Friends often ask me whether I object to wearing a headscarf when I visit relatives in Muslim countries. It is, I admit, a subject of some controversy. Jack Straw laid into the niqab, which covers most of the face, in 2006 when he asked constituents to unveil themselves, at least partially, when talking to him. Channel 4’s Lyndsey Hilsum felt impelled to defend her feminist principles when she appeared on Channel 4 news swathed in a headscarf so that she could file from Iran.
The fact that many in the west link the hijab or niqab to oppression annoys many Muslim women who both wear the scarf and have come to see it as an expression of feminist ideas. But even this doesn’t stop westerners from feeling sorry for women who are forced to wear it. Which is all well and good—if we want to obsess about the link between feminism and how many layers of cloth a woman should or shouldn’t wear. But my concern is simpler. Leaving feminism to one side for a minute, the real untold problem that no one ever discusses, I have to admit, is that the headscarf is not very friendly on my hair.
It’s not all bad, of course. The case for headscarves is especially strong in the winter months. They keep your head warm. They are also particularly good if you haven’t managed to wash your hair, and a dream if you are having a bad hair day. In such cases the jilbab—the full-length tunic worn by many Muslim women—covers an even greater multitude of sins, from hairy legs to one of those days when you just can’t be arsed to get dressed properly.
I remember well that my grandmother, who married a Serb businessman and lived for much of her married life in Belgrade, always used to put a headscarf on when she went shopping or to church—she’d gotten used to it there, and carried on doing it when she returned rural Norfolk. Such practicalities mean I myself am not averse to wearing one. Over the years I’ve built up a lovely selection—one in Indian cotton, another in blue Bengali polyester, another from Syria via a mosque on the Seven Sisters Road. Given the choice of Muslim modesty or Trinny and Susannah displaying themselves naked on billboards, I’d plump for modesty any time.
But such practicalities aren’t really the issue. Underneath, my feelings towards headscarves are really entirely governed by vanity. I have very thick, dark, Iranian hair. To look good it needs what hairdressing parlance knows as “products.” Conditioner and good shampoo are a must, and I like to straighten it sometimes too. But, tragically, headscarves and product don’t go well together.
Coming back from a heavy day in Teheran I would throw off my headscarf with glee. My head would be boiling—and my carefully arranged hair in tangled knots, the like of which I hadn’t seen since I was a schoolchild. This was mainly because I fiddled with my scarf: pushing it back right off my head (de rigeur in North Teheran coffee houses, to show off highlights) or pulling it hastily back on if I spied a police officer. Iran, in sum, was a permanent bad hair day. Indeed, I breathed again only when I was safely on a flight to Doha—and all the “sisters” immediately pushed their scarves off their heads and slapped on the make-up as we left Iranian airspace.
I’m not the only one. Hair under the niqab comes up from time to time on Muslim talk-boards, even if the result is to exhort “sisters” to cover up anyway, whatever the consequences. Those exhortations must be written by men. Don’t they know that we, and our hair, are worth far more than this? Iranian feminists, such as the Nobel prizewinner Shirin Ebadi, might not be keen on the headscarf, but sees it as a low priority in a country where divorced women lose custody of their infants when they reach the age of seven, or where feminists have ended up in prison for daring to protest for equal rights. I tend to agree. It’s just not that important. But, equally, it isn’t that good for your hair either.