The Sisterhood of the Covered Head
There was a time when a bagel and a shmear was a uniquely Jewish thing. Now, bagels are found in nearly every grocery store and coffee shop in America. Let’s face it. Bagels have assimilated.
Now hair covering for women. That’s a uniquely Jewish thing, right? Well, okay, Muslim women also cover their hair, but the hijab, which covers the head, neck and upper chest is different from what married Orthodox Jewish women do. And okay, Amish women wear caps and some Christian women cover their heads in church, but the whole full-time wig, hat, scarf thing is really just for Jewish women.
Well… it turns out that’s not the case.
Over the past few years, Facebook groups like Wrapunzel: The Fangroup, Undercover Beauties and Are you Tichelish? have built communities of married, Orthodox Jewish women who want to learn creative and colorful ways to tie their scarves (also known as tichels or mitpachot). Oodles of encouragements, homemade video tutorials and pictures of women demonstrating the results of their new scarf-tying skills are central to each group.
But there’s a whole other story going on behind the scenes. Every Facebook group devoted to hair covering has members who cover for an array of reasons that have nothing to do with Jewish law. In fact, a solid minority of women in these groups are not even Jewish. "The Jewish women who started off wrapping tichels never intended for it to spread this way. But there's something about the joy that's infectious. When you love what you do, it's attractive. And maybe that's why tichel wearers look so fabulous - they FEEL good," explain Rivka Malka Perlman and Andrea Grinberg of Wrapunzel, a site dedicated to creative tichels.
Many non-Jewish women cover for their own religious or spiritual reasons. Alana S. from Kentucky who has been covering her hair and blogging about it since 1996, is an Orthodox Christian. “My motive for doing so is in obedience to the Christian scripture of 1 Corinthians 11: 1-16.” This text speaks explicitly about the practice of covering one’s head, especially during prayer. “Covering my hair has been very healing for me spiritually and emotionally. It has given me dignity that I do not naturally possess.”
A less conventional religious expression motivates Lyssa A. from Michigan. “I cover my hair as part of my religious practice,” she says. “I am a Hellenic Polytheist, meaning I worship the ancient Greek gods. As an act of devotion for Hestia, the chaste and virgin goddess of the hearth and home, I cover my hair and try to be modest in my dress.”
Anna V, a member of the Baha’i faith, finds her motives for covering her hair in eastern thought. “I wrap to cover my crown chakra... it is a practice from ancient India and it is still alive in Sikh and kundalini yoga traditions. The theory is that the crown of the head is a seat of spiritual power and covering the crown Chakra protects it and causes the kundalini energy to rise up the spine.”
Gavi A., a convert to Judaism, explains why she’s covered her hair on-and-off for the past 10 years even though she isn’t yet married. “[T]he justification has sort of changed as I've found myself spiritually, but the overarching reason has always been because I've felt it's a sort of international symbol of religious piety.”
Some women are motivated to cover their hair by factors other than religious or spiritual expression. Mary C. from Chicago suffers, “from male pattern balding. At this point, my natural hair style resembles Ben Franklin on an American $100 bill—almost completely bald on top, but long and flow-y on the sides and back.” Covering her remaining hair for cosmetic reasons has had unexpected benefits. “[E]ven if my doctor came up with a cure, I think I would continue to cover…. I am more confident in being me, if that makes sense, in a way I never was before, even when I had tons of hair. I even think I smile more and engage more with the word around me.”
Jessica P. from Virginia was also motivated by a different kind of hair quandary. “It started out for fashion...I have loads of long, kinky, curly hair and used to spend at least 30 minutes a day just combing out all of the tangles and dreadlocks...Also I love the variations and colors that go along with covering... Anyhow after I had been covering a couple of months I started to feel different...now honestly I can say I cover to preserve ‘something’ for just myself and my boyfriend. He is African American and is very supportive of my decision to cover...most likely because it was not a cultural stretch for him. So now he is the only other person who sees my hair. I told him that this is a physical manifestation of my commitment to him and our relationship.”
Regina S., a Canadian woman who struggled with depression, found renewed health and healing in the practice. “[W]rapping my hair gave me a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning, and helped me feel stronger, more grown-up, more beautiful, and more confident. I am a tribal style bellydancer [and] the traditional costuming for this style incorporates turbans; wrapping my hair allowed me to bring a little bit of my dance life into my mundane life. I also found I feel a connection with generations of women throughout history, who would have wrapped or covered their hair as a matter of course, whether for fashion, religion, or pure practicality. [T]here are belief systems that dictate women cover their hair to safekeep their marriages, or for modesty, or to display their submission to their husbands. I don't cover for these reasons and I have actually found covering has had the opposite effect for me. I find it empowering. I feel stronger and more independent covering my hair. Perhaps it's partly because, particularly when I was a teen/younger adult, my hair garnered a LOT of attention, and while I have always had a certain amount of pride in my hair, it's nice to show it or not show it on MY terms.”
Outside the Orthodox Jewish community, most non-Muslim women who cover their hair with scarves are the only women they know who do so. Social media provides these women with an avenue for discussing their hair covering practices, making them feel less isolated. With such a wide span of motivations, life experiences and religious commitments, it would be understandable if these groups devolved into a series of heated debates accompanied by the spewing of nasty name-calling.
Astonishingly, they don’t.
Perlman and Grinberg of Wrapunzel reflect on what's Jewish about welcoming non-Jewish women into the Sisterhood of the Covered Head: "Our goal in starting this business was to be supportive of women who want to cover their hair. Both of us had blogs and YouTube videos with tutorials and our most frequently asked question was WHERE do I get those tichels? From those conversations, we knew that our crowd was diverse. It amazed and delighted us how women all over the world from every religion and those not religious felt connected to hair covering. It also gave us tremendous pleasure to be able to make women who suffer from hair loss or who are going through chemo, feel beautiful. Managing the philisophcal differences in the Wrapunzel online community is natural to how we look at Judaism. Our role is to be a Light and to see (and help others see) that we are all children of one Creator who loves us infinitely and unconditionally. Our conversations are not political and they are spiritual. At the root of it, we're all connected."
Becky H, a Christian woman from Texas who covers, “as a sign of submission to [my] husband, as a sign of being married, as a sign of submission to God,” offers a glimpse into the rare quality of coexistence that prevails in these groups. “[W]ith picture-based social media like Instagram and Facebook, I have been so inspired! Seeing the ‘Tichel of the day’ and beautiful, bright women of all ages and religions covering with pride and dignity has been so encouraging. I love to see how other women are wrapping, what colors look best mixed together, the style that women have poured into their wraps, I can't tell you how it moves me and challenges me to keep trying new things. I also love the spiritual insights women will share, what it means to them, how they have grown, etc. Since no one else in my congregation covers being able to connect with women through social media reminds me I'm not all alone, that women all over are covering. Knowing there is this sisterhood, is sometimes what keeps me going.”
Pictured: Rivka Malka (left) and Andrea (right) of Wrapunzel.