It's an indispensable fashion accessory, worn by every Nigerian woman at some point. Some are never seen without it, including Nigeria's finance minister who calls her modest headwrap her trademark. Others, such as Nollywood actor Abiola Atanda, are known for their foot-high towers at red carpet events.
But a Nigerian church has now banned its congregation from wearing large headwraps, called geles, saying they form a "barricade" when women sit side by side, and are a potential security risk at a time when attacks on churches by militant Islamist groups are a very real threat.
Churchgoers who wear geles that seek to reach for the heavens will have their "big headgears" confiscated from next month, the congregation at St Theresa's Cathedral Church in the south-eastern Nigerian state of Enugu have been warned. Other churches are debating whether to follow St Theresa's lead.
"In view of the present security challenges the church has urged women to stop coming to Sunday service with big headgear and bags, to enable security men to know when a bomb will be smuggled into the church," Reverend Father Uche Obodoechina said, adding that the headwraps made it difficult to identify people.
Catholic churches in Nigeria usually maintain that women must cover their hair during services.
Capable of towering two feet in gravity-defying folds and arcs of lace or stiff jacquard, geles are the crowning glory of traditional outfits typically worn to church and sometimes seen as status symbols based on size alone. I
Important occasions – of which weddings and churchgoing remain firm favourites – can prompt intricate geles, usually finished off with stone-encrusted sunglasses and flashy handbags.
"Women feel naked without their geles on special occasions," said Lagos-based makeup artist Kadiatou Sangare, who often helps women tie elaborate creations.
The crackdown on geles is one of a series of increasing security measures after Nigeria endured a spate of bomb attacks on churches and mosques from the fundamentalist group Boko Haram.
This year it has targeted at least six churches in northern and central Nigeria, prompting fears it is trying to ignite a sectarian war among Nigeria's evenly split Muslims and Christians. It has never struck a southern Nigerian state.
A military clampdown in recent months has curbed attacks, but church authorities said they were taking no chances.
"It is an unusual move but they must have their own information for doing so," said Monsignor Gabriel Osu of the Catholic archdiocese of Lagos. "Nigerians now are very security conscious and churches especially are very vulnerable. So rather than take chances, they will do anything to minimise the risks to their congregations; they're going that extra mile."
The move has divided opinion among churchgoers.
"It's a good thing," said taxi driver Idowu James. "There is no doubt some people carry big handbags to intimidate people lower down the ladder. Frankly, I don't think church is the right place for exercises in fashion parade."
Others see wearing geles to be as inalienable a right as going to church. "I've never heard such a thing and I don't think women in my own church will abide by that. Most of the week we women are working, so Sunday is the only chance to wear geles and dress up," said Lagos resident Grace George. "We want to look our best when we go to church, and you cannot do that if you expose your head."
Other churches have ramped up security as attacks have led to drops in attendance. Many restrict cars from parking in their vicinity during services. In at least two states – Plateau and Kogi – round-the-clock armed guards have been posted outside some churches. – © Guardian News and Media 2012