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Headscarves minus the politics

In recent years women wearing headscarves have become the subject of heated discussions, but headscarves have always existed in Holland. A new exhibition unravels the mystery and removes the fuss.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 30-10-2008

Away from the more glamorous halls and galleries hosting events during Dutch Design Week was a grim waiting room in the Eindhoven city office where citizens come to arrange birth registrations and passports.

Today, like most days, the room is packed with mostly Turkish and Moroccan women wearing headscarves and looking anxious. The only difference is a video installation hanging high above their heads.

Running, are old grainy videos of women gossiping in village squares, attending church, mourning and riding their bicycles. Overlaid and spliced into the footage are more modern images of Muslim women doing much the same thing. A nun crosses paths with a mother. A teenager in a full black scarf stands silently watching a group of older women shopping for vegetables. The unifying theme, whether the footage be from now or from fifty years ago, is the headscarf.

The exhibition is called “Ontmoeting” (Dutch for “meeting”) and is curated by Marloes Hoogenstraaten and Ingrid van Zummeren for Dutch Design Week. “Ontmoeting” is about the past meeting the present, women meeting friends and different cultures meeting one another. The purpose, is to trace the history of the headscarf in Brabant, the province where Eindhoven is located, from 1910 to the present.

“Headscarves have always existed even in Brabant,” says Marloes Hoogenstraaten. “Political discussions about the garment are only a recent thing.”

Hoogenstraaten and Van Zummeren call their material interaction design and are adamant that it poses no judgment and avoids all debate. “That’s not the point,” says Hoogenstraaten. “We don’t want to say whether it’s right or wrong to wear a scarf, but just that head coverings have always been around. It’s our past and it’s our present.”

Running alongside the video installation is a second exhibition showcasing the history of the headscarf in Brabant. Century-old lace bonnets sit alongside iconic pieces by Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen who designs head coverings for modern Muslim women for Capsters.

By artificially stripping the headscarf of its political symbolism, “Ontmoeting” forces the public to let go of prejudice and opinion so they can at least recognize that minus the divisive debate, a scarf can just simply be a scarf. And headscarves have always been popular throughout Holland for their practicality, their modesty and even as a way to identify with a group.

“It was around the 50s and 60s when Turkish and Moroccan women started to immigrate into Holland that Dutch women stopped wearing headscarves,” says Hoogenstraaten. “They didn't want to look like immigrants. From then on it became more about identity.”

Meanwhile, debate inside Europe about headscarves continues. France was the first country to assert its secularism in 2004 by banning headscarves and other religious icons in primary and secondary schools. Some regions of Germany have followed while the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain have so far opted to leave the issue up to individual schools to decide on.

"Ontmoeting" will tour the Netherlands from next month.

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