My first memory of scarves is of a dupatta that you wear around your neck over a salvar or chudidar. I loved wearing them and was only allowed to wear them on special occasions for my mother feared I would lose it–even though I begged to wear them daily. Mostly I wore dupattas to church and covered my head like my mom or aunts during prayer. [In the Bible, it states that women should cover their head during prayer or their hair should be cut short if she doesn’t want to cover head. We took this literally back then.] It felt grown up. I felt attractive. I loved wearing them. It’s no wonder that a scarf is still my favorite accessory–be it a hip scarf, a head scarf, or neck scarf. I am always on the hunt for the next unique one.
After my recent visit to India and Paris where I purchased one dupatta which I wore in various ways, the most daring being as a head scarf in Paris. At first I did it out of necessity–I’d forgotten my hat and it was colder than expected. But then, I caught a glimpse of my reflection and the sweet taste of the prasad filled my mouth. I was eight standing in front of a massive Sikh temple in New Delhi with my family. My mom tied my dupatta over my hair. As I walked around the temple, this odd feeling of belonging filled my body. You see Seventh Day Adventist missionaries converted both my grandfathers and thus the rest of the family. As SDA’s living in India, we were a minority–religiously speaking. We had Muslim and Hindu neighbors whose cultures and traditions were banned in our religion. To an eight year old, however, it just felt unfair that my Muslim neighbor’s daughters could wear headscarves and I couldn’t or that my Hindu neighbors’ daughters could wear earrings and I wasn’t allowed to pierce my ears. So that day when we were sightseeing in Delhi and mom covered my hair, I finally felt like I belonged to my country land. It was exciting. I used to obsessively look through those photos at the temple just to see myself in a head scarf.
Since arriving back home in the States, I have been obsessively researching head scarf fashion. Most of what I find I don’t have access to because they are high-end designers or not sold to here. It got me thinking what head scarves have come to represent here in the US. Once I had assimilated and turned into a teen activist. I thought they were degrading even if a woman had choice in the matter, why would a girl cover up the most elegant part of her body. Yes, I’ll admit as a teen I was a super-hero-like feminist or at least I thought I was. Then as an adult, I had students who wore hijabs and grew to understand their need to feel supported and part of their country land just like I did as a kid. Once a Muslim student even asked me for my shawl to pray with during Ramadan. My opinion evolved as I was exposed to more girls from Iran, Iraq and who were Muslim.
In India it is the norm to see women in burkas and hijabs so normal that I felt more at home when I spotted these women on my first day back. I remember thinking yes we are not minorities anymore.
Here’s the irony, even when I thought that women shouldn’t cover up, I was drawn to this accessory. I struggled with what it represented, however. I worried it would make others see me a certain way and I could be profiled as so many Muslim women are. Especially, in current times. Still, hijabs are so chic and can make me feel whole at the same time. In an attempt to gain more understanding, I set out to research the topic. I slid my glasses on, sharpened a new pencil, picked up my iPhone and texted my one Iranian friend for her opinion. She said, she too thought she looked banging in a head scarf, but opted not to wear them because she didn’t believe in the principle behind it.
Thus began my path towards a decision: Would it be disrespectful to women who wear it for religious beliefs? Could I handle the looks that I would, of course, get from others? More than any of that, am I bold enough to explore a head scarf as an accessory? Would I be putting down a culture and a religion? or Would I be celebrating it? My intention is to celebrate it, but how do you communicate that by simply wearing it? Finally, am I over thinking it?
The answer to all of those questions, I think, is yes. Still, I sit uncertain that I could walk in a public space with a head scarf and take it off, when I felt like it. When I took it off in Paris, I wanted to hear gasps, but all I heard were the birds chirping a little louder.
In 1995, when I was fifteen years old, No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom. It flew onto the charts and every teen girl’s discman. Gwen Stefani wore a bindi on her forehead as an accessory in the first video off the album: “Don’t Speak”. The bassist was Indian. At the time, other than Apu on The Simpsons, there weren’t any Indians on television or media. I remember when I saw it for the first time, I was angry and exhilarated. Angry because I didn’t like a part of my culture that was so personal to be turned into a trend. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think how cool it was that she was wearing a bindi. It turned me into a vital resource at school; all my girl friends would inevitably ask me about it and I could share about India. [If I could get paid talking about my experiences in India, shit I’d be like Bill Gates!] Since Gwen, American fashion has slowly referenced Indian items: we wear tunics over skinny jeans which is a direct reference to a kurti or salvar.
Like Gwen and the bindi, could head scarves become an accessory thereby allowing Muslim girls across the country to fly up to their pedestals and share their stories? Or is turning a religious symbol into a fashion symbol forever irreverent?
Again the answer to both questions is probably yes. Regardless, at the risk of sounding vain and self-indulgent on a blog where I write about my life and my thoughts and my experiences, I think I look “banging” in a head scarf as well!
What if we started wearing them, could we-women-shift the prejudices of a nation and world…with fashion? [Insert shocked face emoji]