Varaa Hambira’s Afro at the Miss Namibia pageant: A perspective
I visited Namibia last weekend to see my ailing grandmother, and happened to stumble upon the Miss Namibia beauty pageant while flipping through the television channels on Saturday evening.
As I did, I was immediately struck and captivated by one of the contestants, Varaakuani Hambira. I was especially captivated by the fact that she chose to wear an afro to such a Eurocentric event. For generations, the afro has not sat comfortably with society, whose normativity is gauged against whiteness. As against that standard, the afro has been characterised as primitive, unprofessional, exotic or wild and in need of taming.
In 2016, a 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel became an icon of the fight against Pretoria Girls High School’s policy on hair. Pretoria Girls High is a high school in Pretoria, South Africa. Although the policy itself did not mention afros, learners who wore afros were told that their hair was “exotic” and needed to be “tamed”.
In June 2007, then Glamour editor Ashley Baker was invited to speak to a group of about 40 lawyers at the offices of Cleary Gottlieb in New York. Her brief was to speak about the proprieties and improprieties of corporate fashion. Included in her presentation was a slide of black women wearing afros, and when she got to it, she declared that afros were “a real no-no!”. She went on to express shock that “some people still think it’s appropriate to wear those hairstyles at the office.”
Beyond needing to be tamed and inappropriate for the office, the afro has been politicised. Women who wear afros are readily characterised as “militant”, “radical” or “revolutionary”.
On the cover of the July 2008 New Yorker, cartoonist Barry Blitt depicts Michelle Obama with an afro, wearing military pants and carrying an AK – 47 assault rifle. Michelle Obama does not wear her hair in an afro, but to get his militancy across, Blitt needed her in an afro. She needed to be Other to her straight haired self that, to the Eurocentrist, feels unthreatening.
In modern beauty pageants, the physical attributes (beauty) of the contestants are a coefficient in their ranking. While wearing an afro has been considered Other, the decision to participate in a beauty pageant itself validates a particularly uniform standard of beauty – a Eurocentric one. Apart from Johanna Swartbooi, the long silky hair that the other black women chose to wear for the pageant were noticeable, especially juxtaposed against Varaakuani’s afro. This undergirds my claim that the standard is uniformly Eurocentric. A glean at past winners of (for example) the Miss Universe pageant also confirms this claim. Notwithstanding its Eurocentricity, Varaakuani chose to participate in the Miss Namibia pageant. But she wore an afro – both this year and last year. Therein lies an important moment that warrants recognition. Her taking part in the pageant while wearing an afro must be seen as both a deliberate step in the direction of re-defining standards of beauty, as well as an act of defiance. This is so because it shifts focus away from the afro as a militant and revolutionary political statement, to it simply being a personal choice, without more. Her act normalises the afro.
The importance of Varaakuani’s decision lies in the message that she sent to her peers and to younger black girls; that they do not need to imitate whiteness to be beautiful. That is, at least, the lowest watermark in the greater struggle for the assertion of blackness in its own right.
In finality, I leave you with Steven Biko’s thunderous and iconic words: Black is Beautiful.
* Nyoko Muvangua is Namibian born, but currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she practices law. She is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa. And yes, she wears an afro to court.
2019-07-12 09:27:18 11 days ago