The other day I saw a cashier at Marshall’s wearing a headscarf. This was a first here in Buffalo. This is a fairly common occurrence in cities around the world but not here. In Frankfort, I saw women in niqabs (garment that fully covers except for the eyes) and as we know, France has banned the headscarf in schools. So this leads to the question why this visible mark of a religious or cultural identity is so polemic.
Years ago (and it still may be true) the women in the countryside in Latvia wore scarves- kerchiefs tied under the chin. The term babushka is part of our language and brings to mind images of grandmas. Why did women cover their heads? My grandmother wore a kerchief as did my mother on occasion. Was it for religious reasons? My family was Catholic and entering church meant covering the head for women so that could be one explanation. Or was it a generalized custom for married women to wear a kerchief as in parts of Russia? What did it mean? Was a married woman supposed to make herself less attractive? Evidently hair has an erotic component that has been present in many cultural traditions.
These days I work with immigrants and refugees so I see headscarves in a variety of styles. Some women wear scarves in colors and patterns that loosely cover their heads while others wear white scarves that frame the face and are reminiscent of what Catholic nuns wore many years ago. In some Islamic guides it’s stated that all body parts except for the hands, feet, and face have an erotic component and must be covered. I first came in contact with strict Islamic rules was when I was working in Malaysia. When I received student evaluations, one student commented that I dressed suggestively. This, despite, my covering my arms and legs in a very hot climate. I discovered that this was a weapon that could always be used against a woman, whether it was true or not. The woman was to blame for the male’s reaction.
The element of showing one’s hair solely for the pleasure of the husband connects with the concept of possession. I had a Palestinian man show me a picture of his unveiled wife and tell me,” this is only for me”. I wanted to answer, for me too now, but I am a woman and I am allowed to see this. One of my young Afghani students was brushing out her long hair in the ladies room and told me, “I didn’t cover it before but my boyfriend told me to.”
It’s interesting that the French government finds the headscarf a threat to its society. I no longer find it so even though I am a feminist. Many of the women who follow this custom and wear the headscarf are highly accomplished professionals. They choose to follow their beliefs and I find them no less repressive than the stilettos or fashions imposed on us. As women, no matter where we are or what we believe, there are dictates of what is acceptable or attractive that we are supposed to follow.