In Ramallah and in Bnei Brak, Big Hair's Back Among Observant Women

Devout Jewish and Muslim fashionistas seem to have remarkably similar tastes when it comes to new trends in headwear.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Orthodox Jews call it a bubu. Religious Muslims call it a puff. Both are based on the same idea: stuffing something other than a woman’s real hair under her headscarf to create the illusion of long flowing tresses beneath.

The Jewish version, the bubu, is a sponge-like accessory, usually the size of a baseball, that’s either clipped directly onto the hair or in some instances, inserted into a pocket inside the headscarf created especially for this purpose. The Muslim version, the puff, is a floral hair clip that comes in various sizes and colors and attaches directly to the hair.

In both cases, though, the attachment forms a huge hump on the head, suggesting lots and lots of hair, and causing the headscarf wrapped around it to protrude from the back of the skull at a 90-degree angle.

Once upon a time, it was rather simple to tell observant Jewish and Muslim women apart – despite the hair coverings that are standard garb for both groups and dictated by religious rules of modesty. The Jewish women tended to tie their scarves behind the head and were partial to solid colors, though not necessarily black or white. The Muslim women, on the other hand, used their hijabs to cover the entire front of the neck as well, and more often than not, restricted themselves to either black or white.

An ironic development

But that’s no longer the case. Out-of-towners visiting the modesty fashion centers that dot both sides of the pre-1967 Green Line can’t help but be struck these days by the fact that - as distant as they may be culturally, religiously and politically - fashion-conscious women strolling the streets of Ramallah and Bnei Brak have remarkably similar tastes when it comes to new trends in headwear.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but the drab colors that once defined hair coverings for both Jewish and Muslim women are gone, having been replaced by bright-colored patterns, often decorated with fringes, beads and other eye-catching ornaments. Somewhat ironically, these headscarves, whose original purpose was to deflect attention from the female head, have through their volumizing effect and bold designs become the centerpiece of many outfits worn today by both observant Jewish and Muslim women. Headscarves have become the one piece of attire that often sets the tone for all the rest.

Headscarf trends in Ramallah

Numa Yaqub, the proprietor of a toy store in downtown Ramallah, says he finds the contemporary style alluring, and even offers an explanation as to why it hasn’t yet caught on among Israeli Arabs. “In Jaffa, the Arabs need to differentiate themselves from the Jews,” he says. “Here in Ramallah, they don’t, because they live among themselves.”

A customer in the store, who identifies herself as Zahara, wears a white sweater, snug blue jeans, and a headscarf decorated in bold hot-pink, sky-blue, and black-and-white patterns that draw out the solid colors in the rest of her attire – a look quite popular outside on the street as well. “My face is thin, so it makes me look fuller,” she says, explaining her preference for the puffed look.

From black-and-white to leopard prints

The selection is enormous, judging from random stops at big and small shops in downtown Ramallah that cater to female clientele. Not by chance, the once-standard black-and-white hijabs are rarely seen on the streets anymore, except on the heads of much older women. As Yaqub puts it: “If you see a young woman with a black or white hijab and no puff underneath, you know she’s not from here.”

Checks, polka dots, leopard-skin prints, wild geometric shapes and softer paisley patterns are among the dozens of different designs visible on headscarves decorating the heads of young, fashion-conscious Muslim women, their colors spanning the spectrum of soft pastels to fluorescent orange and lime. When not wrapped around the head, covering the oversize bun created by the puff, the scarves are prominently displayed hanging outside storefronts or folded neatly in huge piles inside.

Jehed Jada, who owns a headscarf shop near the main downtown square, says most of the women popularizing the new fashion are between 16 and 35 years old. “It’s something that’s become extremely trendy in the past few years,” he says.

Not all are thrilled with the look and what it suggests. In an article titled “Clerics Split Hairs Over Latest Hijab Fashion,” the U.K.-based online fashion site Hijab Style recently reported that the more flamboyant look, also known as the Abu-Nafkha-style hijab, was enraging some prominent Muslim clerics, one famously describing it as “the leaning humps of female camels” and damning those who followed the trend to a bitter fate.

The ‘it’ style

Jewish women sporting a similar look have been spared such attacks. “There’s nothing wrong with a Jewish woman looking beautiful and caring about how she looks,” says ultra-Orthodox stylist and fashion designer Miri Beilin. “If the point is to create the illusion of lots of hair, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

The concept, she says, has recently carried over to the world of wigs, typically worn by the very ultra-Orthodox, “where the ‘big hair’ look of the 1980s is back in style again.”

And what’s the attraction? “Lots of thick hair,” explains Beilin, “is a sign of a healthy woman, and women want to look healthy.”

A recent visit to the biannual fashion fair for modesty-conscious Jewish women, held just outside the ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Brak, would seem to confirm that. There, the designers displaying and selling haute couture hair wraps were clearly drawing the largest crowds.

So call it big hair, Abu-Nafkha, bubu or puff. Whatever the case may be, for modesty-conscious women with a sense of flair – Jewish and Muslim alike – it’s indisputably the modern-day “it” style.

A shop for headscarves in Ramallah.Credit: Michal Fattal

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