Why Is The Head Scarf Taboo?

Trying so hard to ignore the head scarf makes it a very large elephant in the room; and is completely unnecessary.

by Deedra Abboud in Muslim, Social Views, Solutions
July 24, 2016 0 comments

I was reading an article by an aspiring journalist who decided to wear the headscarf (hijab) for a month and record her experiences. In her resulting article, ‘Undercover in hijab’: unveiling one month later, she mentions that none of her classmates or co-workers asked any questions or comments about her suddenly wearing a having scarf. When she asked some of them later “why,” “several said it was too ‘touchy’ or insensitive to bring up.”

I have observed this myself. Much like the aspiring journalist, I too forget I have it on. Sometimes when I return home, my husband will ask me where I am going. When I reply, “Nowhere,” he will ask why I am still wearing my scarf. I forget I have it on, so I sometimes forget to take it off.

But I do not completely forget and am often surprised when others seem to avoid mentioning it even when relevant. Like it might be offensive or something. It is just a piece of cloth that I have chosen to wear. Though it has a meaning for me, for everyone else I would think it is similar to any other accessory I might wear.

Once while I was in law school, a professor mentioned the school wanted to have an event with local non-profits presenting their volunteer opportunities, but they were having difficulty contacting local organizations. I told them I knew a lot of the local organizations because I had worked with them over the years as a community advocate. I offered to provide the professor with my contacts. As a result, the event was scheduled and the majority of the presenters were organizations I had suggested.

Catholic Social Services was one of them. I had a good friend that worked there so I went up to the representative and asked about my friend. She said she knew her. I asked her to tell my friend I said “Hi.” She responded, “Yes. I will tell her the girl with blonde hair said ‘Hi’.” I responded, “Or you could tell her the girl wearing the scarf said ‘Hi’. Better yet, I could give you my name.”

I had to laugh. The blonde? Really? You cannot even see my hair. What blonde? My eyebrows are not even blonde. Further, how is being blonde even distinguishable? Can you imagine how many “blondes” a person might know?

She was very nice but obviously did not know what to do with me. She acted like saying “the girl wearing the scarf” might be offensive in the same way “the girl with the big mole on her nose” would be offensive.

It isn’t.

In a similar story, someone told me they would tell my friend “the girl with blue eyes said ‘Hi.'” Again, how is that even distinguishable? How could mentioning someone’s eye color, unless their eye color were extremely unusual, jog anyone’s memory?

I am not sure how the scarf became so taboo. This is not from the Muslims who wear the scarf. To us, there is nothing taboo or embarrassing about it.

Generally, the taboo reactions seem to fall into just a few categories.

  1. People are trying a little too hard not to be offensive.
  2. People are not sure if acknowledging the scarf might lead to deeper conversations that might make them uncomfortable.
  3. People have assumptions of what the scarf means, usually negative.

On the one hand, one of the intentions of the scarf is to remove my sexuality from our interactions – I would prefer whether you like my hair or legs to not be part of the equation, such as whether I get a job or whether you like the job that I am doing.

On the other hand, trying so hard to ignore it makes it a very large elephant in the room – completely unnecessary.

Regardless of my reasons for wearing the scarf, for everyone else it really should be no more than an accessory. Some people wear a crucifix, some a yarmulke, some just jewelry or scarfs (even on the head) as fashion statements. Do we go to such extremes to avoid those topics?

Some people wear wigs too. [Okay, that might be different. If a person is wearing a wig or hairpiece, maybe they don’t want to know if you know. Yes, probably better to avoid that conversation.]

Muslim are not the only ones who wear some form of headscarves. Catholic nuns outside the United States still wear a head covering. But it’s not just Catholics or nuns. Amish, Quakers, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Anabaptists are all Christians sects in the United States whose women cover their hair; several Jewish traditions, both inside and outside the United States, wear hair covering (some in the form of a wig); some Hindus and Sikhs also cover their hair. For all of them, modesty is the objective even if the exact style or amount of hair coverage might be different. [Here is the coolest test to see if you can pick out religion based on head covering. I got 7/10 right, so even I can get confused.]

When a woman is wearing a headscarf, we do not have to talk about religion, or even why she is wearing it, but you don’t need to go out of your way to pretend you never noticed it either.

Under the scarf, just like clothes, we are all just people.


Have you ever felt uncomfortable mentioning a head covering to someone? Can you tell me what held you back?

Do you have a funny story about someone bending over backward to avoid acknowledging your head scarf?

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