Vienna's Ethnology Museum: "Veiled, Unveiled! The Headscarf"

Headscarves usually make headlines when they are banned in some European country. An exhibition at Vienna's Ethnology Museum shows that there are more than two sides to a piece of cloth.

Many Muslim women wear them every day, Britain's Queen Elizabeth wears them at outdoor events and they are still part of traditional dress in various European countries. Headscarves are more common than the heated debates over veil bans that are in place in countries such as Austria, France and Belgium suggest, according to the "Veiled, Unveiled! The Headscarf" exhibition that opened this week at the Ethnology Museum in Vienna.

"Every time someone utters the word headscarf, we immediately enter some sort of battle zone because it is so closely associated with Islam," said Axel Steinmann, curator at the Ethnology Museum. "Here in Europe, the headscarf has a 2,000-year history and is closely tied to Christianity," he added.

Images of the veiled Virgin Mary and of Christian nuns highlight this connection in the exhibition. European souvenir dolls in traditional costumes show that covered heads are not only associated with religious modesty, but also with notions of local identity.

On Austrian tourism posters from the 1950s, bronzed women wear local dirndl dresses or bathing suits, along with scarves that are loosely tied around the head or knotted beneath the chin. Another such poster, from the late 1970s, shows a girl at an Alpine hut wearing a sort of bandanna – headgear that is still popular with hikers of various ages and social classes.

However, the museum does not hide the fact that the exhibition was triggered by the debate about women with roots in Muslim countries and about what they should or should not be wearing.

In 2017, Austrian cosmetics chain Bipa launched an advertisement campaign that included young woman wearing a Muslim hijab. The retail's social media channels soon registered masses of negative reactions. When Ethnology Museum director Christian Schicklgruber defended the ad in an interview, he faced accusations of supporting the suppression of women.

"In all societies, many factors go into the decision whether to wear or not to wear this piece of cloth," he explained this week. "This includes religious beliefs, cultural traditions and most importantly, the expression of individuality," he said.

Austria's right-wing government has drafted a bill that would ban headscarves for girls attending day care centres and elementary schools, in addition to the ban on full-face veils that came into effect one year ago. The government argues that the new measure would protect girls' freedom and prevent the spread of political Islam.

Without providing an answer, the exhibition poses the question whether scarves oppress women, whether women wear them to make statements about themselves, or whether it protects against the male gaze. The museum curators tried to defuse the debate by presenting various scarves in the most neutral way possible – pinning them to the walls as square or rectangular pieces of cloth, rather than wrapping them round mannequin heads.

They also chose to show laughing, playing and posing women who do not look oppressed, but self-confident.

A healthy dose of confidence is also on display in the photos of men wearing various turbans and other types of textile headdresses, from Algeria to Bosnia and from the Caucasus region to the island of Java.

Despite the museum's focus on traditional customs and cultures, the exhibition also draws attention to the "modest dress" fashion trend towards lower hemlines and less revealing cuts that has reached mass retail chains such as H&M and Uniqlo.    (dpa)

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