Culture: The head scarf

Most people believe all African women wear headscarves. In fact, I remember a girl looking down on me because I said I did not wear it. It was a funny moment and I tried hard not to laugh but there I was being taught how to dress African by a girl who had only heard of Africa from books and the few friends she knew. However, the fact is she did not know so how could I get upset? Maybe she genuinely felt compelled to help me appreciate what she believed to be a quintessential part of grooming in my culture.

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And in some African countries, the headscarf is indeed a staple in women’s clothing. However, Africa is a very diverse continent, not all of its inhabitants share the same traditions or preferences. In fact, even the city in which I was born has very distinct grooming rules based on the tribe one is from, and the personal choices one makes.

Will I ever wear a headscarf? Absolutely, in fact I have in the past because it looked amazing on some models from Nigeria. Is it mandatory in the culture I was raised in to wear one? No. As a matter of fact, in the Kinshasa I grew up in, young and single women usually did not wear headscarves. They could but usually did not. Typically, only married women choose to wear them.

Updated. Now, I assigned myself a small project to understand the origins of the headscarf and the different styling options. Here are my findings:

  • The headscarf originated as a protection against natural elements (read wind, sun and dust) for women’s hair
  • It then migrated as a protection against evil spirits as a woman’s head was believed to be the superior part of her body and the entrance to her soul ( 😦 there had to be some spiritism somewhere)
  • The style evolved once again into a means of seduction that married women used to accentuate their face and, per Beaute-Ebene, ‘arouse their husbands’ pride’. I would agree with this explanation as it is in harmony to what I was told as a young child in Kinshasa.
  • In Kinshasa, young and unwed women only wear headscarf to cover unruly hair or to make a fashion statement; no as a cultural fashion staple
  • It seems that the first painting of Black slave women wearing headscarves was made in 1707 by Dirk Valkenburg (the painting is called “Slave Play” and you can see a picture below

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source: smk.dk

  • The headscarf may be traced even further in the past with Ancient Egypt where kings, queens (famous Nefertiti headscarf) and false gods used it depending on their function and gender
  • In Islam, the headscarf is used for religious purposes
  • There are a variety of styles, GirlMeetsWorld proposes 36 ways to tie an African scarf, image below:

36ways_scarf

  • One quintessential headscarf that must be paired with the Nigerian Buba (traditional Yoruba outfit) is the Gele (or Aso-Oke), the only scarf I have tried to tie and would like to get right! There is a detailed post on the style at Savoir Et Partage.  Basically, the Gele is worn in Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Ghana (Yoruba people of Western Africa).  What I love about this scarf is that it indicates the status of the woman wearing it.  Indeed, when the end of the scarf is pointing right, the woman is married and should be left alone. When it is pointing left, she is free and available.  How ingenious is that! 🙂

comment-attacher-le-gele

Picture courtesy of Obonheur

If you are interested in some tutorials for African headscarf styling, some options below! Please share your pictures when you try them on your own!

  1. MoAm tutorial
  2. Side tie
  3. Nigerian Gele (Nma, please chime in if this is accurate!)

6 thoughts on “Culture: The head scarf

    1. Oh some of the Ghanian women in my neighborhood wear them daily, and I am always amazed at how they tie them up just so and they stay that way. 🙂 They look so pretty with the scarves!

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