BY Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson, 11:00am December 20, 2018,

How the dreadful Tignon Laws turned into a women’s only language in Suriname

The Tignon Laws were passed in 1786 under Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró to regulate the dressing of African women who had been taken into America and forced into slavery. With the laws passed, enslaved black women were made to wrap their heads and wear specific clothes to prevent them from competing with the white women for men. 

The Tignon Laws were also effective in all parts of the Caribbean. Despite the restrictions that came with it, African women were still able to it turn it around into fashion. Soon, the Tignon became popular cloth used to wrap the hair and developed into a huge fashion statement even to date.

Enslaved African women in Suriname did not only develop the head wrapping style into a fashion statement, they also used it as a way of communication.

How the dreadful Tignon Laws turned into a women's only language in Suriname
The Tignon headwrap

In Suriname, the headscarf became known as Angisa and was made with fabric designed with mashed cassava and starch. According to an article on, the Angisa was made with different patterns to convey different messages among women. For example, patterns could mean 
“The garbage truck collects garbage but not shame” and “I am a grown woman in my own house, I can do as I please.” Many of these expressions were proverbial and could only be understood among women. Many women wore a specific pattern to convey messages to one another.

Aside from the patterns, the way the Angisa was styled or tied also conveyed much stronger messages. Women could only tie their headwraps in a particular way if they were married, single, courting or trying to send a message across to the girlfriends of their husbands. Some also used it to show off status and gain attention. Different ceremonies also had appropriate Angisa tying styles that have remained to date.

How the dreadful Tignon Laws turned into a women's only language in Suriname
Tying the Angisa 

Many popular wrapping techniques sent messages across such as ‘Let them talk’, “Let it blow” and “Hold your tongue” among many others.

The white scarves were popularly used in mourning and the more vibrant colors were used for celebration. Soon, status and wealth began to be expressed through the Angisa and the more elaborate a woman’s scarf was , the more money she had. 

How the dreadful Tignon Laws turned into a women's only language in Suriname
Women in different Angisa styles

According to the Feda tying method was most popular for parties and several other methods were inspired by things around the women. For instance, the Ota bika was inspired by cars and the Paw Tere method was inspired by the peacock’s tail.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Angisa started to blend with the Koto dressing which is now the national dressing style for Suriname women.

According to Surinamese folklore, the Koto was also a style of dressing forced on enslaved women in Suriname to prevent them from attracting the slave masters and wealthy merchant husbands.

How the dreadful Tignon Laws turned into a women's only language in Suriname
Freed African woman in Suriname wearing her Angisa and Kotomisi. Illustration ;
Jacob Marius Adrian Martini Geffen (1860)

With the turn of the 19th century, many slaves became free and the Koto turned into a more colorful way of dressing with vibrant colours. The outfit which became known as Koto Misi was, according to, worn by free black women as an act of resistance and pride: “They were saying, ‘Let the people see this is mine,’” despite the large amounts of fabric and jewelry the enslaved women were forbidden from wearing. 

The various head wrapping techniques and patterns are still very relevant in Suriname and can be worn with the Koto outfit or on its own.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: December 20, 2018


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