Hair vs hijab: Black British Muslim women and afro style

Black hijabi
10 min read
22 October, 2021
The connection between hair and identity has been an important personal expression for Black women and Black culture, but in the era of embracing natural hair, how has the relationship been for Black Muslimahs who wear the hijab?

One sunny Tuesday afternoon, about a year after moving to the UK, I questioned the nature of my hair for the first time. I had washed my hair the day before and threaded it for a heatless stretch. When I tried to put my headscarf on, it refused to sit right, and the shape was amoebic.

After several trials, I just sat in front of my mirror and broke into tears. I realised that growing up in a majority Black environment, with unlimited access to hairdressers that catered to my hair under the hijab, shielded me from the reality of many Black British Muslim hijabis.

This breakdown led to my epiphany, and in hopes to help not just myself but others in a similar situation, I spoke to eight Black British women about their relationships with their hair, their journey thus far, and their advice to other Black Muslim women who may be struggling with their hair. 

Fatimah (3c/4a hair)

My relationship with my hair will always remind me of my mother because she taught us to take pride in it, even under the hijab. She would brush my hair every day until I left home to study. Afterwards, it was tough finding the energy to take good care of my hair, partly because oils would stain my scarves, and when I tried new protective styles, my hijab would look funny.

Sometimes, I would tie it in a bun and leave it knotted because it was too demanding. My hair got dry, and the ends would frizz up due to the harshness of hijab materials. A few years ago, I had to chop off so much hair because of the damage. 

"My practical advice to other hijabis is to document their hair journey and get used to seeing yourself outside your hijab. I say this because I’ve noticed that when Muslim women talk about beauty and adornment – all those things thought to be a dichotomy between looking good and being a good Muslimah"

I have recently started taking better care of my hair. I purchased some silk-lined under-caps and book a regular treatment at hair salons. Doing these have renewed my pride in my hair as it still looks great when I get home (because the silk lining stops my hair frizzing), and since I pay good money for the treatment, I try to maintain the care at home too. I would recommend that other hijabis get those silk-lined under-caps and also find Black-owned salons that cater to Muslim women and respect that you can choose to cover your hair while taking good care of it.

Samia (4c type)

In the first few years after I went natural, I was frustrated because my hair wasn’t growing. I was doing everything right but naturally, my main focus was the length, with little regard for health. Once I recognised this feeling, I stripped many things from my haircare routine and became very product minimal.

Still, I would get tired of putting my hair in protective styles. Whenever I took out my braids, the dilemma of another protective styling would settle on me like morning dew. I couldn’t leave my hair out because it would shrink and get bumpy under my hijab, so I settled on the idea of locs.

My favourite part of this journey is letting my hair do what it wants and enjoying the process, without worrying about length. It was nice being at home during the lockdown as I didn’t wear the hijab and familiarised myself with my hair. I was so excited that I documented the whole journey. 

Figures like Halima Aden, the first Hijab-wearing supermodel, have brought Hijabi style into the mainstream eye [Getty Images]
Figures like Halima Aden, the first hijab-wearing supermodel,
have brought hijabi style into the mainstream eye [Getty]

So, my practical advice to other hijabis is to document their hair journey and get used to seeing yourself outside your hijab. I say this because I’ve noticed that when Muslim women talk about beauty and adornment – all those things thought to be a dichotomy between looking good and being a good Muslimah – we often neglect doing them for ourselves.

We seem to refer to beauty and self-adornment along with marriage (for example, ‘I will get my hair dyed when I get married) when we should look after our bodies and hairs for ourselves. Also, for protection under the hijabs, I usually use a silk bandana then wrap a pair of black tights around it. The silk protects my hair, and the tights prevent the silk from moving around.

Ibtisaam (4a/4b type)

My relationship with my hair and hijab is a love-hate type. I felt somewhat disconnected from my Blackness after I started wearing the hijab because I couldn’t show the part of my identity that I thought was the biggest. To take care of my hair, I braid and hydrate it a lot. This is why the discourse around braids being haram was a hard pill for me to swallow because braids are a huge part of Black hair culture.

So, for me it felt like being Black and Muslim was hard. Another thing I struggled with, especially since I face racism, was the fact that I wanted a cheat day (like in with dieting) when I could let out my Afro and be “Black enough”. This internal fight lasted until I realised that I could be both Black and Muslim.

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Alhamdulillah, I do think that my hair length makes it easier to care for my hair, as my parents had ensured that I grew out my hair from my childhood. I felt conflicted when I learnt that extensions were haram because people use the word ‘haram’ easily and I’ve heard many contradicting opinions that I don’t know which to follow – I also feel that saying extensions are haram is lowkey anti-Black. Still, when I use extensions, it’s usually about 5cm longer than my hair.

The advice I would give is that you should open yourself up to that love-hate relationship because you’re not less Black for not showing your hair. Also, let your hair breathe. Don’t wash it too often, even during ghusl because you can just massage your scalp with water rather than soaking your whole head.

Memunatu (4a/ 4b type)

I would describe my relationship with my hair as a mother-child one. I love looking after it, but it is a lot of hard work and nurturing – much like parenting. I wore the hijab from age 11 and it was straightforward at the time because I didn’t care about the way my hair made the hijab look, as long as it was in a protective style. But as I got older and went natural, I started thinking about the nature of my hair under the hijab. I experienced things like oil stains on my hijabs so caring for my natural hair became difficult.

Now, I wear a silk scarf under my hijab to protect my hair and prevent oil stains. It is easy to neglect our hair since we have the hijab to cover it up so my tip to other Black Muslim women is to be intentional and invest time and money to build a healthy routine. Just because we are Hijabis doesn’t mean we don’t look after our hair because I know I spend a lot of time and money looking after my hair. 

I felt somewhat disconnected from my Blackness after I started wearing the hijab because I couldn’t show the part of my identity that I thought was the biggest

I still get the urge to cut it off especially when I consider that the way I want my hijab to look heavily affects how I style my hair. I style my hair in puffs because it is the least textured style that makes my hijab look flat and normal. I don’t get braids or cornrows unless I have to stay indoors. Being a Black woman and a Hijabi is a complex space to exist because Black hair is expressive, and we sometimes experience a removal from the communal relationship formed in hairdressers’ shops. However, I think we still do the same things we’d have done in the absence of the hijab.”

Rasheedah (4c type)

My relationship with my hair under my hijab is fine, I guess. When I first wore the hijab, I did struggle a bit because it was difficult to manage but I’ve been a Hijabi for over five years, so I’ve found a rhythm that works for me. I also experience dandruff so I do wash and moisturise my hair as regularly as I can. For styling, I’m usually in mini braids and although it is time-consuming, it offers the flexibility and affordability that locs don’t. I also get my cousins and aunt to help out when I’m styling. 

My tip to struggling hijabis is to find what works for your hair in the context of schedule and budget and settle into a regime. This will make the whole process easier and you won’t even have to think about it.

In our interconnected age, more Muslim women are finding out about how other cultures to maintain a healthy hair routine under their hijab [Getty Images]
In our interconnected age, more Muslim women are finding out about how other cultures
maintain a healthy hair routine under their hijab [Getty]

Faridah (4b/4c type)

I was always told that my hair was tough and coarse, so I didn’t particularly like it. Wearing the hijab also contributed to the neglect of my hair because no one outside my family saw it anyway. However, just before the first lockdown, I got some Cantu products and became obsessed with caring for my hair. In that way, the lockdown was a blessing for me because I rarely wore the hijab and maintained a steady haircare routine.

Now, I’m more knowledgeable and I've grown to love my hair, alhamdulillah. As a Black hijabi, I have to be intentional about my protective styles because I don’t want a crazy style under my hijab. 

My tip for maintaining a good relationship with your hair while wearing the hijab is to let your hair breathe often. Dedicate a day where you stay indoors and don’t wear the hijab at all! I also recommend a satin/silk lining to protect your hair from rubbing against the fabrics of your hijab.

Aafiyah* (4c/4d type)

I feel like I have a negative relationship with my hair. When I went natural, I wasn’t wearing the hijab, so I got into haircare a lot. But now, I have a negative relationship with it because it is arduous to manage, and I don’t have a lot of time and energy. I’ve decided to cut it all off and start again because I struggle to take better care of it, and I will admit wearing the hijab does make it easy to neglect my haircare since no one else sees it.

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Another struggle I face is finding affordable hijabi-friendly Afro hairdressers. Even now, I’ve been looking for a place to get a full cut to no avail. If I eventually cut it, I may never regrow it, but I think cutting it off and starting again may allow me to nurture a better relationship with my hair. 

Mariam (4c type)

My aim whenever I style my hair is to get a style that can be packed backwards. I found that stretching my hair does help with these styles, so I put it in single braids or twists after wash day and take them out the next day (sometimes, I blow-dry immediately after washing). To avoid damage to my edges, I regularly change the parting positions of my styles, and I never put my hair in ponytails when I’m indoors.

My advice would be to get familiar with your hair. I realised that self-styling taught me a lot about my hair so, I know my texture and what works for me. Also, not every piece of advice will work for you because our hairs are different, so you need to filter external advice and allow yourself to understand your hair through the mistakes.

(*NAME WAS CHANGED UPON REQUEST)

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha