Of Head Cases and Head Scarves

So there’s this:

hijabIt’s a headscarf, commonly called the hijab here in Saudi Arabia. There are a lot of different ways to wear it, and wearing it well requires more effort than I’ve ever invested.

I know, right? Pretty stunning. (Headband not required–this is just one of bazillion YouTube tutorials.) And as Europe and the U.S. edge toward winter, admit it: The thought did cross your mind that it would be pretty great to have that in your arsenal to deal with bad hair on a wet day. I mean, women used to do it all the time:

headscarf audrey hepburn headscarf sophia loren


And yet, for some reason, people go into steam-out-the-ears freak-outs about it now. France bans it in schools and public buildings on the grounds of religious neutrality, and conversations about banning it, or the face veil, or both are cropping up in other countries, as well. For example, a nationalist party in the U.K. has just started this ad campaign:

anti-burqa posterGranted, the face veil is a separate debate, but the fear net has been thrown rather wide here, don’t you think? For the record, this picture (which the poster-maker must have found in an image search) is of a woman by the name of Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s first female police officer. In 2008, she was shot and killed by the Taliban. According to the Al Arabiya article, she “was known as a high profile policewoman who fought for women’s rights and against extremism and terrorism.”

As it happens, the producers of the poster don’t care.

Just this past week, the women’s basketball team from Qatar pulled out of the Asian Games when the international governing body for women’s basketball refused to budge on its rule not allowing any head covering during competition.

Qatar women's basketball teamNow, my burning question is why? It can’t have anything to do with player safety or performance or even embarrassment, or else this would never have happened:

70s basketball shorts Come to think of it, nothing in the 70s would have happened if humans had a reliable fashion compass:

70s men 70s-fashion2










So why all the fuss about a headscarf? I have a number of personal fashion rules that don’t seem to bother anybody. For example, my sport of choice when I’m at home is cycling, which calls upon one to wear padded Lycra shorts. (Even if women were allowed to, I would never cycle in Riyadh, and you can get an idea of why here.) The shorts are functional, but ridiculous.

bike shortsAll necessary body parts are covered, by I still find them inappropriate for out-and-about use. My personal rule is that in public, bike shorts need to have a line-of-sight relationship to an actual bicycle or to cycling equipment. Therefore, I give myself unlimited right to roam inside a bike shop or perhaps at a convenience store where I’m buying a snack during a ride (food while riding = cycling equipment). I can stop and eat at an outdoor table with the bikes parked nearby, but not inside a restaurant. And I won’t ride the bike home, jump in the car, and go on errands. If I’m in that much of a hurry, I pull a skirt on over the shorts.

Why should anyone care if somebody else’s rule is to not leave home with her hair exposed? I cover my bike shorts, she covers her hair. I wear pajama pants at home, but not in public. (Which puts me at variance with a lot of North America.) She wears her hair loose at home, but not in public. What could the logic be behind forbidding someone to cover? Could you imagine a regulation saying I’m sorry, spaghetti straps are universal and you’re not allowed to cover your shoulders, no matter how exposed and uncomfortable you feel?

So let’s get honest. Judging by all the goofy things we’ve done to our faces and bodies over the millennia, fashion is all about advertising our tribal alliances. We want to be “on trend.” We want to look connected, we want to acknowledge awareness of our tribe-mates and respect for their tastes, we want to signal that we are attuned to the collective consciousness, and that we are one with it. Individual flourishes—how you put an outfit together, how you accessorize it—allow personal expression within boundaries.

Enter the hijab. Around here, it’s just what everybody wears, and beyond the religious reasons it does the same thing that fashion everywhere does—stating tribal alliance and connection and agreement. (I’m sorry to report that the Saudi fashion is…black. Just…black. You’ll see occasional rhinestones along the hem or a little embroidery for your individual flourishes, but the base is always black. Muslims from other countries are easy to spot by the colored headscarves.)

But in non-Muslim societies? Now it marks the wearer as an interloper from another tribe. And we humans can get as merciless as any other creature when it comes to how we deal with difference. A sari. A turban. A yarmulke. A pair of sagging pants and a sideways hat. The markers that declare “I’m among you, but separate from you, and plan to stay that way.” My friend Mandi had the genius idea of doing a blog post on obnoxious things she and her friends have heard while wearing the hijab. On behalf of my people, I’m mortified. And completely entertained.

So let me take my best lame outsider shot at removing some of the mystery: Muslim women wear the hijab for a variety of reasons. It’s an act of obedience, a statement of modesty, a mark of seclusion from the outside world, a symbol of the separation between man and God. And of course, also what everybody does. Not all Muslim women wear it, and scholars disagree about whether it’s required. In general, women remove it at home—the same way you kick off your shoes inside—but they cover their hair when leaving the immediate family group—the same way you put on your shoes to go out. Or my skirt, over bike shorts.

When worn in Western society it also makes a couple of declarations I really like. It says “Yes, I’m religious and willing to admit it.” That’s something a lot of Westerners—even religious ones—have a hard time saying. Unless, of course, they say it as part of an effort to demand that you honor their religion, which the headscarf does not. It just says that the wearer is okay with you knowing what religion she follows and that you can go ahead and judge it based on what you see of her. That’s pretty bold. It’s a “How do you like my driving” bumper sticker on steroids.

It also says “My eyes are up here.” No flirting, please. Don’t flatter yourself—I’m not trying to beckon you hither. I’m at school to learn, I’m in the office to work, I’m shopping to buy things. Take me seriously.

I kinda wish I could pull it off—electively, of course. That I could flip on a headscarf as an alternative to a serious navy suit when the occasion called for seriousness. But I can’t. It’s not my tribe. And putting on somebody else’s garb is usually ridiculous.










And insulting.

But Western society hears something else from those who wear the hijab. To many, it says, “I’m repressed.” Or “I reject you and all you stand for.” Or “I’m not just modest, but ashamed.” Or “The tribe I belong to is one that frightens you.”

And that, I think, is where the urge to get rid of it comes from. People don’t want to see overt alliance to an enemy tribe in the person walking toward them on the sidewalk. Through no fault of the women around you wearing the hijab–as they have, in peace, for generations–their tribe has been categorized as the enemy. The kid with the barbed wire tattoo up his neck and the piercings all over his face and look of disdain—that’s a phase. He shares tribal roots and he’ll come around. But that headscarf—no, that means the distant enemy is among us.

I don’t have a fix for this. I don’t think Muslim women aggrieved by the misunderstandings of Islam fully understand the depth of the Western well of ignorance about Islam, and how little there has been to fill it but news reports of the shocking and the baffling and the horrifying. Or the consequences when Muslim communities in Western countries isolate themselves and are perceived as rejecting the culture around them. And I don’t think Westerners fully understand how vulnerable many Muslims feel walking around as such a visible and distrusted minority. How frustrated and helpless an individual feels in the face of so much misunderstanding. Which makes what these high school girls did all the more admirable.

hijab1So maybe we can start with the easy stuff. A smile. Eye contact. A greeting. An acknowledgment that you put on a bra and shirt this morning to cover your nakedness as well. Really—it’s just a scarf.

*Update: A few days after publication, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris demanded that an Egyptian-born student remove her “thing” (headscarf), and asked her to leave class when she did not. Read the full article here.

10 thoughts on “Of Head Cases and Head Scarves

    • margocatts says:

      I can’t scold us for it–there’s an innate human need to group together and feel safely connected. But the reality of our day is that we don’t live in isolated groups anymore, and if our diverse, blended societies are going to work it’s going to take a lot of unnatural work. I’m surely grateful for Saudis who do the work to make me feel welcome.


    • margocatts says:

      Great post! How have I not tapped into your blog before now? Fixed that problem. Yours is invaluable input–being a man working directly with a group of veiled women. (And I understand children use shoes to identify their moms, as well.) I certainly strayed from the main topic of the hijab by touching on the anti-veil debate, which I must acknowledge is a very different one. Unlike the hijab, the veil is–and is intended to be–a barrier, communicating a firm wish to be unknown. People may wish to be free to wear it, but cannot then reasonably complain about being misunderstood or unfairly judged. A multi-cultural world difficult for everyone–but infinitely rewarding, don’t you think? Thank you for writing and providing that terrific link.


  1. 59steps says:

    Thanks Margo. The veil is certainly a different debate. Interesting thing is that during the Eighties, when we lived in Jeddah, there was no requirement for Western women to wear the abaya, and certainly not the hijab. Many Saudi women also wore neither.
    if you were to speak to Saudis who remember the Fifties and Sixties, they might tell you that even in Riyadh the dress codes were far more liberal, but that because the population of Riyadh was predominantly Saudi, people “knew the rules” about gender mixing, and therefore there was less pressure on women to retreat behind the veil. Steve


    • margocatts says:

      Yes, I hear from many people that the dress code used to be far looser. Everywhere I turn, I see a nation caught between two worlds, with people trying to coexist while the loudest voices on both sides say you can’t. Retreat! Push forward! Change! Hold onto tradition! Go into business! Don’t be capitalist! A culture is like a family–life is always easier when only the core family is around. Things get harder when those pesky in-laws start joining in. I guess that makes me the lip-pierced, tattooed sister-in-law you always worry is about to do something mortifying.


  2. kiya says:

    Thank you for writing this! I am so excited to have found your blog. I lived in Amman for a year and a half, even had my first child over there. We’ve been back for a year now and I am nostalgic for posts like these.


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