“I have worn a headscarf since I was 9 years old, so it’s effectively part of my body,” says Saba Gheni, a professor of chemical engineering at Tikrit University. Her time spent in laboratories is no exception.
Yet safety concerns for wearing a headscarf in the laboratory are not trivial. “The main problem is that they’re flammable,” and they can also get caught in machinery, says Beau Wangtrakuldee, a chemist who founded AmorSui, a company that develops and manufactures professional women’s clothing with safety in mind.
But that doesn’t mean headdresses should be excluded from the lab. Women wear head coverings around the world for cultural and religious reasons. “You have to be sensitive, because otherwise you risk pushing certain populations out of doing science,” says Brandon Chance, a chemist and director of environmental health and safety at Southern Methodist University. “The more inclusive we can be, the better for everyone.”
Little reliable data are available on the number of female scientists in Muslim-majority regions, and there are often large variations between countries and disciplines. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization estimates that in Iraq, 51% of natural science researchers and 32% of engineering and technology researchers are women. By contrast, in Oman, those numbers fall to 26% and 12% respectively.
Other experts agree with Chance that it’s critical to make sure women who wear headscarves are included in lab safety strategies. “The important part is to have an option for women who require a headdress,” says Imke Schroeder, a research project manager at the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety.
Right now, female scientists who want to wear a head covering while doing experiments must try to work with available products as safely as possible.
“It must not be long or loose, so as to not catch fire or be contaminated with hazardous material whilst in the lab,” says Jumana Saleh, a biochemistry professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. Saleh wears a hijab, which covers the hair and parts of the shoulders, but not the face. “Scarves may also be tucked into lab coats,” Saleh adds.
In some Arab countries, it’s also common for women to wear not just a headscarf but also an outer cloak-like garment called an abaya. Chance formerly worked at Texas A&M University at Qatar, where he helped to initiate the campus’s safety policies. Abayas, which are typically black and loose-fitting, were usually his biggest concern because of the potential for loose fabric to become contaminated or catch fire. “We required that a flame-retardant lab coat be worn over traditional dress like that,” Chance says.
Chance also insisted that all headscarves be secured and closely fitted against the head. He didn’t have any students who added a niqab, which covers the lower part of the face to leave only the eyes exposed, but the plan for that was to require a well-fitted mask over the niqab plus safety goggles. “Once that was done, we thought they were pretty well protected,” Chance says.
Wangtrakuldee’s quest to design safer clothing for labs comes from her experience as an organic chemist. One day she accidentally spilled a solvent on her legs, resulting in what she calls a minor skin burn. “I had my lab coat on, and I was covered from the neck down, fully compliant,” she says. “The whole experience really made me rethink how I can protect myself better and I started to look at the protective clothing we use.”
Wangtrakuldee says that lab coats are typically designed for men and so are often too big for women, meaning they’re too loose or the sleeves have to be rolled up. Women need to be better considered when it comes to personal protective equipment designs, she says.
“For Muslim women, this gap is even greater,” she says. “No one has designed a flame-retardant headdress, so that’s what we’re trying to address.”
Schroeder applauds Wangtrakuldee’s mission. “We need to make sure everyone is protecting themselves. What they wear should be flame resistant, and if they add something to their head then it shouldn’t be the regular silk or polyester because that could literally melt on their heads,” Schroeder says. “That’s not necessarily the case now, which is why I’m thankful Beau is interested to produce such a thing.”
Gheni also welcomes the idea of a safer head covering. She tries her best to make sure she wears her current scarves as safely as possible. “When I’m going into the lab, I have to take time to make sure it’s as short and as small as possible, but I would love to wear a safer one too,” says Gheni, who is also on the editorial advisory board for the journal ACS Chemical Health & Safety (ACS publishes C&EN). “I would be very happy if there was a flame-resistant version.”
Nevertheless, Gheni warns that safety isn’t the only thing that needs to be considered. The look of it matters too, she says, otherwise people probably won’t wear it.
“In my early years in industry I would wear a helmet and safety shoes and most people just laughed at me and said, ‘You’re a woman, you should wear nice shoes and a dress,’ ” Gheni says. “Many women in the Middle East will be keen for the lab-safe hijab to look no different to the normal one in case it provokes similar comments from people who want to make them feel less valued.”
Had a flame-resistant hijab been available when Chance was at Texas A&M at Qatar, he would have considered requiring women to wear it. But he echoes Gheni’s caution. “Head coverings are very individual things,” Chance says. “They come in different colors and sizes and can be styled with different accessories like brooches. These things matter for fashion-conscious students and will affect compliance.”
Saleh from Sultan Qaboos University says that getting the material right is crucial. “It may be difficult to design a headscarf that simultaneously fulfills safety requirements, has an appealing style, fits well, and is made of comfortable fabric,” she says. “Both the elegance of appearance and the comfort of the material must be taken into consideration since the fabric may be worn for long hours.”
Wangtrakuldee was acutely aware of such style considerations when she developed the first prototype last year. “When we went through the process of fabric selection, we had to find something that has a good aesthetic to it but is also protective at the same time,” she says. “The fabric has to be resistant to fire, electricity, and chemical penetration with moisture-wicking properties.”
Considering all those needs, it becomes clear why it has taken so long for someone to try to make a lab-safe hijab. Eight months since she started scoping out potential fabrics, Wangtrakuldee is now close to rolling out a fabric that is a blend of lyocell, a semisynthetic cellulose fiber with properties similar to cotton, linen, and rayon; modacrylic fiber, a synthetic copolymer that is flame- and chemical-resistant; and para-aramid, another synthetic fiber known for its strength and heat resistance.
As of C&EN’s deadline, AmorSui had shared prototypes with students to get their feedback and was planning to launch the product on July 31. “We have received many requests for such products from universities during this time as they are preparing to reopen campuses” closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says. “We would like to capitalize on this demand as much as possible.”
Benjamin Plackett is a freelance writer based in the UK. A version of this story first appeared in ACS Chemical Health and Safety: cenm.ag/hijabs.