By writing anything remotely related to wearing the scarf, I have to say, I’m groaning on the inside. But before you stop reading this article, you should know that isn’t about the politics of wearing a scarf. This article isn’t about the virtues or difficulties of wearing a scarf. This article is about the style of the scarf – and more importantly what it tells us about the South African Indian Muslim community.
I started dabbling around with turbans or wraps way back in 2009 when I used big pashminas, often wearing two scarfs to get the desired effect. By 2011 I was experimenting with square scarves and by 2013 I was doing folds and knots. Let me tell you – I was ahead of the game of Dina Tokio, Yaz the Spaz and Ascia Al Faraj, I rocked the turban before it became trendy and widespread. People would compliment me all the time and ask me how I did it. I watched countless women attempt this look – some with roaring success and others with abject failure. The ultimate nod of approval came from black South African women who admired my doek – for the origins of headwraps are said to be in sub-Saharan Africa and were worn by women to symbolize modesty, spirituality, prosperity, wealth or social status. The symbol of the headwrap for African-American women is more complex as a result of it becoming a sign of enslavement, later a part of a stereotype of the “Black Mammy” and later still an association with the ghetto and being ratchet.
For me, the turban was a way to cover one’s hair without looking like an aunty, It was a way to appear regal a la Nefertiti. My Cape Malay grandmother chuckled and observed how fashion always repeats itself when she told me she liked my troupan (an Afrikaans word for a turban, which she and her squad had rocked back in the 60s and 70s). The Indian family on the other hand abhorred it.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was on grounds of it “not being properly covered”. But this was not the case, half the girls in my family went around with strapless, backless outfits and very few young women wore a scarf. The aversion was because it was a style associated with blackness.
You see, their maids wore a doek and the bigger the turban – the bigger the hair (allegedly). Wrapping one’s hair with a scarf was something black women did. Quite frankly, it was better to wear no scarf than to wear something that identified one with being black. Nothing could be worse than that. Funny looks were given, backhanded jokes about how my turban looked like those of the mawlanas and many other forms of disapproval abounded.
The story is not over yet. Fast-forward to today, when the headwrap, doek or turban is all the rage amongst young Indian women. Some have even taken to YouTube to do tutorials in the hope of becoming the next big fashion influencer. I no longer get snide looks and smirks but instead I am asked about the turban, how I tie it and how stylish it looks.
What was this sudden change of heart? An acceptance of culture? The quashing of certain forms of subtle racism? No, not at all.
This newfound fascination was based on the recent synergy turbans had with whiteness. Bloggers like Dina Tokio and Ascia Al-Faraj are half white and the turban has very much become associated with them. Light-skinned Arabs were now donning big scarves tied to the back and pairing it with the latest designer clothes. Dazzling eveningwear was now accentuated by turbans and long diamond earrings. In other words, this style was no longer black and thus it immediately became acceptable. It was no longer what the maids wore, it was a sign of a modern affluent Muslim.
Something as simple as a piece of cloth is laden with so many complexities in our relationship to race and the continued rejection of all that is black and acceptance of all that is white. It is an insight into the lack of transformative thinking within communities who proudly hang the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) Final Khutba in their comfortable living rooms yet willfully ignore the words “a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action”. Racism is alive and well, folks.
As a member of this community, I cite a rather trivial example and have not even begun to scratch the surface. I do this deliberately, aware of the fact that I cannot speak on behalf of anyone else or their experiences and in the hope that more voices on these and other issues are put forth.
In the meantime, the next time you wear a turban, be aware of its roots and it’s history. Below is a selection of names for headscarves around the African continent:
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