By Nomali Cele
In post-apartheid South Africa, the head wrap has a sore history. During apartheid, the head wrap, or the doek, was among the many symbols of subjugation used in South Africa. For the many black women who worked as domestic workers, the head wrap was not optional. It was one of many ways the regime tried to keep black women suppressed.
But before apartheid turned it ugly, the head wrap had many meanings in black cultures. In most South African cultures, the meaning is similar: When a woman is married, the head wrap becomes part of her dress code. In the Zulu, culture iduku has come to fill the every day role once filled by isicholo, which most married women still wear on special occasions. In Xhosa culture, iqhiya is still the primary form of headgear for women. The Sotho cultures call the head wrap tuku and there too it’s the playground for married women. Even in Nigeria, cultures such Yoruba and Igbo have the gele, a form of intricate and stylish head wrap, worn by women. The gele head wrap always tied in multi-layered and artful ways.
The head wrap is used in most South African cultures as a way to show respect during mourning and funerals.
A golden gele (left) and Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in iqhiya
But more than ever, young women who want to reclaim their African roots are turning to the head wrap as an outlet. From Nairobi to New Jersey, Maputo to Madrid, young women in the African diaspora are reclaiming the head wrap for themselves.
Ignoring the marital parameters set by tradition is subversive. With the head wrap evolving beyond a symbol of “marriage” and something to aspire to, young women in the African diaspora are changing the narrative around who gets to wear a head wrap. Giving new meaning to it as a symbol of activism and awareness of their Africanness.
The head wrap can be found in movements such as #FeesMusFall and Black Lives Matter. It can be found worn by women in online campaigns that are pushing back against unrealistic or exclusionary beauty standards.
3 Easy Ways to Wear a Head wrap
1. The traditional turban style head wrap
2. The half-wrap headband head wrap
3. The flamboyant bow headwrap
The above tutorials are by Maletsatsi’s Head Wraps, which is a business owned by a young black woman committed to giving her peers beautiful head wraps. “Maletsatsi’s Head Wraps is a concept born from my passion for celebrating women who know and fearlessly embrace who they are,” says Selloane Maletsatsi Moleli, founder of Maletsatsi’s Head Wraps.
She says she wants to also “inspire those who are still exploring and searching for themselves.”
Photographs of Maletsatsi’s Head Wraps tutorial by Kagiso Segale
Featured image: Terry Pheto photographed by Trevor Stuurman
Gele and qhiya images online