The History of the Headscarf
If you’ve been anywhere near the internet or the news, you will know that just a few weeks ago, a 22-year old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, was killed at the hands of Iran’s ‘morality police’ - over a headscarf.
There has truly been no singular, more divisive item of clothing than the headscarf. The garment, which found purpose from its practical utility, has come to hold such political connotations on the one hand, whilst simultaneously growing to high fashion, front-cover magazine status. When I saw the news of Mahsa’s death, my first thought was how, in 2022, the headscarf can still be at the centre of gender politics. I was perplexed. How can a woman in the Middle East be killed for choosing to wear a head covering in a way that she wishes to, and women in the West are suffering for choosing to wear it at all if it’s not for fashion purposes. All whilst the most recent British Vogue covers depicts an iconic supermodel fashioning a headscarf to conceal a botched beauty procedure. It felt surreal, as though I was living on multiple versions of the same planet.
The headscarf has, for some time now, been a defining statement for women everywhere, transcending its roots in its use by ancient women in hot climates, who would shield their heads from the sun, or use it to keep their hair from their faces. Wearing a headscarf wasn’t a law back then, it was simply a commonplace practice for women across different societies. The headscarf was not, as far as we know, born from religious ideologies or respectability politics. Dressing ‘modestly’ was a choice, and largely due to climate and practicality.
It wasn’t until around 1300 BC that the mandatory use of the headscarf for women was etched into law. Ancient Assyrian scrolls show that women were instructed to hide their hair as a sign of status, unless you were considered low in class or a prostitute, in which case you would be punished for wearing one. The headscarf superseded its purpose in practicality, playing a central role in the control and commoditization of women. Religious ideology, which was spreading like wildfire throughout the post-classical eras, furthered the politicization of the headscarf and the dictation of a woman’s place in society. Scripture has been vastly interpreted, with direction for women to dress modestly being seen as a choice by some, and obligatory by others.
Many women describe feeling empowered by their choice to wear a headscarf, but wish to live in societies where it is their choice. Just one hundred years before the abolition of slavery, Black women in some American states were legally required to cover their hair, again, to police their identity, to which hair was and remains key. The irony is that many Black women were already wearing their hair under head wraps, but their freedom to choose otherwise was taken from them. Whilst the West are not forcibly oppressing women in this way today, is the alternative much better? France is just one of many countries to have complex and confusing laws when it comes to wearing head coverings. Wearing a headscarf in France, specifically for followers of Islam, in schools, universities, and government buildings is banned, and anybody in public service cannot wear one. Whilst France claims to be a secular society, banning all overt displays of religious affinity, it is widely acknowledged that this had the most severe impact on Islamic women, in comparison to women of other religious associations. Even without these laws, being a woman of a darker skin tone and wearing a head covering can likely lead to hours of questioning in border control, social isolation and hostility when travelling to the West.
Of course, the two are incomparable. I do not sit here writing this to liken the absence of freedom in one place to the other, when the consequence is far worse. In France, you are given a €150 fine for wearing a headscarf where you shouldn’t, and, more insultingly, a mandatory citizen education course. In Iran however, for not wearing a headscarf, or not covering your hair entirely, you could end up like Mahsa. The outcomes are not the same, but in both instances, the scapegoating of a small covering, to control the personal expression of identity in women, placing conformity over individualism, is identical.
This week, the founder of Solana, Yasmine, was interviewed by Elle Arabia. As I read it (through Google translate of course!) I was reminded of Yasmine’s Middle Eastern, Islamic roots, and her ability to craft a fashion brand through exploring identity. In her words, ‘We are daughters, wives, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and role models. Each of these roles comes with its own responsibilities’. In a world where women like Mahsa are being victimised daily for their personal choices of what they wear, we all have a role to play. We can protest, we can educate, we can write, and like Yasmine, we can create, so that what women wear is dictated by those who actually wear it.
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