What emoji do you use to represent yourself? For Rayouf Alhumedhi in 2015, at the time a 15-year-old Saudi student living in Berlin, there wasn’t an emoji to represent her. Rayouf is Muslim and wears a hijab. In a group chat, each of Rayouf’s friends (who don’t wear headscarves) used the female emoji to represent themselves, but Rayouf didn’t have an emoji she identified with. Her work-around used the Man With Turban emoji and Woman emoji, connected by the Left-Right Arrow emoji.
This seemingly small interaction led Rayouf to question why there wasn’t an emoji to represent her, and how she could change that. As she explained in an interview with Cooper Hewitt on December 10, 2019, “the hijab is a big part of my identity. Even before knowing my name or where I’m from, the first thing that people know about me is that I’m Muslim, because of the headscarf.”
Emoji are ubiquitous, having risen alongside the ubiquity of digital communications. We use them playfully or to add snark or emphasis in a text thread; to identify ourselves, and our celebrations, foods, and holidays. Since their origins in Japan in 1997, emoji have become recognized as a visual communication system, adding emotional nuance to digital chats and expressing universal information. In 2007 and 2009, Google and Apple petitioned Unicode Consortium, the global regulator that maintains text standards across digital devices, to accept emoji as a language system for standardization. By 2010, Unicode recognized emoji as a communication system. Apple introduced an iOS emoji keyboard in 2011, with Android joining in 2013.
Since 2010, each pictograph added to the emoji keyboard has been overseen by Unicode Consortium. Anyone can propose a new emoji. The formal proposals are submitted to the Consortium and reviewed by the Emoji Subcommittee. Along with technical information about the proposed emoji, the proposal must include guidance images—suggested pictographs of how the emoji could appear on screens. Once an emoji is approved by Unicode, the guidance image is shared with vendors (including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Twitter, Facebook, and more) to render the emoji based on their device, platform, aesthetics, and operating standards.
Rayouf drafted and submitted a proposal for the Person With Headscarf emoji, which caught the attention of Jennifer (Jenny) 8. Lee, vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and co-founder of Emojination, a group that seeks to make emoji more inclusive and representative. Jenny collaborated with Rayouf to strengthen the proposal, and commissioned graphic designer Aphelandra (Aphee) Messer to design the guidance images.
Aphee rendered the hijab emoji guidance images as flat, vector-based works following the Google emoji scheme. Each emoji on the keyboard is a square; glyphs need to maximize that square in order to be distinguishable at the small scale of an emoji keyboard. Aphee also created clothing options—a beige headscarf with a phantom wearer and a beige scarf as a loose item of clothing—in case Unicode preferred to approve the hijab as a piece of clothing.
Color was important. On emoji keyboards, emoji appear on a white background, whereas in text conversations, they often appear on gray or blue backgrounds, so Aphee avoided using these colors in her glyph. She started with a woman wearing a purple hijab, but after review by Rayouf and Jenny, they changed the hijab to a neutral beige color to be more applicable across cultures.
The guidance images for the Person With Headscarf Emoji (Unicode’s formal name of the proposal) were proposed to Unicode Consortium in 2016 and approved that year. They hit emoji keyboards in 2017 as part of Emoji Version 5.0. (Take a look at the emoji keyboard on your device to see how your platform rendered their version.) Cooper Hewitt acquired the guidance images in 2020.
“The response to the hijab emoji was really overwhelming,” Rayouf shared during our interview. “The amount of direct messages I got saying ‘Oh my goodness! There’s a hijab emoji now!’—feeling represented is really hard to describe, especially in a context that seems a small aspect of our daily lives but that we use quite a lot. You usually see in headlines, ‘Women are being oppressed because of the headscarf!’ So to see it here in an everyday context just really normalizes it.”
Andrea Lipps is Associate Curator of Contemporary Design and oversees Cooper Hewitt’s Digital collection.