From veil to scissors: why does female hair cause so much controversy?
One might not imagine this when seeing Vladimir Putin or Joe Biden, but female hair rules the world. Who could have guessed that the world of international sports would be captivated by women’s locks anno 2022? Yet female hair is the topic of controversy regarding Iran’s participation in the World Cup, the tragic deaths of young women in Iran and tumbling strands in European television studios and political arenas.
From personal experience, I know it all too well: nothing more pleasant than a head full of shiny manes dancing happily to the rhythm of your stride. When I temporarily lost almost all of my hair a few years ago, I became aware of this more than ever. Since our head hair may seem so natural, the awareness of its significance has become somewhat lost in the West. Yet within cultural and religious traditions worldwide, masses of ink has been spent on this topic. Luke’s Gospel, for example, tells the story of a woman drying Jesus’ feet with her long hair to express her devotion. Also, the apostle Paul is clearly a lover of long women’s hair. He calls a woman who prays bareheaded “a disgrace” and compares her to someone who has been shorn.
Shaving your head: in ancient Israel it was a sign of mourning. Not only for women, but also for men. Untamed locks represented the strength of Samson and the Nazarenes. Today, uncut hair still marks the dedication to the spiritual path of the Sikhs, Rastafaris and native Americans. Human hair has been regarded as a source of strength, vitality and intuition for centuries.
Nevertheless, hair is also a source of controversy, especially when it comes to women’s hair. Witch hunts, the public cutting and shaving of “Kraut girls” after the Second World War, lists of “approved hairstyles” in North Korea, American boarding schools requiring black girls to straighten their locks: all are attempts to control non-conformist women. Women who let their manes sway freely as a symbol of an untamed spirit, can be quite dangerous. Controlling regimes thus grab for the veil, the scissors, or else for rubber bands, pins or caustic chemicals to restore social order.
22-year-old Mahsa Amini and 16-year-old Asra Panahi were murdered for not conforming to the strict rules around mandatory head covering in Iran. The fact that one visible lock of hair can cost a woman her life, is a profound and tragic violation of the fundamental freedom of every human being. No wonder women from all over the world feel the need to make a statement of sisterhood. French actresses, Brussels government members, Dutch minister of justice Dilan Yeşilgöz: they all took out the scissors and short-cropped their locks.
Apart from their good intentions, these public haircuts nevertheless raise questions. If the battle is against women’s hair, could it really be the answer to grab for the scissors? Shouldn’t we rather let our manes sway like a flickering sword of freedom? The rain of falling strands seems, after all, primarily a concession to an oppressive regime. Meanwhile, the beards of the ayatollahs continue to proliferate, unruly and unquestioned as ever.
‘Be the change you want to see in this world,’ Mahatma Gandhi taught the world. For hair-phobic beard men wo really want to make a change, there is only one option: cut and shave.
The original Dutch version of this column was published in Nederlands Dagblad on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.