The subject of women covering their hair is one of fascination in the western world. From burqa bans to sheitel shaming, women who cover are often viewed as victims of patriarchy or religious extremists, getting it from all sides.
Wrapunzel is a Facebook group, a business and a community devoted to “celebrat[ing] the art of head wrapping.” The Facebook group has Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women, and it’s awash in colorful photos of women wrapping their hair in scarves. There is a corresponding business that sells scarves and hair-covering paraphernalia. But mostly, it’s a community where women can come together and celebrate something the rest of the world doesn’t quite understand.
It was started in 2012 by Andrea Grinberg, an Orthodox Jewish woman who started covering her hair when she got married, as per Jewish law.
Growing up what she calls “Jew-ish” in Canada, Grinberg was the fiercely independent atheist of the family. But during her 20s, after becoming an accomplished cellist, Grinberg recognized the similarities between Judaism and her own personal beliefs. She became observant and committed to showing Judaism through a different lens than the one she’d been exposed to growing up.
Covering her hair through wrapping was part and parcel of that mission.
“Somehow, wrapping my hair with a head scarf felt really right to me,” she told me.
Though previously a one-time hair model who people often referred to as “the blond cellist,” it was only after she began head wrapping that Grinberg started to appreciate her appearance.
“This is attention that I merited, that I’m really proud of,” she explained.
Still, it wasn’t easy. When she moved to Chicago with her husband, she was told that devout Jewish women in America generally wore wigs, not scarves.
“There weren’t the resources out there to wrap with the head scarves,” said Grinberg. “It’s definitely an art. For someone starting off, it’s much harder than tying your shoes. Plus, you start it the day after you’re married when you’re totally exhausted!”
Insulated and unable to work without a visa, Grinberg began posting YouTube tutorials and keeping up a blog, “Wrapunzel,” on every angle of head wrapping. Two years after she began blogging, Grinberg expanded Wrapunzel into an online business that sells scarves, and the community banded together to form a Wrapunzel fan group on Facebook.
Originally intended for Jewish audiences, Wrapunzel took off in ways Grinberg never would have guessed. Women from all religions and regions of the world started following Wrapunzel, including Muslims, Christians, Pagans and Atheists. Grinberg estimates that only a third of the Wrapunzel community now is Jewish.
“The women in this group, we’re not supposed to be talking according to the politicians. We’re certainly not supposed to be friends,” said Grinberg. “But through head wrapping, we have common ground.”
Moderators are strict about keeping the online discussion apolitical and focused on wrapping. Members don’t identify each other by a certain race or religion, but as “queens” sharing the latest ideas for their tichels, or “crowns.”
Still, Grinberg recognizes that for some, head-wrapping has negative realities. “I made this choice from a place of emancipation and liberation,” she says. “I understand there are people out there who are covering their heads who are not coming from a happy and healthy place,” she said. “I do not try to be politically involved. I want to offer choices to women. I am not going to tell a woman what to do.”
The Facebook group is not only about wrapping. The Wrapunzel fan group provides a place for broken hearts and lonely souls to feel connected and empowered through their head wrapping. Whether they’re wrapping for religious, health, or feminist reasons, thousands of women transcend apparent differences over this common interest.
Rivka Spicer, for example, began head wrapping after she came out of a long, abusive relationship. “Wrapping is such a powerful statement for me about my bodily autonomy and who has the right to decide who sees what of my body,” says Spicer, who is not religious. Previously known for her beautiful hair, “I choose to dictate those terms now,” she said. When she first began head wrapping in a village in the Scottish Highlands, Spicer often received glaring looks from people. “Some liked it, but there were several rude comments, including one guy who joked about searching me for a bomb,” she said.
“Getting involved with the Wrapunzel community changed my life,” says Spicer. “Women from all walks of life, all colors, all faiths, all creeds, just lifting each other up. It became a huge part of my day to log in and like and comment on pictures, to tell women how beautiful and strong and special they are,” she says.
Spicer never thought she’d find refuge in a group of like-minded headwrappers. “I’d always (mistakenly) assumed that many women saw it as a chore, something that’s mandated by their faith or their menfolk,” she said. “It was quite eye-opening to realize that actually it was their choice, that modesty as a concept is a form of freedom rather than oppression.”
Another Wrapunzelista, college student Michelle Hodges, found relief from a previous assault experience in high school through wrapping. The assault made her feel “worthless” and lead to anorexia and an array of emotional disorders.
“My soul demanded to be expressed by a scarf, and I finally figured out why,” she told me. “I was once powerless and ashamed. Today, I’m powerful, forgiven and fabulous. My scarf says this: I am valued, and I value myself. I have thought about my femininity. I do not need your attention, and I will not compromise my boundaries to win your affection. I was once victimized, violated, but today I am valued, and I cover my head with art.”
Hodges grew up in a devout Baptist family that led her to believe Jews were “stiff-necked, unbelieving people” and that “there were white people, black people, and Mexican people. Period.” But now, her support system includes Wrapunzelistas from those backgrounds she never knew of — including Muslims.
Through Wrapunzel, she met Lexi Noor, a kindred spirit. Growing up in Indiana to an atheist family, Lexi converted to Islam when she was 16 years old after she independently found that many of the religion’s ideas about God coincided with her own. But her family disapproved, compelling her to wait until her first day of college to begin wearing the hijab.
“I had mixed feelings that day — the joy of becoming my own person, the joy of finally being able to identity as my faith,” said Noor, “but also I was somewhat afraid of the reaction I would get from fellow classmates.”
Though she’s started to forge connections on campus, Wrapunzel has been invaluable for Noor in coping with this new lifestyle and the alienation that sometimes comes with it. She connected with Hodges, and they began discussing the shared travails of covering in the dorms and on campus. “Really, what separates me from her is the fact that she’s a Muslim and I’m a Christian — that she knots her scarf in front, while I knot my scarf in back,” said Hodges.
No matter where they’re coming from, Wrapunzelistas describe a sense of agency and connection they’ve never felt.
“My entire life has been one roadblock after another, but wrapping has somehow given me an inner strength I didn’t know I possessed,” said Mary McKinstry-Whiteside, a middle-aged black Christian who previously survived a relationship ridden with stab wounds.
“These are some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen,” McKinstry-Whiteside said. “And through the Wrapunzel fan group, I, too, feel a part of a sisterhood. We are jewels. Precious, strong, yet gentle and full of love.”
Steven Davidson is an editorial fellow at the Forward.
This story “Wrapunzel: A Feminist Reclamation Of Headwrapping” was written by Steven Davidson.