They are two women: one from a well-off family in Johannesburg, the other from a township in Port Elizabeth. In just two months, they’ve set the Internet on fire with one message: the doek.
Doek on Fleek (on Fleek meaning ‘cool’) is the name of the organisation Thandi Mavata (34) and Lusiwe Mlambo (38) founded in May this year. It happened at a Mothers’ Day event Mavata had organised which playfully, yet affectionately, told women to “doek it like your mother taught you”. From there, the idea took off to galvanise women around a garment many of them have known their whole lives.
“It is a crown we need to embrace. We’re not saying wear it every day, but we want to make it okay for women to go to the gym and wear a doek. We hope one day even women traffic cops can wear doeks at work,” Mavaka says.
She sits opposite Mlambo outside Hlamvu, a boutique that sells delicately designed garments in African prints in the trendy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside. It’s a difficult neighbourhood for small black businesses to succeed, but both women aim to bring more black women-owned businesses into districts where they usually couldn’t afford to survive.
Their events have seen interest grow from Soweto to the Vaal and as far afield as Free State. Although men are invited, it’s mostly a women’s affair.
“It’s unashamedly a space for women to engage. We worry more about the girls in this society, and are unashamedly pushing feminism and women’s issues,” Mlambo says. “The doek has been passed on from generations. We need to take thinking back to that communal living, where we share things.”
The two women met eleven years ago while working as television producers. Mavata travelled from her home in Kwazakhele township in the Eastern Cape, and slept on a bench at a Durban train station for eight days before she found her way up to Johannesburg. She believes promoting the aspirations of women – using the doek as a vehicle – is something she came to realise at a late age. The mother of three has one big reason as to why she didn’t make strides sooner: “Pull me down syndrome. That’s it. It’s asking why one woman is doing better than me,” she says.
Both Mavata and Mlambo strongly iterate that their business is not about the headscarf, but rather what it symbolises: generational knowledge passed down as grandmothers, mothers and sisters taught younger girls how to wrap themselves in years of inherited feminine knowledge.
That is what Mavata and Mlambo hope to achieve: provide a community for women to share and help one another, instead of being wary of each other’s success.
“I looked outside the first event, and the cars that were parked outside… I wanted to tell everyone to go outside and look at them. There is money there, but some women don’t realise that a R200 or a R400 being donated to a girl who is selling earrings will mean a lot,” Mavata says.
The two founders fund their events from their own pockets but are hoping that government funding or some form of sponsorship will ease the burden.
At the same time, they want to protect what they’ve built from hungry eyes, they say. They’ve been approached by and turned down some political parties who are looking for platforms to campaign as local government elections roll closer.
Although they’ve had their share of naysayers questioning why they focus on doeks and women, they remain determined to do for other women what they missed in their youth.
“We are women, and we believe that if we had had women who actually believed in us and supported us when we were young, we could’ve actually gone very far by now,” Mavata says.