Just four years ago, Monica Almeida, 34, an Afro-Brazilian woman living in Rio de Janeiro, didn’t identify as a black woman.
“When I was an adolescent, I believed in the myth of the mulata (mixed-raced woman). It wasn’t until I was 30 years old and I had already experienced so much racism, read tons of books and looked at myself within, that I finally recognized myself as a black woman,” said Almeida, who is a hairstylist.
And Almeida wanted to communicate her identity to the world.
“When I started to see myself as a black woman, I started looking for aesthetic elements that helped me to form this identity,” she said.
She discovered turbantes, “head wraps” in Portuguese, and for the last few years she has been wearing turbantes to complement her hair and ethnicity.
In Brazil, wearing head wraps is an expression of Afro-Brazilian culture, history and religion. Enslaved Africans brought the tradition from their homelands, and enslaved Afro-Brazilian women continued the tradition by using turbantes during their religious practices or simply to protect their hair. Today, young Afro-Brazilian women are embracing turbantes as an opportunity to assert their blackness in a country where white supremacy rules.
Thaís Muniz, a native of Salvador, Brazil, teaches Afro-Brazilian women how to wear turbantes through her company and brand Turbante.se, which means to “head wrap yourself.” But her lessons aren’t limited to the aesthetics of head wraps. She also focuses on the unique history and politics of head wraps in Brazil, a country where more than 50 percent of the population identifies as black.
“When I first started researching head wraps years ago, I couldn’t find anything on the internet about Afro-Brazilian women,” said Muniz, who is based in Dublin but is from Salvador, Brazil.
“Right now, young black women in Brazil aren’t wearing turbantes for religious purposes or just aesthetic purposes,” Muniz said at a recent workshop in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s an act of resistance. It’s a new symbol that we have created of our roots.”
The use of turbantes by Afro-Brazilian women goes back to the era of slavery. According to Muniz, the Yoruba people from what is now modern-day Nigeria and Benin were some of the last Africans to be brought to Brazil. Their Yoruba religion led to the creation of the Afro-Brazilians’ Candomblé religion, in which women and men wear turbantes on their heads as a form of protection.
Outside of religion, while white women often wore jeweled hats, enslaved black women all over Brazil wore turbantes to carry heavy baskets on their heads and cover their short hair or shaved heads. Eventually, their use as a fashion accessory in the public declined—black women only wore them while cleaning. The turbante became identified with Baianas de Acarajae, women in Salvador who sell acarajae and sweets on the streets, wearing the clothes they would wear to a Candomblé ceremony—a white robe and turbante and, sometimes, jewelry. Carmen Miranda, a white Brazilian woman of Portuguese origins, popularized the style of these black women in the 1940s with the song “O que é que tem a Baiana tem” (“What Does the Baiana Have?”).
“People look at me and say that I look like Carmen Miranda, which is insulting,” Muniz said. “Why would someone look at a black woman and associate her with a white woman who romanticized the situation of black women who were enslaved, exploited and sexually abused?”
The contemporary valorization of turbantes as a political statement has its roots in Salvador, the blackest city in Brazil. In the ’70s, Salvador’s Ilê Aiyê carnival group took the turbante in a direction Brazilians had never seen before: The Afro Bloco, created in response to the exclusion of blacks in Salvador’s carnival, combined black pride with fashion, with the turbante as the centerpiece.
Dete Lima, one of the female founders of the Ilê Aiyê group, created the signature look of Ilê Aiyê and continues to work as a stylist for the group. As she told a Brazilian newspaper (translated from Portuguese):
I learned when I was a child to be conscious that I am black and I have to do my part as a militant and uplift my people, my roots and everything related to my history. We are black and we are beautiful ...
Her contemporary Negra Jhô was one of the first black women to wear turbantes in the streets of Salvador back in the ’70s. From there, she started teaching people how to create elaborate turbantes and hairstyles using braids. Negra Jhô’s beauty salon in the center of Salvador is an aesthetic reference for Afro-Brazilian women across the country.
Afro-Brazilian women aren’t the only ones embracing turbantes. Their white Brazilian counterparts are, too—and it’s not being received well. In the last few years, Brazilian media and fashion have taken to featuring white women in turbantes, diluting the political statement in favor of a fashion statement. Last year, a white cancer survivor admitted on Facebook that she was being criticized by black women for wearing turbantes. The post was shared more than 38,000 times and sparked the hashtag #VaiTerBrancaDeTurbanteSim, which translates to, “Yes, white people will wear head wraps.”
For Afro-Brazilian women, this is a form of cultural appropriation. When black women wear turbantes, they are often discriminated against in stores, on the streets, even at university. Shortly after the #VaiTerBrancaDeTurbanteSim hashtag took off, Dandara Tonantzin Castro suffered harassment from several men when she wore her turbante at a university graduation. In a Facebook post titled “Our Presence Makes Them Uncomfortable,” Castro described how a young man pulled at her turbante.
For Thais Muniz, rather than restrict white people from wearing turbantes, it’s more important that people understand the history and meaning of turbantes for Afro-Brazilians. But as she told The Glow Up, she understands the discrepancy in the respect that white women receive when they wear turbantes: “Whenever you have a white body dressed in a turbante alongside a black body, the white person will always be the one valued more.”