Article written by Likeleli M. Monyamane.

A few days before Christmas in 1999, I asked my mother to cut my hair so that I could style it in dreadlocks. I will not forget the look on her confused face as she angrily grabbed the scissors and pointed them in my direction, thinking the gesture would make me change my mind about wanting my hair short. I didn’t change my mind, and my mum did cut my hair, but she tricked me into relaxing it and styling it into an s-curl. My mum was very “urban” and she enjoyed braiding our hair and would always joke that my sister was a beauty queen like her because she loved my mum’s obsession with relaxing and styling our hair like they did in the magazines. I suppose she thought that straight, long hair was more beautiful than curly natural hair styled in dread locks. And who can blame her, what with the images that the media bombards us with about what beauty looks like.

In her book The Challenge for Africa, the late Professor Wangari Maathai (Kenyan Environmental and Political Activist) makes this statement:

”Like other peoples who have experienced not only physical colonization but also what might be called the colonization of the mind, Afrikans have been obscured from themselves. It is as if they have looked at themselves through another person’s mirror… and seen their own cracked reflections or distorted images, if they have seen themselves at all.”

The cracked mirror (as it relates to the Afrikan woman) is not so much about hair, even though we know that hair is one of the ways in which women express their identity and their idea of beauty. It is more about the fact that the Afrikan woman’s identity has for so long been defined by all other forces but the Afrikan woman herself. I recently read an article in Destiny Magazine titled, The Hairy Truth, which tries to encourage women to wear their hair natural instead of wearing weaves or treating their hair with chemicals. The irony of it is that the magazine is full of women (who obviously represent beauty that the reader should aspire to) who are wearing weaves of different shapes and sizes. The result of the media bombarding us with distorted images of beauty is that no matter how much we try to embrace our own sense of beauty, the western world still has a lot of influence in forcing the Afrikan woman to look at themselves through another person’s mirror.

I have been caught in the middle of a number of debates lately, of men taking the liberty to decide what a woman can and cannot wear. A few of my guy friends have even gone as far as saying that a girl who wears wedges is a definite no-no. What puzzles me more than my friends’ shallow way of deciding whether to go for a girl or not is the audacity to think that they have a say in what woman may or may not wear. Now before you judge me on my choice of friends (I love them to bits), do understand that these guys are not alone in thinking that they have a right to dictate to women what they can or cannot wear.

About a year ago, I read in the news about a statement made by Swaziland’s Police official spokesperson Wendy Hleta in the Sunday Times that women found wearing a mini-skirt in public would be arrested and face a fine. In the same article, two women complained about being harassed and verbally abused (being called prostitutes) by the police because they were wearing mini-skirts. Society continues to demand that the Afrikan woman look at herself through its mirror, and in extreme cases like the one in Swaziland, society uses the law to ensure that she conforms.

These above examples are just to paint a little picture of the Afrikan woman’s struggle with the cracked mirror and with society thinking that it can decide for the Afrikan woman who she is and what she can be. The reason I wrote this post is to ensure that we are all aware of this and that we resist as much as we can to conform to the images presented by the cracked mirror because we can never see the best in ourselves if we rely on its distorted reflections. It is only through speaking out, and having platforms, such as this blog (ElleAfrique) that we can define and re-define as we please who Afrikan women are and what they represent. Yes we should evolve, this is natural. But we should evolve at our own liberty and on our own terms. We should reclaim our mirrors, we should reclaim our vision and see ourselves as enough the way we were created. If society’s idea of who we are does not resonate with us then we have the liberty to reject it and to create our own identity – even if we risk facing criticism for doing so.

German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche is famously quoted as saying;

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”