her Facebook page with a duck on her head. In her next pic, she was wearing a “dick” on her head, and it’s worth tracking her via social media to see THAT picture.

I’m sure there are bright postgrads writing papers on the potential subversion of the doek as a cultural symbol or political capital, or its appropriation as a fashion item, but the plain truth is that in South Africa, historically the doek has always been a sign of racial and gender subservience and subjugation. I may love headgear — hats, wraps, turbans, scarves, mantillas — as accessories, but asking women to cover their heads is almost invariably associated with conservative (“traditional”) political, cultural and religious hierarchies.

Here’s my doek selfie, with inspiration taken shamelessly from Lesley Perkes, who posted pics of herself on Facebook wearing a doek both as a noose and a gag. Lesley, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Warning: This photo is NOT prophetic. I may be mentally hoarse from shouting, but I’m not going to shut up. FUCK NO.

Here’s what I wish the Department of Arts and Culture had suggested instead: asking parents to enrol their children at libraries and take out books about South African sheroes — Ellen Kuzwayo, Albertina Sisulu, Ray Alexander, Miriam Makeba and hundreds more. Those are selfies I’d like to see, please: kids with books, stories about strong, interesting, flawed, brilliant and inspiring women. Oh, and please fill up our schools and libraries with those books — they’ve been written, for all ages, by the likes of Gcina Mhlophe, Sindiwe Magona, Elinor Sisulu, Makhosazana Xaba, Mmatshilo Motsei and many more.

In the mean time, here’s one last picture: Rahima Moosa, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams delivering petitions to the heart of the apartheid machine.Women's Day march

See that, Minister? THAT’s what social cohesion looks like.

PS: For a Women’s Day gesture that will actually make a difference, donate to Rape Crisis here. They’re the ones doing incredible work against impossible odds, and they need every bit of support we can give them. And if you’d still like to take a selfie, get a book (not a doek) to donate to your nearest school or library, and take a pic of that.


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