POLITICS OF THE doek
Milisuthando Bongela considers both sides of the government’s Wear a Doek Women’s Month campaign
The latest effort by the department of arts and culture to create a viral campaign, Wear a Doek Fridays, is a dismal and patronising attempt to pick the low-hanging fruit that is women’s politics. Low-hanging fruit because it is easily accessible, heavy and rotting, eager to be picked and consumed. Meanwhile, feminism is the marginalised, misunderstood, misrepresented and often unseen sister of that political playboy, the race debate.
At first glance, the campaign seems ill-conceived and parochial, something that a bunch of underqualified politicians dared to pass without consulting actual feminists.
A closer look at what doek politics is, rather than what the symbolism of wearing a doek represents, offers a better understanding of why the department might have taken the risk of being ridiculed on social-media platforms.
I considered my dismissive and privileged knee-jerk reaction to this campaign when I began to really think about the idea of putting persons before ideologies in my assessment of why some feminists were so incensed by the doek campaign.
I am currently in the Eastern Cape. My mother recently had surgery and after my three sisters took turns looking after her, it was my turn to come home. There is something very fulfilling about being needed. I live such a solitary life that physically touching someone outside a romantic engagement is very rare. Having to bathe my mother, to dress her stitches and to wash her feet is humbling. I have tacitly enjoyed the new kind of intimacy it has brought to our relationship.
My sister has a newborn baby and her nanny, without warning, decided she wasn’t coming back to work last week, leaving my sister and husband in need of an interim nanny while they are at work. Usually my mother, who is retired, would look after the baby, but I was certain her state of health would render her unable this time. Unbeknown to me, she invited my sister to leave the baby with “us” until the new nanny arrived. My romanticised idea of being needed has a whole new meaning a mere six hours after my new-found responsibility. Bathing, eating, leaving the house and any kind of work has not featured between feedings, nappy-changing, creative sleep-application methods and back-washing.
Domestic work is perhaps the most literal symbol of what the doek represents. The black female body has been naturalised into a wiping, carrying, smearing, cleaning and servile figure in South Africa before and after the advent of colonialism. The black female body has reared the citizens of this country wearing a symbol of control on her head. Her presence is indispensable to the motion of our society, yet the one thing that is synonymous with her is so easily deplored as a concept, without perhaps considering the visibility or solidarity it might provide the person living the concept if we all wore it for a day.
Beyond the feminist landscape, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ wearing of domestic uniforms and overalls in Parliament threatens the visual language of capitalism, reminding it of the people who provide its foundation; while Helen Zille’s appropriation of her campaign doek further racialises it, highlighting the exploitative nature of white capital in relation to black bodies.
In the narratives of our national heroes such as Nelson Mandela, the influence and contribution of Winnie Mandela to the liberation of South Africa is tapered much like the mention of black women in the black consciousness movement, which is virtually nonexistent. The deliberate omission of women’s contributions to history, be they private or public, is the converse side of the same fact – that women’s politics is undermined even when we don’t mean to do it.
The department of arts and culture and its supporters have won in making domesticity and its contribution visible, while missing the point that it further entrenches the antiquated narrative that women belong within the confines of the private space.
Vocal feminist critique has coldly dismissed the department’s attempt at making the women who feminism seeks to emancipate visible and perhaps equal, but raises the right flags about the dangers of a well-meaning but ill-conceived and painfully dull attempt at women’s lib.
Women’s politics needs to be probed and put on trial because the mere fact that the doek as a symbol is so contentious at the moment gives credence to the fact that the low-hanging fruit is ripe for the picking.