The Complicated History of Headscarves

A woman in a hijab sits with her back to the camera as she watches a fashion show at the Headwrap Expo

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In an auditorium in the heart of Dearborn, Michigan, a crowd gathers around Roseline Onwenu. She rolls red brocade fabric between her hands, twisting, turning, and willing the Nigerian head tie known as the gele into perfection on Annette Brooks.

Brooks is holding her hands in her face as the fabric grows tighter and tighter. She’s tender-headed, she says, and has never done this before. Onwenu encourages her.

Try it, you might like it.

And she does. With the shiny material standing 10 inches tall on her head, she poses in front of the mirror. Women ooh and ahh around her, whipping out their phones to capture the transformation. Almost before Brooks has a chance to properly get up, another woman plops herself down in the chair in front of Onwenu.

Across the room, a fashion show is about to start, and the emcee is filling up time by asking attendees to introduce themselves and what they’re wearing. With each pass of the mic, a new name for the headscarf emerges: a traditional Middle Eastern abaya, a Jewish tichel, an Indonesian jiljab, a simple Pakistani-style hijab, a Sikh dastaar.

“I brought my headscarf, so if anyone would like to wrap me, I’m game!” says a woman who identifies herself as a Christian. The crowd, full of women and a few men with different head coverings and many with none at all, cheers. “We need someone to wrap her as soon as possible, c’mon guys!” the emcee tells the audience.

Roseline Onwenu wraps the gele on a woman at the Headwrap Expo.

The Nation of Islam’s all-female drill team performs during a lull between presentations. Across the way, a Catholic nun wanders the aisle of sellers’ booths with a simple white habit covering her hair.

While the Detroit metropolitan area, which includes Dearborn, is home to the country’s largest Arab-American population, the Headwrap Expo — now in its fourth year — is emblematic of the kind of multicultural, interfaith exchange that is only possible in America. It’s a place where people of all colors and creeds mingle, exchange tips, and buy and sell goods to one another. It’s a place for the shared reverence of the most controversial piece of clothing of our time: the headscarf.

The headscarf has been banned, made mandatory, hailed as a symbol of religious virtue, accepted as a means of controlling female sexuality, and politicized by governments and colonizers across the world. Manipulated and misinterpreted, it is seen as both a sign of liberation and imprisonment, of progress and regression. It’s a source of friction both outside and inside the communities that wear it.

At the Headwrap Expo, participants have the opportunity to explain why and how they veil, just as founder Zarinah El-Amin Naeem intended. “They get a chance to showcase who they are in their own way without having someone else put a box around them,” she says. “They can choose how they are represented.”

The earliest known recorded reference to veiling, the act of covering one’s hair with cloth, comes from a 13th-century B.C. Assyrian text that describes the practice as reserved for aristocratic women and forbidden for prostitutes and those of lower social status, who were punished if they were caught in head coverings.

Long before that, however, ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Persian societies all engaged in the practice of veiling, also using it as a marker of social rank. These customs ultimately trickled down into the Abrahamic religions that emerged from the region.

Both early Christian and Jewish traditions used the veil as a measure of piety. In Judaism, women who were married were required to cover their hair; this is a practice still observed in some Orthodox Jewish communities today.

In Christianity, veiling was a requirement for women who entered church, and still is in certain traditions. St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians explicitly references this, stating that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” The veil also denoted women's submission to men. “A man ought to not cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God,” Paul wrote. “But the woman is the glory of man … for this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.”

The most iconic female figure in Christianity, the Virgin Mary, is often depicted as wearing a veil in paintings and stone work. The Catholic Church once required women to cover their heads during mass, a matter codified into canon law in 1917, but this edict was officially discarded in the 1980s. Today, the practice of veiling in church continues in many Eastern Christian communities, especially those in the Orthodox tradition, where rules for covering hair for women (and removing hats for men) upon entering churches are enforced.

When Islam arrived in the 7th century, the already-common veiling custom in the Arabian Peninsula was absorbed into the religion. At the same time in the West, the heads of married European women were covered with wimples, headdresses that concealed not just the hair but also the neck and chin as a show of modesty and rank. The wimple later spread to women of lower social status, eventually dying out by the end of the Middle Ages in the 15th century.

Muslim society, however, continued to embrace the veil. Though the word “hijab,” which means partition or curtain in Arabic, appears in the Quran, it is not used in relation to women’s clothing. The concept of modest dress does appear for both men and women, however.

The Quran’s verses about modesty have been interpreted by Muslim scholars in various ways — some see the head covering as obligatory, others as a choice. Other factors, like geography, ethnicity, and political systems, also influence these myriad interpretations, dismantling the monolithic perception of Islam and its practices.

An interfaith panel at the expo.

Covering one’s head has never been a solely female practice either, with the kaffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress, and the Jewish kippah or yarmulke having been worn by men for hundreds of years. Among the most recognizable male head coverings is the Sikh turban, known as a dastaar. The turban is a mandatory requirement for men in Sikhism, a religion founded in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century, though women can wear turbans as well.

But despite its presence across so many cultures and on the heads of such a wide and varied swath of people, the headscarf’s diverse use has faded from the mainstream discussion of veiling. Instead, the hijab has emerged as the most visible and contentious form of modern head covering.

In a post-9/11 world, in a country where the president-elect has proposed a Muslim ban, there have been more headlines about headscarves this year than ever before.

Take the Egyptian news program that went viral in October for broadcasting an argument between two men: an imam who said the scarf was a cultural, not religious, duty and a lawyer who vehemently disagreed. The argument turned into a full-blown physical brawl that destroyed the entire set.

Less than two weeks later, an American chess champion named Nazi Paikidze-Barnes announced she would be boycotting the Women's World Chess Championship in Iran because of the country’s policy on mandatory head coverings for women. Paikidze-Barnes called the law “religious and sexist discrimination,” while female Iranian grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour said the boycott could have a detrimental impact on the efforts Iranian women have made to participate in sports.

Less than two weeks after that, a North Carolina man named Gill Parker Payne was sentenced to one year of probation after accosting a Muslim-American woman on a Southwest flight for wearing a hijab and then forcibly removing it from her head. “Take it off!” he shouted. “This is America.”

Earlier in the fall, Rahaf Khatib became the first woman wearing a hijab to be featured on the cover of an American lifestyle magazine. Also in September, Playboy’s interview with a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman who was described as making a “bold case for modesty” became a controversial flashpoint for Muslim-American communities across the country. History was made that same month at New York Fashion Week, where for the first time there a show featured the hijab accompanying every outfit, thanks to Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan.

At the Headwrap Expo, I meet Heba Elsayed, an Egyptian-American student who was brave enough to be the first one to introduce herself to the audience at the beginning of the day.

The hijab, she says, is part of her identity. She’s been wearing it for so long that if someone told her to take it off, she wouldn’t be able to. She wears the headscarf for both religious and personal reasons, mainly that she likes the freedom it affords her.

“I don’t have to conform to how people want me to dress, rather I can choose whether I cover or not. That in itself is liberation. That is not oppression of any sort,” she says. “When I wear this hijab, I don’t want people to make a judgment on me about how I look, but rather I want them to make a judgment of my character and how I treat people.”

Her declaration echoes a popular political cartoon. In it, two women — one in a revealing bikini with black sunglasses and another in a niqab, which covers the face in addition to the hair — judge each other.

“Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male-dominated culture,” the women in a bikini says. “Nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture,” the other retorts.

The West’s preoccupation with and perception of the veil as being wholly synonymous with oppression isn’t a new concept but rather one that began 300 years ago with Orientalism.

In travel writing, fiction, and art, veiled Muslim women were portrayed as exotic and mysterious, sexualized through the male gaze. Foreign non-Muslim men invented fantasies about the private spaces inhabited by women. In a 1919 painting by Mario Simon called “Odalisque,” for example, a bare-breasted woman with a headscarf is depicted on a bed as two others in white niqab tower over her.

Muslim culture was portrayed as inferior to the ways of Europe again and again. Orientalism gave credence to the idea that these societies needed to be conquered and civilized, and the veil became justification to do so.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, documented the tension between the Western obsession with oppression and Eastern notion of freedom in 1717. Montagu gained access to the baths where Muslim women gathered in Constantinople when she and her husband lived in the city. In a letter to her sister, she wrote about how these women were dismayed at her own oppressive corset.

“I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which connivance they attributed to my husband,” she wrote. And of the women’s veils: “This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery … Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the empire.”

The headscarf played a visible role during France’s colonization of Algeria, which started in 1830 and lasted until the mid-20th century. In Algeria, women wore a head covering known as the haik, a long, white veil made from silk that had an embroidered triangular segment that covered the bottom half of the face.

“Arabs elude us because they conceal their women from our gaze,” one general was quoted as saying. The haik became a focal point of the French effort: If they could conquer the veil, they could conquer the country. During the French-Algerian War, the haik became a symbol of resistance and independence, when both men and women hid under the garment to carry arms.

In the 20th century, governments in the Middle East initiated their own moves toward Westernization, banning the headscarf to make way for a more secular society.

Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the newly formed Republic of Turkey, banned the hijab in schools and government buildings, and the wearing of headscarves was generally discouraged. However, the hijab and the fierce debate around it have seen a huge resurgence since then–Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first came into power in 2003, promising to remove laws restricting headscarves. Erdoğan ended the ban in schools and government buildings in 2013.

Modern Iranian society may be synonymous with the full-length veil or chador, but more than 50 years before 1979’s Iranian Revolution made the cloth compulsory, the country had a policy more akin to Atatürk’s, with the then-Shah of Iran Reza Shah Pahlavi banning the veil by law. Women who did not comply were physically forced into the new ban, with soldiers ripping off headscarves. Today, Iran’s morality police enforce the hijab with similar tactics, patrolling the streets to observe that women are wearing them the right way.

Current attitudes around headscarves vary from country to country, and a widely circulated University of Michigan survey released in 2014 helped to elucidate these differences. The survey, conducted at the university’s Institute for Social Research, polled people in seven Muslim-majority countries — Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — asking participants how women should dress in public. While the largest percentage of people polled in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan preferred the niqab, or face veil, participants in Tunisia, Egypt, and Iraq preferred that women completely cover their hair but not faces. Lebanese participants preferred women to have no veil whatsoever.

In the 1970s and ’80s, after large-scale hostilities in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a contemporary veiling movement emerged among women in the Middle East, adding another layer of complexity to its use. A new generation, sometimes facing opposition from their parents, used the veil as a marker for nationalism and identity-building. Women in Egypt, for example, who had abandoned the headscarf at the turn of the century, began veiling again.

This adaptation was “an affirmation of an Islamic identity and morality, and a rejection of Western materialism, consumerism, commercialism and values,” Egyptian anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi writes in her book, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance.

The desire for economic mobility also played a role, as many women sought out educational opportunities in an effort to enter the job market and support their families, which meant they would be working and studying in co-ed spaces. “Many Muslim women resorted to hijab for the protection they felt they needed to circulate comfortably in public and hold jobs alongside men,” according to Sahar Amer, author of What is Veiling?

In the last decade and a half, upheaval in the Middle East has caused the veil to resurface as an extension of extreme political and religious ideology. In Afghanistan, Taliban rule brought with it a system referred to as “gender apartheid,” in which women’s rights to education and employment were lost and a mandatory enforcement of the burqa emerged. Those who violated the severe dress code were often publicly beaten and flogged. In current ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, women and girls, many of whom were already wearing hijabs, are required to hide their eyes with a double-layered veil and also cover their hands with gloves. The aim is to keep women hidden, “to make women invisible.”

As much as head coverings represent repression for some, they represent release for others, those polarized views existing together at the same time. Faegheh Shirazi, a professor at the University of Texas who wrote the book The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, has spent the last few decades studying the veil’s shifting power.

“I really think that everything started to magnify particularly after September 11th — not that it didn’t exist before, but it was not as pronounced then,” she says. “There are so many veiled women in this country, and the biggest problem and complaint I hear from them is, ‘Why don’t they speak to us? They always make decisions for us.’ So the media may project the idea that these women don’t have a choice, but they’re also doing the same thing to them by not giving them a choice to speak for themselves.”

When women are asked why they cover their heads, their reasons are as varied as the women themselves. But often, even the declaration of the headscarf as a choice is dismissed. Women can’t win. Their motivations are called into question, their agency chalked up to societal constructs.

Jennifer Hamra, a Catholic mother of four who started covering her hair in April, is walking around the Headwrap Expo. She cites her desire for spirituality and her resistance to the hypersexualization of women’s bodies as reasons for wearing a headscarf.

“It really deepened my relationship with God,” she says. “It held me accountable for things in my life, because I’m always aware of my faith now that I wear my headwrap. Women should be respected and highly valued for wanting to stay committed to their faith because it’s not easy, but it’s an amazing experience.”

She came to the expo curious to see if she could connect with other Christians partaking in the practice. Despite the fact that veiling has existed since the earliest incarnations of Christianity, it is unusual for Christian women to cover their heads today, save for Eastern Christian practitioners who veil in church and those in the very small emerging Christian head-covering movement.

Hamra covers her hair daily, which is even rarer. Though she didn’t meet anyone quite like herself, she did buy a new scarf from Wrapunzel, a company centered around the Jewish version of the headscarf, the tichel.

Melanie Pohl in a Jewish Tichel.
Awa Ba in a Nigerian gele.

Wrapunzel, founded by Andrea Grinberg, has taken the older tradition of using scarves to cover one’s head and transformed it into a fashionable alternative to the more modern incarnation of Jewish head-covering, a wig known as the sheitel.

Sheitels are worn by some married Orthodox Jewish women to cover their real hair in public. It was a practice that gained popularity in the 20th century, allowing women to blend into American society, while also fulfilling Halakha or Jewish law. Unlike the sheitel, which can cost thousands of dollars and require expensive upkeep, Wrapunzel’s version of the tichel has lessened that financial burden and given Jewish women a new option.

All afternoon at the expo, Wrapunzel employees, including social media specialist and tichel tutorial artist Rachel Stolley-Gray, are busy tending to a steady stream of customers, many of whom aren't Jewish. Their best-selling piece is the “Sari Scarf,” fashioned from discarded sari scraps from India.

“A lot of our customers are looking for a different way to cover their hair that’s more meaningful to them,” says Stolley-Gray.

Headscarves have reached such a point of saturation and acceptability that fashion companies ranging from Dolce & Gabbana to Uniqlo are now incorporating them into their collections and ad campaigns, signaling a recognition of the buying power of headscarf-wearing communities around the world.

Take the fact that Muslim consumers spend an estimated $230 billion on clothing a year, according to the most recent State of the Global Islamic Economy Report; that number is expected to reach $327 billion by 2019. The American Muslim market is believed to have $125 to $200 billion in buying power alone this year.

This commodification of the headscarf is perhaps most interesting in France. Since 1989, when a principal told three Muslim teenagers they wouldn’t be allowed at their high school if they didn’t unveil, the French government has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the headscarf. A memorandum was issued in 1994, noting the difference between “discreet” and “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools, with the hijab falling in the latter category and thus being considered off limits. Hundreds of French students who wore them were suspended over the years.

The country banned the burqa (which covers the whole body) and the niqab (the full face veil) in 2011, though the practices were extremely rare. The Interior Ministry estimated that 350 to 2,000 women in France, which has a Muslim population of around 5 million, wore the full Islamic veil. Some say that banning the veil has only led to increasing numbers of women, many of whom are new converts to Islam, wearing the niqab; to these women, veiling has become an “act of resistance against the state.”

This summer, photos of French police ordering a woman to take off her burkini at the beach went viral. Yet despite the country’s engagement in policing women’s clothing choices, its fashion houses — Givenchy and Chanel chief among them — are reaping the financial benefits of its Muslim population.

“It is very ironic that on the one hand, they are mocked and discriminated against, but on the other hand, companies are manufacturing and producing it for them,” Shirazi says of French Muslim women. “It has become a commodity, a money-making gimmick.”

Like the Jewish women of Wrapunzel, Muslim women are also staking their financial claim on their headwear. Melanie Elturk founded the brand Haute Hijab in 2010. Muslim blogger Habiba Da Silva created an inclusive hijab fashion line called Skin earlier this year. This ownership is taking place online too, with the trendsetting hijabista movement that combines modesty with modern fashion on blogs and social media. There’s even a hijab-wearing Barbie, the “Hijarbie,” who has become an international Instagram star.

For the first time this year, the expo features revered Nigerian headwrap master Segun Olaleye, better known as “Segun Gele,” who is celebrated in the Nigerian-American community for having taken his head-wrapping talent and built a successful business around it. Hailing from West Africa, the gele is an ancient head-wrapping tradition, signifying both class and marital status depending on the way it is tied and the material that’s used. The gele is worn in different ways for different occasions, from smaller everyday styles in simpler fabrics to gargantuan, colorful headwraps that feature prominently in Nigerian wedding culture.

Segun attracts a large crowd at the expo, where he conducts a free gele workshop, but brides of Nigerian descent (or even those marrying Nigerian husbands) from the US, Europe, and Central America have called on him to dress up their wedding parties in the towering headwear, for which he charges up to $1,000.

Rosaline Onwenu, who did the gele demo earlier in the day, has served Michigan’s Nigerian community for over a decade, and also frequently travels to weddings in places like North Carolina, Maryland, and New York to conduct workshops and wrap the gele on wedding guests.

Just a few miles from the Headwrap Expo, Onwenu’s shop, Sterose International Boutique, has become a center for both African-born immigrants in southeast Michigan and African-American communities in the area. The boutique is a one-stop shop for African food, beauty products, and clothing, but headwraps are the store’s biggest sellers. Inside the store you can find over 500 types of fabric from places like Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, and Nigeria, including asa oke, a ceremonial fabric made of cotton and silk indigenous to the Yoruba tribe.

On a Thursday morning after the expo, Onwenu is surrounded by mannequins modeling headwraps in her shop as she greets customers. A young woman comes in for the first time and ends up chatting with Onwenu about her attempts to learn more about her African heritage through language and fabric.

“Now that I know you guys are here, I’ll come here,” she says as she browses around the store, inspecting the fabric before spotting one she likes. “I want the purple one. I need it in my life.”

Onwenu began exploring her talent for head-wrapping as a child back home in Nigeria. When she arrived in the US three decades ago, she wrapped her head and went to her first church service in Detroit. The women in her congregation were so enamored with the piece that she ended up selling the gele on her head for $30.

“After the service, I took it off and said, ‘Here you go,’” she explains. “And they gave me money.”

The gele, according to Onwenu, is loaded with an immense amount of cultural symbolism. It denotes your social standing, your relationship status, your heritage. It tells you who you are.

“When you bring me gele to make for you, all I have to do is look at you, and I know what personality you have, I know what you like,” she says. “And when you put it on, your appearance changes, you feel good about yourself, and you just feel so very important.”

Nnenna Stella left her waitressing job in Brooklyn to run her own headwrap business, the Wrap Life, in 2014. Initially, she was looking to headwraps as a new way to be expressive. These days, she’s selling in one month what she used to sell in a year.

“It’s our branding they can relate to,” she says of her customers. “There’s definitely a community feel, different people want African prints, to connect with the motherland or to be Afrocentric.”

Like the history of Muslim head coverings, the history of African-American head coverings is one of opposing notions of oppression and freedom. In 1786, Louisiana governor Esteban Miro instituted the Edict of Good Government, a set of laws that dictated certain moral conduct. One was directed specifically at black women, forcing them to cover their hair in headwraps or "tignons" (a variation on "chignon") to separate them from white women. Most slave women across the South were required to cover their hair with a headwrap or bandana, but this law applied to free women as well.

“The idleness of the free negro and quadroon women is very detrimental,” Miro wrote. “I will be suspicious of their indecent conduct, by the extravagant luxury in their dressing which is already excessive.”

He went on to order the women to wear no feathers nor curls in their hair but instead comb it flat and cover it with a handkerchief.

But the plan backfired. Headwraps were a part of the women’s African heritage, and they used bold, colorful prints and adornments to make a statement. The law used to control these women ended up emboldening them even more. The headwrap became a sign of rebellion and courage, even if it was viewed as a sign of bondage by whites.

This history is at the forefront of Anne Besimen-Akinfenwa’s mind before she gives her presentation as part of the Headwrap Expo’s interfaith panel discussion.

A princess from the Yoruba tribe and founding member of the Odu’a Organization of Michigan, a Nigerian-American cultural nonprofit, Akinfenwa is dressed in a traditional coral-colored Nigerian lace dress.

“It was used as a way to show they were slaves,” she says of the headwrap. “Now they wear it as a thing of pride. A lot of people don’t know the significance of it. They say, ‘Oh, it’s a head tie, it’s pretty,’ but there’s something behind it.”

Akinfenwa has just been in Onwenu’s chair, her head wrapped in a gele that matches her coral dress. A group of young black women ask to take a picture with her.

With a line forming for her services, Onwenu can’t wrap heads fast enough. Even Segun Gele has stopped wrapping, deciding to get wrapped himself by Sikh men from the Michigan Gurdwara of Sterling Heights.

“This is art,” he says, as an orange piece of fabric is layered around his head. “This is serious art.”

Across the room, women are wearing cloth on their heads for very different reasons. The only thing that is constant is the inconsistency, that over thousands of years, the headscarf has meant many different things to many different people, shifting and transforming, sometimes from obligation to choice, from one era to the next.

It is here that all those meanings have a chance to co-exist, without critics or claims.

“That was like a freedom spot,” Onwenu says of the Headwrap Expo before going back to sewing a new gele at her store. “It’s about time. It’s about time to let women be who they are and let them express themselves in different ways.”

Liana Aghajanian is a freelance writer in Detroit.

Nick Hagen is a freelance photographer in Detroit.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel


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