Nearly two years ago I started a photography project with a few women I was getting to know in my community. We called it, "My Hair, My Identity."
From the moment I arrived in Thaba Tseka I noticed one important thing a lot of women were changing and had control over - their hair. I made the mistake of re-asking a few Basotho women their names whom I had met multiple times simply because I did not recognize them. Although I had seen them the week earlier they had since changed their hair style! Nete’s hair was no longer short but firey red, and braided at the roots. Resilisitsoe’s hair went from long and dark to short braids swirling on her head with a small bun in the back. I realized a women's choice in hairstyle.. braids, extensions, natural, buzzed, etc. more often than not it is a personal choice and it is empowering. In a culture where women do not have a loud voice, their hair is a form of self expression, beauty, creativity and change. Throughout my service I continued taking photos with my counterpart and closest friend, Retsepile Moiloa, and we eventually chose the target of 50 women. We sometimes walked around Thaba Tseka for hours to find women willing to pose for us. In Retsepile and I's discussions with each woman about her hair, they described feelings of happiness, “fresh,” relieved, “fantastic,” and a new sense of confidence and pride for their own beauty.
I find it helpful when I photograph to envision a destination for my photos. After taking the photos, we brainstormed different messages and ways to exhibit them. Remembering a TED talk by the artist JR and his international art movement, the Inside Out Project , we submitted a group action in hopes that they could be pasted on the streets in Maseru - large, powerful and in plain view.
I had observed in my community a large amount of gender inequality in that gender roles and traditions attached to the Basotho culture are strongly engrained from a very young age. This made the project hold more importance. For example, in grade school, boys play soccer and girls wash school uniforms. A girl who is on her period or who falls pregnant is usually forced to stay home from school, while boys are expected not only to finish, but to obtain a higher education. In contrast, I witnessed many boys who had to drop out to tend to cattle or seek employment to help their families. Women also experience domestic violence and a statistically higher rate of HIV for a variety of social and biological reasons. But, these are the negatives and this is one side of the fight in Lesotho. Recently there have been some positive legal and political changes to protect women from such maltreatment, but they are slow to be implemented, not strictly enforced, and many people do not know they exist. Women need to know they have rights and control over their own lives. These rights need to be promoted, if not fought for, to break the cycle of abuse rather than being afraid of change. Of course, there is an emerging population of women and men who are publicly standing up for gender equality and engaging the community in empowering one another. My Hair - My Identity, was meant to identify people doing just that and communicate our message through the power of photography.
The event grew to the collaboration of 10 different organizations hosting music, poetry, hair stylists, a documentary, activist speakers and more. Colorful, fun, and unique, it was more than an activism event, but a celebration. Through donations, pledges and selling colorful hair extensions we raised over 4000R (~305USD) to donate to CCJP's on-going efforts working with heightening security at girls' boarding schools in Lesotho and ensuring they are safe. We also spoke on the radio and on TV Lesotho about our exhibition and event following.
After a successful day of entertainment and raising donations, truly our main objective of the photo series/street art pasting was to exhibit confident, empowered and beautiful Basotho women on the streets of Maseru, turning the community inside out and for this day (and maybe weeks after if they are still pasted..), making it all about woman. Our hope was to empower women all over Lesotho (and the world!) to love themselves more and take control of not only their hair, but their lives.
My Hair - My Identity, Maseru, Lesotho
2nd Action: BO-AUSI BA NA LE TOKÉLÓ HO HANA (Girls have the right to refuse)
We also did a pasting sponsored by the Inside Out Project with my students in Thaba Tseka. Our group action highlighted girls' rights to refuse or say no to anything they do not want to do. In our classes we discussed examples such as sex, drugs, alcohol, forced labor, or fulfilling unwanted gender expectations. We pasted the photos appropriately onto the walls of the Child & Gender Protection Unit at the Thaba-Tseka Police Station and printed smaller versions for the girls to take home. Our hope is that people passing by will see the photos and take action for gender equality and the rights of all people, or just think about it!