Ruxandra Todosi

Scarves form part of a wider vocabulary of aesthetic resistance, which starts with ‘the veil’ as generic garment, and branches into head (hijab, kaffiyah), face (niqab), head‑and‑shoulder or all‑body covers (burqa, jilbab, abaya) depending on cultural and geographical particulars.

Like many other articles of clothing, scarves’ first function was that of protection — shielding the body from cold, heat, wind or dust. Their connotations, nonetheless, span well beyond utilitarian aspects. In ancient societies, such as the Greco‑Roman, Egyptian, Persian or Mesopotamian, scarves were often associated with military rank and social standing. One of the first textual references to garments worn as head and/or shoulder covers is ascribed to an Assyrian legal text (namely, the 40th Assyrian law) dating from the thirteenth century B.C., that specified which women were required to, and which were prohibited to veil in public. According to this law, ‘ladies‑by‑birth’ were to be separated from the public eye, while ‘concubines and servants’ were explicitly restricted from the practice. More so when reinforced by family seclusion, such items epitomized dignity, superiority, and came to complement the status of the privileged.

After the meaning and custom of hijab, translating as ‘cover’, ‘wrap’, ‘screen’, or ‘partition’, have been appropriated by Islam, concepts like modesty and piety became inextricably linked to the practice. Alongside Islam, head covers as tokens of modesty have also been present in Christianity and Judaism, and often fraught with ideological, class or ethnic tensions — see, for instance, contemporary artist Mona Hatoum’s kaffiyah art displayed for theWithout Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking’ exhibition in 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as an arresting reminder of Palestine’s national identity and liberation struggles.

Over the past two centuries, scarf formats have seen a wide diversification through secular dress — some used to differentiate rank in military contexts, others, like batiqs or pashminas, imported and adapted from specific Oriental traditions into Western vogues. As regards the latter, emblematic for the 1950s and 60s were the stylized glamour scarves worn by celebrity figures such as Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy or Grace Kelly, generally characterized by square shapes, bold prints and graphic patterns (fig. 1 & 2). Similar to hats, hoods, masks or sunglasses, which can be used to shield, disguise or anonymize the wearer, their role, beside that of fashion accessories, was to protect and modulate such figures’ (in)visibility.

An important factor in understanding the political traction of headscarves today lies in their character of resistance, linked to the socio‑political evolution of different geographical regions. Notable in this sense remain the emancipatory movements of the 1920s and 70s in countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Iran.

Specifically, the 1920s saw an almost complete abolition of religiously‑fraught scarves among urban upper class Egyptians, rendering Egypt the first Muslim country to unveil without any formal support from the state. A more or less concurrent mass unveiling took place in Iran and Turkey, this time decreed by the state. In both cases, women began to remove their headdress against the perceived oppression of Islam on the one hand, and in response to foreign attempts to steer the population toward a new era of modernity, equal rights and ‘progress’, on the other.

Conversely, the 1970s reintroduced scarves and modest gear more broadly to the Islamic world. Initiated in Egypt and later dispersed throughout Islamic Asia, Africa and the Middle East, this second emancipatory movement heralded, alongside a number of socio‑political reforms, a new, voluntary, more enduring dress code for Muslims. The initiative was grass‑root, and led by young, urban college students whose focus was re‑veiling, i.e. hijab observance: a term specifically deployed to underscore the idea of conversion from secular dress to a reassessed sense of individual and collective identity, in overt opposition to Western ideology (e.g., consumerism, materialism). A so‑called Islamic resurgence occurred to a pan‑Islamic extent thereafter, propagating speedily throughout the closing decades of the century across the Arab‑speaking world, Islamic Africa and Asia.

Varieties of fashionable and religious scarves today include adapted cross‑cultural styles such as new British ‘Oriental chic’ hijabs, turban‑shaped wraps, hood‑like ‘hoojabs’ (fig. 3), or sporty ‘capsters’. An argument that often surfaces in recent scholarship is that by covering in line with Qur’anic prescriptions, wearers oppose mass trends and Western media that cater to the objectification/commodification of the female body.

Following traumatic events like 9/11 or 7/7, many Islam observers chose to discard their headscarves in order to avoid associations with violent or radical behaviour. However, a reported growing number of Muslims who previously did not cover conversely adopted the practice and/or opted for more conservative headdress (fig. 4) in response to the same events. Among the top reasons cited were: refusal to live in fear or intimidation caused by associations with Islamist extremism, the wish to counter negative stereotyping of ‘the veil’ as oppressive, as well as feminist or anti‑mainstream views opposing mass consumption and dissemination of Western ideals of femininity.

fig. 1: 1960s style scarf. Private collection.
fig. 2: Hermès scarves. Photo by Francisco Uhlfelder (Flickr).
fig. 3: Hoojab, or ‘winged’ hijab (screenshot). Produced by Pearl Daisy.
fig. 4: Conservative style hijab. Photo by Fatima (Flickr).


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About the Author:
Ruxandra has a PhD in Art and Design from Nottingham Trent University, UK. Her research explores intersections of materiality and immateriality, surface and depth in ‘valuable’ objects, prominently textiles, regarded as affective and aesthetic experience. Her PhD project zoomed in on privately‑informed — spiritual and philosophical, emotional, artistic — aspects of modest gear observance.

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Ruxandra Todosi: Scarves, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 13 January 2016, URL:

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