HEADSCARVES UNVEILED

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AYAH BAJWA

3/30/22

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The emergence of headscarves as a feminine accessory can be traced far back in time, with some historians believing Queen Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt to be the originator of wrapping her hair in luscious silks. And for most of recent history, the headscarf has been just that– a symbol of wealth, glamor and status that was marketed from the top of society down to the masses. Hermès debuted their first 100% patterned silk scarf in 1937, and just a decade later, fashion icon and actress Audrey Hepburn made the silk scarf her signature look, tying it tightly in a knot beneath her chin. In 1959, actress Grace Kelly even used an Hermés scarf as a sling for her injured arm. These luxury silk scarves have prevailed into the present day, with many brands creating polyester-blend versions at a lower price point. However, there is one exception in the headscarf market that has transcended all the trend cycles and top-down marketing, and that is Muslim women.
The hijab is a traditional headscarf worn by many Muslim women who choose to cover their hair as a symbol of modesty and connection to their faith. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll estimated that around 43% of the 1 million Muslim women in the United States wear the hijab, in styles so similar to the ones worn by Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly that they become near impossible to tell apart. So, if headscarves are so fashionable and continue to come back year after year in designer shows and celebrity photoshoots, then why have Muslim women experienced so much discrimination because of their hijabs?
In 2002, my nine-month pregnant, hijab-wearing aunt was walking on the streets of Chicago when a woman charged and tackled her to the cement in an act of pure hatred. My aunt landed on her belly and screamed in pain while onlookers helped restrain her aggressor. Thankfully, she survived with no injury to her baby, but my aunt knew what the source of this attack was; she had been targeted because of her hijab. It was only one year post the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and while this story may seem like an isolated, politically-charged incident, there are countless stories of Muslim-American women being physically and verbally attacked in public due to their head covering. Depending on who’s wearing it, the headscarf can either elevate a look or completely stereotype and potentially cause harm to a person.
Take the city of Paris, for example. Headscarves have routinely been featured by celebrities and high-fashion models during high visibility events like Paris fashion week; yet France is one of the most legislatively strict countries on the hijab and freedom of religious expression. An amendment passed by the French Senate in 2020 makes it illegal for women under 18 to wear a head covering in public, despite the fact that in many Muslim traditions girls begin to wear the hijab in their early teens. The same amendment also bans mothers from wearing their hijabs when chaperoning school trips, and outlaws the “burkini”– a full body swimsuit style worn by Muslim women. This is all despite the fact that France hosts the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and has historically been no stranger to the concept of head coverings in fashion.
So what makes something “in” vs. “out”? Is it the amount of hair peeking under the scarf? Is it she who wears it? While I don’t believe that headscarves are an appropriation of Muslim culture since they have their own roots in women’s fashion, I certainly do think there is deep hypocrisy in the way the two are treated in popular culture.
More recently, the line between what is considered an accessory and what is hijab has been blurred. This past winter, the balaclava– a type of standalone, pullover hood– became a popular clothing item. Many Muslim women on the internet celebrated this trend, joking that now their hijabs became “cool” again, and all they had to do to be “on trend” was put on a balaclava and go. Verified Twitter user @ShahdBatal even tweeted: “diy balaclava???? that is a hijab tutorial” in response to the viral TikTok trend showing women how to turn their winter scarves into intricate headwraps. While many women have been finding irony, or humor in this trend, it reveals a painful truth: that still, Muslim women have not been included in this particular fashion narrative.
It is worth acknowledging that there have been real efforts to include hijab-wearing women in fashion more recently. In 2017, IMG models signed Halima Aden, a Somali girl from Minnesota who usually sports a turban-style hijab. She became the first model in hijab on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, and since has launched many brand partnerships with modest fashion brands, grossing over $1million in her first three years as a model and brand ambassador. Gigi and Bella Hadid, who come from a Palestinian-Muslim background, have also used their platforms to advocate for positive representations of hijab in the media. After Bella Hadid wore a hijab during New York Fashion Week in 2022, she then posted a series of Instagram stories highlighting the discrimination against Muslim women’s choice to cover their hair, including naming France’s restrictive laws.
Beyond the high-fashion world, more accessible brands like Nike have launched products to include hijab-wearing women. The Nike Pro Hijab launched in 2017, and has since become an athleticwear mainstay for the company. While Nike has not published their sales from the hijab alone, this was certainly a financially productive decision (after a marketing campaign in 2019, demand for the product grew 125%). Globally, Muslims consume an estimated $368 billion in fashion, and with nearly 3.5 million Muslims in the U.S, there is certainly a niche for more inclusive apparel. As more brands like Uniqlo and D&G continue to catch on by marketing towards Muslim women, I can only hope that eventually these won’t even be seen as specialty campaigns and will instead be just another form of normalized brand inclusivity. But, it’s important to remember that no matter how much progress we make in American commercial media, Muslim women will never be fully included until we actively work against the double standard, beginning with an Hermès silk scarf.

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