Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Of women and scarves

Audrey Hepburn on the set of Sabrina (Source)

I often wrap my hair in a silk scarf on Sunday mornings when I am heading out for my weekly errands.  Although I have appropriated this habit as a fashion statement now, the pragmatic reasoning behind it is not. I braid my hair before going to bed to avoid living a frizzy horror in the morning and those rapidly done braids are rarely good-looking enough be seen in public. However, on weekend days, I often don't feel like going through the process of unbraiding them, brushing them and styling them knowing that they will get treated and washed later on that day anyways...

I took this habit from my mother and other female relatives that shaped my childhood. Wrapping their hair wasn't a fashion statement though. They did it to hide their hair or advancing baldness, to protect themselves from the sun while working outside or to pray God in a more respectful way (Men weren't covering their head in church and it annoyed me, but that is another story...) I felt there was always something quite demeaning about it whenever they were using it.

Living in a neighbourhood populated mainly by a Orthodox Jewish community whose women often go out with their hair covered without any sense of shame in their eyes, I have wondered about the role of scarves in women's lives.

Head covering with scarves is as much a female custom in many religions and traditions as it is a useful habit for protection from the elements. Often the way the item is wrapped differentiates its religious and its utilitarian usages or marks the characteristics of its link to a certain community. 

A Sikh woman (Source)
An Orthodox Jew woman (Source)

Although often presented as a way to make oneself look humble, respectable and pious, head scarves have always had a secondary agenda to me: hiding the shameful perhaps sinful thing that is hair (or the lack of it, depending on the context), may it be conscious or unconscious.

Cancer patient undergoing treatment with a scarf (Source)

Long hair is central a feminine attribute in many cultures and attentive care is given to it to keep it beautiful.  Besides clothes and makeup, haircare is probably the third subject mostly covered in magazines aiming a female population.

With such vain attention on it, I do understand how covering it is seen as a humble or pious action. Although I fear that often the instigator of such propositions have been men... But we, as women, after centuries of being second-class humans, have developed tricks to make what was used to humiliate and hide us as our own, as self-empowerment objects and as fashion statements.

When I started wearing my scarf on Sundays, a sense of shame motivated my actions (attention!ugly hair underneath!), but now I sometimes do it on purpose because I like the look it gives me and how it makes me stand out. Maybe such a thought process partially explains why many Muslim women are defending their right to wear their hijab in public spaces in France while other women who haven't gone through their reasoning don't really understand it...Maybe.

Erykah Badu (Source)
Although often seen as a sign of modesty, there is something quite sexy about a scarf well wrapped in how it accentuates the neck, frames the face or let some loose locks come out adding colour and presence to your look. I personally think we should integrate it more in our wardrobe.

A fashion statement on your head (Source)

Regardless of the historical or cultural meaning of a symbolic item as a scarf, the attitude with which you harbour it determines if it owns you or you own it. Cultural appropriation and adaptation are after all signs of evolution, distancing items from their original meanings and conferring them the new sense its actual users give it.

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