Yesterday, as I went about my day, I came across an article published by ‘The Chronicle’, titled ‘Meet ‘hair activist’ Dr Guramatunhu’. Before I had even opened the article in a new tab on my screen, I was fairly sure I knew what it would be about. But still, I opened and read it, much to my irritation and bemusement.
Why is Dr Guramatunhu so obsessed with black women’s hair?
As a woman who has been both at the receiving end of Dr Guramatunhu’s admiration (when I have worn my hair in an Afro at public events he has attended) and also his disregard (when I have had my hair in braids with synthetic hair extensions), I find his fixation with our hair – to the point of it being called ‘activism’ – condescending.
I shared the article on my Facebook page, and it would seem many other women feel the same, stating that Dr Guramatunhu’s remarks are those of “Yet another male punishing and rewarding women to conform to his standards” and an example of “male privilege” and entitlement. Men also commented in a similar vein.
But I realise – for myself personally – that holding this conversation in the closed and controlled environment of my Facebook wall is not enough, and that there is need for Dr Guramatunhu to understand that he cannot simply continue to engage in this spokesmanship about our hair; because we have neither sought it, nor endorsed it. And, to call it ‘activism’ – in the absence of the voices of those he claims to represent – is inaccurate. And yet, the article and its writer, Robert Mukondiwa, do not seek to source any quotes from any women at all, instead engaging in a one-sided narrative about our hair.
Surely, ‘The Chronicle’ must see the lack of journalistic balance in this piece which reads more like fandom than a feature article on an issue that is continuously in the news and which should be reported about with more effort to find counter-narratives… and THE VOICES OF WOMEN. How many more ‘gender-sensitive reporting’ workshops must be held before women’s voices can be found in articles, especially in such an instance where the issue under discussion is about women?
It is important for Dr Guramatunhu to understand that women are adults with agency about what we do with our lives and bodies, in the same way men are. Just as he has taken a liking to exuberantly coloured bow ties and designer suits (which are not artefacts to be found in any precolonial Zimbabwean civilisastions), he must understand that women, too, find expression in how they wear and style their hair. The conversation around what constitutes western mimicry and self-loathing sends us down a slippery slope on which we might argue for hours upon hours about where the line is to be drawn between agency and mental and cultural enslavement. And since we are all partakers – at various levels – in western culture, why does Dr Guramatunhu get to be the authoritative voice on black women’s hair, especially as he is not a black woman? And even if he were, there can be no one voice that speaks on behalf of such a multifaceted identity, and group of people, and enforces their ideas as the yardstick that we must all pursue.
Furthermore, the negation of black women who wear weaves which Dr Guramatunhu derisively refers to as “morgue hair” – along with the prescriptive standards around when a woman can wear a wig (if she has cancer and is in chemotherapy) – is uncalled for, with the former statement being uninformed; there are plenty of free and informative documentaries online about the hair industry and the process and quality controls that weave-making entails.
What this article, and the statements made, also fail to address is that hair braiding and weaving form an integral part of many families’ livelihoods through work (of mostly women) as hairdressers, hairstylists and hair salon owners. Many years ago, I was the regular client of a hairdresser who had been widowed early in marriage and had quite literally put her children through school and built a house through the skilful, diligent and creative work of her hands. Many of these women neither enjoy weekends nor holidays, are constantly on their feet from morning to evening, and then return to their homes where they then engage further in domestic work.
And this is scarcely different for many of their clients who perform multiple care-taking roles. Some reward themselves for all their hard work with a new hairstyle. And some wear an easy and practical style over their own hair because of the amount of time they can save each day not having to go through the time-consuming work of maintaining an Afro or other natural hair look. Not all black women’s hair textures are made alike, and this makes a significant difference in how much time – and how many often costly and scarce ingredients like coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter and deep conditioners – must be invested in to make one’s hair ‘presentable’ because even as Dr Guramatunhu states that “African woman can even leave it [their natural hair] unkempt and it will look exotic and attractive”, I know that many company, organisational and professional dress codes still do not allow for such freedom of expression.
I realise that I could continue writing about this. But my point is made. There is a wealth of resources online that can be referred to about black women’s hair. As such, wanton ignorance is inexcusable and unnecessarily triggering.
We don’t need to explain our choices, or have them explained on our behalves.
Main image taken from http://www.fineladyshop.com