In some places, such a headscarf is banned entirely. France prohibits women from wearing the niqab in public, arguing people’s faces should not be obscured. Towns across the EU have followed suit.
Critics say such bans inhibit freedom of religion and expression, not to mention further misconceptions and distrust around the wearers.
The 2015 Headwrap Expo in Dearborn, Michigan, aims to bust stereotypes around this tradition, as well as share new styles, fabrics and scarf-wrapping techniques. We attended the event on May 17 and found a community center bursting with diversity.
“Speak with someone different from yourself, learn from others. Ask who are they and why they wear the scarf.”
“Speak with someone different from yourself, learn from others. Ask who are they and why they wear the scarf.”For many people around the world, the headscarf is a personal choice, whether spiritual, cultural, practical or fashionable (look at the runways in Paris or New York).
Headscarves, headwrapping and other cloth head coverings can be worn big, piling the hair on the head; with the hair tied close to the head but wrapped to be large, like a crown; some women might tie a simple scarf around their head to keep their hair out of their face. People have to cover their hair if they work in a kitchen — and some simply want to look fashionable when they do it.
Many cultures wear headscarves, beyond the Muslim niqab, including Native Americans, Japanese, Turks, Eastern Europeans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. African-Americans have long wrapped their hair, for example — think Nina Simone or Aretha Franklin.
At the expo, Nabintou Doumbia, 18, stressed that wrapping hair or wearing a scarf is “not just religion. It’s beautiful.” She said in Ivory Coast, women do it as much as a fashion statement or as a part of their culture, not just for religious purposes.
In fact, El-Amin Naeem argues that the practice of headwrapping came before some religions, for practical reasons, such as keeping hair clean and blocking sand from the nose and mouth.
“No one group owns it. You decide for yourself,” El-Amin Naeem says.
El-Amin Naeem says that in the workshops she holds on headwrapping, Caucasian American women are often apprehensive about wearing a scarf, out of fear for cultural misappropriation. They don’t want to be seen like they are mimicking a culture, even though they want to wrap their hair. “But when you look at traditional clothing in Eastern Europe, they have something on their head, as well: ornate flowers, lace scarves…It is a global phenomena.”
“It’s not gender-specific; men and women wear it,” she adds. Men wrap their heads, whether for practical purposes or spiritual, such as Sikhs, Tuareg and Jews.
El-Amin Naeem explains some of the religious meanings of headscarves: Orthodox Jewish women will cover their hair with a tichel or a wig after they marry; showing their real hair only to their husbands is considered a bond of intimacy. Some Muslim women traditionally cover their heads after they reach puberty. “It’s not a marker for marriage, but it is a marker — a protection, a reminder of your self that you are covering for Allah alone,” says El-Amin Naeem. The New Testament also directs women to cover their heads, in 1 Corinthians 11:6:
For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
Others wrap for spiritual preferences: “There is some type of energy coming from our heads,” El-Amin Naeem says. “When people cover their heads, they are protecting it and blocking negative energy. Some people also say wrapping presses down on different chakras, so it forces you to have a mental focus.”
Marlo Williams, 33, wears a scarf almost every day. “It just looks cool,” she says. She came with her friend, Zaineb Al-Kalby, 22, who wears a scarf because she practices Islam. Al-Kalby has no problem with her friend’s scarf, and isn’t insulted.
Filipino Janette Torrico-Woo is from the North, or Catholic, part of the country where they don’t traditionally wear headscarves, but she likes to wear her hair wrapped like the women from the Southern islands.
“As long as you recognize the history of what you’re wearing, and know why you’re doing it, and as long as the media presents it in that light, it’s not as hurtful,” says El-Amin Naeem.
Like Asyad Ziyad, a 23-year-old Detroit native who loves matching scarves to her outfits, and does so thoughtfully.
Rose Onwenu, from Nigeria, is Christian, and even though she must wrap her hair before prayer, she chooses to wear scarves as a fashion statement. “When you dress up, you feel you are sophisticated and elegant, and you walk differently.
You have the crown. You are the queen.
You have the crown. You are the queen.”Carlotta Whitney founded a headscarf business based on her experience with cancer. She was working as a bus driver when she underwent medical care and lost all her hair. Her employer refused to let her wear hats or colored scarves, so she designed a headscarf to look like hair. Whitney has been cancer-free for 17 years, sells her scarves in 18 states and donates scarves to women with cancer. She was so successful with the line, she quit her bus driving job.
Brandie Boubrit came with her co-workers to explore their own options for headscarves at work, as they are not permitted to wear hats with their uniforms either.
It’s practical: Whether you’re growing your hair out or just not happy with a new haircut, “you should never have a bad hair day once you learn how to wrap,” says El-Amin Naeem. “You should always know how to go out and be fashionable.”
Fashion can flatter these cultures, but at the end of the day it’s a luxury. Many people are still targeted simply for adhering to cultural traditions, style aside.
Across the U.S., where freedom of religion is a sacred foundation of the nation, women have been fired or not hired because they choose to wear a hijab, a traditional scarf worn by some Muslim women that shows the face. After 9/11, Sikhs were victims of hate crimes because of their headscarves, which they wear for religious purposes unrelated to terrorism. In February, an entire Arab family was attacked while grocery shopping, accused of being a part of ISIS and told to “take the rag off your head.”
Khloe Kardashian may have a history of cultural misappropriation, but if she’s learning and exploring other traditions respectfully — such as wearing a niqab in Dubai — many argue it’s ok. Just remember to learn from people about their headscarves, who they are and why they wear it.
The way to curb ignorance is through education, at events like the Headwrap Expo, where wearing a headscarf is embraced rather than shunned.
Proceeds from the expo benefit education scholarships for girls in Sierra Leone.