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Emancipation, racism, societal expectations: When hair becomes symbol of women's struggles

From the 'natural hair movement' to cutting off or even shaving long locks to fight against various forms of injustice, hair has long been considered a symbol of protest

Published: Sep 30, 2022 12:20:40 PM IST
Updated: Sep 30, 2022 04:17:39 PM IST

Emancipation, racism, societal expectations: When hair becomes symbol of women's strugglesSinger Donya Dadrasan cut off her locks in a TikTok video. Image: lunafairy.ir / TikTokĀ©

Since the death of Masha Amini, a young Kurdish Iranian woman arrested by the Iranian morality police for "improper hijab," many have been posting protest videos on social networks. In some of them, women film themselves cutting their hair as a sign of solidarity and protest. A gesture that is far from insignificant, to which women in various cultures have already turned in the past, whether to fight against racism, inequality, and societal expectations, or in support of emancipation.

From the 'natural hair movement' to cutting off or even shaving long locks to fight against various forms of injustice, hair has long been considered a symbol of protest. And it is being used this way once more, as demonstrated by a proliferation of videos showing women from Iran and other places around the world renouncing their long hair, like Iranian singer Donya Dadrasan, to show solidarity with Masha Amini, who died three days after being arrested by morality police for wearing an ill-fitting veil. "I cut my hair... I hope for a day when women in my country can laugh, dance, cry, breathe and live freely," Donya Dadrasan wrote on TikTok.

This is not the first time in history that hair has been used as a symbol of rebellion, or even insubordination, whatever the reasons... In fact using hair in this manner is even a recurrent gesture, often figuring in the struggle against inequality, societal expectations, and, as we have seen, against all forms of discrimination and violence. At the beginning of the 20h century, the 'lapper style, characterized by an androgynous silhouette and short hair, was already linked with women's desire for emancipation and gender equality.

When cutting one's hair is a sign of defiance

Women in Iran have already taken to shaving their heads in the past to show support for different movements, as well as to protest against the wearing of the veil. In 2016, the page 'My Stealthy Freedom', created by a journalist of Iranian origin living in London, published a photo of a young woman who chose to shave her head to stop wearing the veil. "I sold my hair to those adorable angels who suffer from cancer. When I came to the street, I told myself 'no hair, no morality police!'There is no reason for those who always tell me to cover my hair' or arrest me now," she wrote to accompany a picture on which she appeared shaved and unveiled.

Last year, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, South Korean archer An San unwittingly found herself at the center of a salvo of protest. The Olympic champion was subjected to insults and threats on social networks because of her short haircut, which some considered "not feminine enough." As they always do with social media, reactions came swiftly with one user initiating a counter movement, giving rise to a slew of videos showing women cutting their hair live under the hashtag "#women_shortcut_campaign."

Also read: Ethiopian girls break taboos and find joy in skateboarding

Hair as a political and cultural symbol

Sometimes it's not necessary to cut one's hair to make it a symbol of the fight against discrimination and inequality. Since the 1960s and '70s, the Afro hairstyle has been popularized by many activists, including Angela Davis and Nina Simone, imbuing it with both cultural and political symbolism. At the time it was about establishing Black women and men's natural hair as a symbol of resistance and celebration of African-American culture.

It's a movement that continues today, under various names including the "natural hair movement," because of persistent discrimination and prejudice related to the hair of Black women, men and children. Don't forget that the CROWN Act, a law aimed at prohibiting hair discrimination in the United States, was only adopted at a federal level by the House of Representatives last March. Without this law, people still find themselves being denied access to employment, education, or even sports, to people because of the texture of their hair, or certain hairstyles such as braids, dreadlocks or twists.

Whether we cut it, show it in its natural state, or shave it, the symbolism of hair has much more than an aesthetic dimension, playing a role in fighting against various forms of inequality for decades. And it probably will continue to do so.

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