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The White Headscarf

December 5th, 2022

By Fateme Nekounam

Photograph by Elena Dressler

Street Art by Valé Stenci

I got chickenpox one spring holiday. I got it from a little girl whose negligent parents did not think twice before taking their child with a highly contagious disease to a big family gathering. Now, after all these years, I wonder how they survived the Coronavirus pandemic. Do they wash their hands and put on a mask? Or maybe they are already dead. I have to ask my mother.


I got it when I was seven. It was a big year for me. My sister had already begun school one year before me. That one year lost my best friend. She had now entered an entirely new world I was not allowed in. She had new friends, a blue uniform, a clean white headscarf, many books, and above all, the magical ability to read. My sister was already a grown-up, and I impatiently wanted that. In particular, I longed to wear that white headscarf. ‘That’s the sign of being a woman’, I thought, and I yearned to be a woman as soon as possible.


I remember on the long winter nights of the year my sister started school, we would stand by the three-panel glass door staring at the snow while the glass fogged up little by little. Then she would skillfully write words on the glass, telling me what each letter was called. This long, torturous year finally passed, and I was eventually allowed to enter the magical world of the blue uniform, clean white headscarf, and the alphabet. I waited impatiently the whole time my mother was sewing my headscarf on her Janome sewing machine. She would get up in the middle of working on my headscarf to check on the food or talk to a neighbour, ignoring my burning desire for the finished product.


The masterpiece was ready right before the first day of school. My heart was pumping when doing the last fitting. I put my head inside the big opening. The world went dark, just like when you put on a T-shirt, with the difference that this one stayed on your head the whole time. ‘So I have to do it every day’, I realised: going through a tunnel of invisibility and darkness before going to school to learn the alphabet and to be a grown-up. The excitement of wearing it lasted only a week and was soon replaced with frustration and an itchy sensation behind the ears where the rubber band was.


Our headscarves were white, nothing like the ones our teacher used to wear. It was stiff cotton that wrinkled easily. Two patches were sewn to carefully cover the chin and forehead. Because we were too young to keep the headscarf in place all the time, our mothers sewed a piece of a white rubber band that went around the head to keep it in place. 


Our teacher was a tall, beautiful woman with a deep, sweet voice. She used to wear an oversized overcoat with huge shoulder pads, which were in fashion. It was sometimes greyish blue and sometimes khaki brown. Her headscarf was crêpe Georgette, elegant, neat, with no wrinkles, and always matching her overcoat in colour. But even the mandatory headscarf could not hide her beauty, since the carefully chosen material draped well, outlining the form of her hair. She would always put her gorgeous hair with blond highlights in an up-do and leave the front part uncovered. 


In her class, we were allowed to take off our headscarves whenever we wanted, enjoying the cool breeze of the noisy air-conditioner through the back of our sweaty ears. Most of the time, we would not take off our scarves completely because we were too shy to uncover the hair that got untidy during the day. So we would just take the lower part and pull it up and back, letting the rubber band keep the rest in place. It was a funny fashion trending among elementary students. She would also sometimes take hers off, turning what we always imagined about her hair into reality, making the alphabet lessons the sweetest moments of our lives. 


Once, one of my classmates peed in the classroom during an alphabet lesson. It was so sudden and embarrassing that we had no time to react. We didn’t make fun of her, maybe because we knew it could easily have been one of us. We just looked at her with eyes wide open, and then waited for our teacher’s reaction. She responded by sending for the janitor and soothing the girl while we waited. Then we had to evacuate the classroom until the urination traces were gone.


The pee incident was an ominous sign. Things changed quickly after that. At first, it was difficult to see the growth of our teacher’s belly through her oversized overcoat. But finally, it was big enough that we all knew she had to go and take care of it. The new teacher was nothing like her. She was short, always wore black, her wrinkled headscarf serving the ultimate purpose of not showing even one string of her hair. Whenever she was talking, we would stare at the thick black hair growing above her upper lip instead of looking at her eyes. Now the alphabets were no longer sweet, golden and soft; they were harsh and black.


I remember having a sore throat during the session we learned the letter kh [خ]. It is a pharyngeal consonant produced by constricting the throat. So it was not the best day for me to learn this letter. After the devastating day of unsuccessful attempts to be a good student, I ran home, crying. In a couple of days, little rashes started to show up, first on my face and then all over my body. The little girl and her careless parents could laugh triumphantly now. I had to stay home from school. So, my friend Rokhsareh, who funnily enough had the consonant kh in her name, took the responsibility to pay me a visit every evening and impart the knowledge the class had learned during the day. “Fateme Nikouna, Fateme Nikouna”, she kept mispronouncing my last name repeatedly from outside until I showed up in the yard. She would stand at a distance and patiently talk to me about what happened in school.


In the next coming years, we were no longer allowed to take off our scarves. After days of intense heat, they were no longer neat and white. Yellow traces of sweat were all around the chin and forehead area. The rubber band was getting tighter. Rokhsareh’s family moved out, and she never paid me a visit ever again. I was left alone with scar marks on my face from chickenpox and a new female identity, I didn’t want any more.

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