POL­I­TICS OF THE doek

Mil­isuthando Bon­gela con­sid­ers both sides of the govern­ment’s Wear a Doek Women’s Month cam­paign

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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.

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