Back in the 1950s men wore hats and women wore hats or scarves. A head scarf was the normal thing for a woman to wear outside of the house and it had certain advantages, it could be worn on a quick trip out to buy milk without a need to tidy one’s hair, and it protected a woman’s hair from the rain and breeze. A woman wearing a scarf was completely unexceptional. Women used scarvesscarfs like men wore ties to add an individual signature to their wardrobe. Nuns also traditionally covered their hair and no one thought anything of it.
In the 1960s there was a swing towards youth fashion and the scarf began to fall out of fashion as did men wearing hats and City gents wearing a bowler hat to and from work. It was a time of change and of modernisation. The newly liberated woman didn’t need to cover her hair, she could flaunt it, and enjoy it because it was her hair to do as she pleased with it.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Russians saw themselves as the leading edge of civilisation. They were an enlightened group. The Soviet Union was fighting against a morally corrupt and decadent West. It was founded on rational logic and a science-based world view. It was fighting against the injustice of late imperialism, and the exploitation inherent in free-market capitalism, fighting for female emancipation, for free education for all, and so on.
The Soviet Union came up against a living version of the ‘past’, a repressive ‘medieval’ tribal based theocracy (which the West supported). While Afghanistan had a sophisticated urban culture in the large cities, many of its rural communities were traditional based tribal cultures where there was little education and women were treated as property, punished for sorcery, and had few of the rights enjoyed by women in the West.
This clash of cultures between and different worlds played out like a science fiction narrative — the enlightened Russians (as they saw themselves) were in the eyes of many tribal Afghans invaders who were hostile to their traditional culture and ways. The traditional practice of women covering their heads and faces was seen as a sign of ‘backwardness’ by the outsiders. They viewed it as a symbol of the many injustices perpetuated against women. With the West’s support of the Mujahideen, the Soviet Union attempt to control Afghanistan was thwarted and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed.
Meanwhile, in the West, fashion and feminism was progressing further. Then, gradually, Muslim women mostly of parents who had emigrated to the UK, began to cover their heads and sometimes their faces. Whereas this used to be associated with the repression of women it now signified a new post Iranian Revolution mindset of Islamic cultural identity. Covering the head and face was no longer viewed as a sign of female repression but a sign of personal freedom and individual choice. Today most ‘Western’ women don’t wears scarves or cover their heads and faces, but Muslim women do. It’s become a sign of religious identity.
The covering of the face used to incite fear in Western culture because it has traditionally been used by outsiders and criminals to conceal their identity (bandits, highway robbers, bank robbers, and frightening groups like the KKK). The West has been a culture where people shook hands and showed their faces to one another as a sign that they were not hostile, and that they could be trusted. Could the weight of this cultural bias change after the Coronavirus pandemic?
It’s slightly weird that something as simple as a piece of clothing that covers a woman’s head is so suffused with symbolism, political connotations, personal and group identities, and issues about individual choice — and yet women’s clothing has always been politicised… from time long before British women themselves wore scarves, which itself wasn’t all that long ago.