Why Is the Khaleeji Hijab So Controversial?

By Timothy PA Cooper


The Khaleeji style hijab. Photos and styling by Abeera Arif-Bashir.

On a recent trip to London, my partner and I went to the Whitechapel district in East London to buy the component parts of the Muslim world's most controversial hijab, the khaleeji. After settling on a shop next to the East London Mosque—a shop whose website proudly displays a model wearing her hijab in the bulbous Khaleeji style—we asked the sales girl for some general headscarf advice. She walked to the back of the store and opened a box full of flower-clips—puffy, flower-shaped pom-poms designed to add volume to the back of your hijab.    

"And which of those clips would work best for the Khaleeji?" I asked.

"That's un-Islamic," the girl said, shaking her head in disgust. "Haram. We do not wear it."

They were, however, happy enough to sell what you need to wear it, hastily making out the bill for the two largest clips in the box. After we'd grabbed some thin black crepe for the headscarf, we were ready to go—but not before a pamphlet had been thrust into my partner's hand. The gist: how to be a better Muslim.

Meaning "from the Gulf," the khaleeji hijab isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Also known as the shambassa pouf, the camel hump, the big bun, the beehive hijab, and, in Arabic, "bu tafkha," the style emerged from the shopping malls of Kuwait and is characterized by a rounded bulge emerging from the back of the head, which is supposed to give the impression of a cascading mane of hair that's been neatly coiled up into a bun. Early adherents used milk cartons and yogurt cups to achieve the desired volume. Now, it's all about "bumpit" gadgets and hair donuts.

All that sounds harmless enough, right? Although it's not immediately apparent why it's something you'd want to do, elongating the back of your head with some material hardly seems like an act worthy of controversy. However, for many observant women nowadays, there is little opportunity for direct contact with a religious leader, meaning the internet—and all its misinformation—has become the primary sounding board for those hoping to find the theological answers to their sartorial questions.

Enter online imams—often offering dubious advice and misleading interpretations of scripture—who are likely to give guidance at odds with what you might hear from a learned figure at the mosque. Guidance that condemns you for wearing your hijab in the Khaleeji style. In fact, the most commonly quoted Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, as reported by the leading figures of early Islam) online that relates to the khaleeji describes a vision of hell where there are, "Women who are clothed yet naked, walking with an enticing gait, with something on their heads that looks like the humps of camels, leaning to one side."

It's the khaleeji's apparent association with hell that's given the style its stigma—the khaleeji supposedly being the hump-like shape growing from the heads of damned women.  


One of the online Khaleeji tutorial videos. 

Kuwait's female celebrities and models have largely avoided the style, seemingly not keen to promote the idea of burning in perpetual hellfire. Only online tutorial videos have put faces to the style, and the presenters of those guides are often called out in the comments or in response videos for betraying the modesty expected of them as Muslim women. It's clearly a divisive issue, testing the limits of acceptable public display for Muslim women and renewing the tensions between the cultural and religious functions of the veil.

Kuwaiti artist and musician, Fatima al Qadiri, sported the look in her 2011 work Pâté, a book exploring the aesthetic tastes of her homeland through re-enactments of vintage magazine ads. Two years earlier, al Qadiri's "Dragas" series featured bearded men wearing the Khaleeji style in the context of a number of global trends, from cybergoth to kawaii. That second project demonstrates how the hijab can be as much an expression of social identity as it is a religious expression of modesty and privacy.

Due to the diversity and breadth of the Muslim world, what is provocative in one continent is barely noticed in another. Economic affluence always allows a little leeway for trends to appear, which is perhaps why the style first became so popular in the moneyed malls of Kuwait. Malaysian Muslim singer Yuna, famous for spreading new headscarf trends, has taken the camel hump to its foregone conclusion in the now ubiquitous African-wrap hijab style. But in more troubled environments, such as Pakistan, the camel-hump is virtually unknown, its citizens looking to the Emirate states as a model of ambition and piety, not for fashion tips.

It's all about perspective. The khaleeji hijab is a challenge to the social code. Wearing a hijab says a lot of things: it identifies the wearer as one who conforms to the rules of modesty and celibacy instructed by her faith—it's a cultural expression of a religious necessity. But it's also something that's open to interpretation in how it's worn, depending on the cultural context that it's being worn in. So perhaps, instead of the sign of disrespect and fast-track ticket to hell it is sometimes made out to be, the camel-hump style could be nothing more than a proud statement of idiosyncrasy from the Gulf states.

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