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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

Work / Photography

Not just trans sex workers, these women are fashion icons

Ten years ago, SistaazHood, an organisation advocating for transgender sex workers rights was founded in Cape Town, South Africa. Co-founded by Netta Marcus, who remains the group’s leader and last remaining active co-founder today, the organisation was borne out of a need to support the South African capital’s transgender community of sex workers.

Before SistaazHood existed over a decade ago, Sweat, an organisation advocating for sex worker’s rights didn’t know where to place trans sex workers due to a lack of understanding around trans identity. “It was a bit confusing,” explains Netta, “because female sex workers did not feel comfortable to talk in front of trans women because we were born men, and it was the same story in the male groups. So we, as transgender females, asked Sweat to provide us with a space where we can share our stories.” When the organisation responded by asking Netta and her friends to prove that trans people really do exist, for Netta and her friend the late Cym v Eyck, enough was enough.

The pair met up with a different advocacy officer from Gender Dynamic, Robert Hamblin, and underwent a seven day course on transgenderism. As a result, Netta and Cym started their own group, gathering six trans women in a safe space to discuss issues of living as a transgender sex worker today. “Most of the women were then living on the streets of Cape Town because of stigmatisation, rejection and health” says Netta. “We found there were at least 97 transgender women living in and around the streets of Cape Town.”

Continuing to fight for the decriminalisation of sex work, the group has provided a monumental amount of support to the community of trans sex workers since its beginnings. Now receiving the same healthcare benefits as male and female workers, the group hope to improve their relations with police and other modes of law enforcement in the years to come. Another aspect of their work however, can be seen through a rather difficult vehicle.

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

Since 2014, the group has been collaborating with photographer Jan Hoek and fashion designer Duran Lantink to celebrate the people that make up SistaazHood. When the Amsterdam-based Jan and Duran came across a picture of the group online, they were struck with amazement at the beauty of the self-made clothes. “She should be a new fashion icon!” exclaims Jan in favour of the striking portrait. “We were so bored with all the same kind of models in fashion magazines, and she represented so much more creativity and power than any of them.”

Journeying to Cape Town and meeting the then-group of 40 “amazingly inspiring, creative, trans fashion icons”, a new kind of collaboration was formed. Still ongoing to this day, at its heart, the collaboration allows the members of SistaazHood to celebrate their incredible sense of style and release the stigmatised shackles of constantly being labelled as trans, or a sex worker.

Culminating in a newly released publication that embodies both fashion, documentary and activism, Sistaaz of the Castle champions the South African group through 152 pages of tastefully designed, glossy pages. Designed by Merel van de Berg, the publication sheds light on the lives of the girls, most of whom live on the street, but manage to look fashionable without fail every single day.

Bringing “endless great ideas” to the shoots, the group members brought the resourcefulness that comes with living on the streets, also to the shoot. “I loved it when the girls brought their great skills from wherever they live to the shoot” adds Jan. Memorably, one woman Jennifer, brought her mobile gardens to the shoot. She’d made portable gardens growing out of old shoes or footballs to take with her whenever she has to move. So when the police move her from one residence to another (which happens about every three months) she can easily take garden with her to a new home. With dreams of living together in their own house hopefully one day, Netta concludes on the matter: “Our main vision for SistaazHood is to get ourselves a house that we can all live in and be the people we are in it, and call it home.”

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood

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Sistaaz of the Castle: ©Jan Hoek, Duran Lantink, SistaazHood