It’s Women’s Day coming again. I thought that as usual, we would doff our collective hats to the women of ’56, and remember their role, and the role of other women, in fighting for freedom. But there is a new idea out there for this women’s day – don’t doff your hat, wear a doek.
This tweet went out from the Department of Arts and Culture on Friday. “#WearADoek in support of #womensmonth2014 today, share yo #mydoekselfie every Friday 4 the month of August.”
I’ve never actually been asked to cover my head before, for any reason. I know women who cover their heads, of course. Back in the day, there were two girls at my school who wore a doek. It was an all white girls school, and they stood out, white girls with their doeks in the colour of the school uniform. I asked my mother who they were, and she said uncertainly that they were possibly ‘blou rokkies’ who she recalled from her childhood, wearing scarves. I knew they were expected to leave school at 16 by their families. One did, one didn’t. The clever one who stayed on remains tinged in my mind with tragedy. Was it a story that although she matriculated brilliantly she didn’t have money for university fees?
And of course, other friends have covered their heads in different ways. A friend showed me a lace mantilla once, which she planned to wear to church – her family were Catholic, and I was jealous of a faith that had such pretty accessories.
I recall a friend studying law deciding to wear the hijab, and the young women lawyers working with her wondering why she did. We ended up trying to see it as her choice, and mostly ended up respecting that decision. She said no one told her to cover her head, but that she felt it was part of her spiritual journey. I thought that she might have felt differently pulled over by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia, and told to wear a doek.
The various Protestant services I attended back then needed no special headgear, just clean clothes and a pious demeanour. Of course I have been told to be modest in other settings – button up a shirt, pull down a skirt, sit with my knees together. I know well the rule that dressing immodestly is an invitation to bad things.
Now I am being asked, by a government department no less, to cover my head. For women’s day. Women have been working for so long to claim the right to wear what we want, without being harassed or raped or beaten up by morality police, and be where they want, without pass laws or group areas or ‘whites only’ beaches: now we are told that wearing doek for women’s day would be nice. This response to Women’s Day, apparently developed on taxpayer’s time, falls so short of addressing the issues women are addressing now, that it’s tempting to be amused, rather than angry. But that money really could be better spent. For example, did you know we have only fifteen functioning sexual offences courts?
Lets just say this: I might be wearing something for Women’s Day. I might be wearing a keffiyeh for the children of Gaza, in the tradition of the women of ’56 calling for freedom everywhere. But it won’t be as a doek.
Alison Tilley is an attorney, and the head of advocacy at the Open Democracy Advice Centre, which is a law centre based in South Africa, specialising in access to information and whistleblowing law. The Centre works on these transparency issues across Africa. www.opendemocracy.org.za