Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Headscarves in Haiti - when women are silenced




Yesterday Elizabeth Warren, a United States senator was silenced for reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King.  She was silenced and walked to her seat. 

The women in Haiti silenced by the European slave trade; brought from Africa the custom of wearing a headscarf.  Although functional, it came to symbolize the only control they had over their dress. It linked them to a home that was ripped from them.  With little control, over their day-to-day life, they could tie it as they wished, using small pieces of cloth given them as part of yearly rations.  The scarves became fashionable in pre- revolutionary Haiti with the freed women of color maximizing the style and eventually European women draping their heads with exotic fabrics. 

A grandmother helps her granddaughter in labor, her headscarf a much loved symbol of the journey Hatein women have made from Africa to the present.  When they were silenced, the headscarf became one voice of individuality and unity.
After the Haitien revolution, when scarves were no longer required by slave owners, women continued to wear them.  They told the story of where they had been as well as where they were going. 

I walk into the postpartum room at the hospital, in Hinche, and look at the women who are there helping a sister or friend or daughter. I watch them hold and dress and fuss over new babies; their head- scarves a swash of color in the well worn, tired room. 

I do not know where each woman has come from but I know most have walked far to reach the central plateau’s main hospital.  Their headscarves, woven around their faces with charm and grace let us know where they have come from and who they are today.  It links mother and sister and daughter and new baby girl together all the way back to Africa and all the way into the future.

In a time, when individuality was silenced the headscarf remained an act of silent resistance.   They say, “You took away my land and my family and my liberty. You took my voice and my freedom but I can tie this simple piece of fabric however I wish.  It tells my story.”

The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish in the United States became known as the “plain people” because they refused to wear anything made with slave labor.  They refused to use fabric dyed with indigo and gave up much of current fashion. Their dress became a symbol of resistance.  

In the 1960’s the United States began sending bales of used clothing to Haiti, thus destroying their own textile industry.   I have watched, in the last twenty years, as teens in the United States, became increasingly addicted to buying new, cheap clothes often.  Their discards, still in good shape, look amazing on Haitien women.  But it also took away their ability to create their own clothing commerce. 

But through it all, the Haitien women continued to use the headscarf.  It is their unique statement of who they are and where they came from and the strength that will guide them forward. 

The scarf, once ordered by slave owners as a mark of being owned by another, became an act of silent resistance.  They told a story when their voices were silenced.


"The head-wrap was an object of oppression foreman vantage pint. But from the other, the slave community, it was a vehicle of empowerment and a moment of freedom." Public Broadcasting

"The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of community identity. At it's most elaborate, the African American women's head wrap has functioned as a "uniform of rebellion", signifying absolute resistance to a loss of self definition."  
The African American Woman's Headwrap - Unwinding the Symbol by Helen Brady Grichel.


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