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Iranian Women's Movement: Sorrow, Anger And Politics Of Hair

Hair is deeply personal, but it is also very public and the most politicised.

Artwork by Touraj Saberivand
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“Her hair was like a black cloud, full of musk and ambergris;
She cut it off with her own hand, and threw it in the dust”

—Ferdowsi

The epic poem ‘Shahnameh’ written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century, speaks of the moment when, consumed with great grief and anger over the unjust killing of her husband Siyavash by the king of Iran, the bereaved Farangis cuts off her beautiful hair. The shorning of her locks is an expression of sorrow, defiance and mourning. A thousand years later, the women of Iran who have grown up reading the story of Farangis seem to be echoing her violent pain and wrath. They too are cutting off their hair and throwing the locks in the face of an unyielding adversary to grieve an unjust killing.

An Uprising In Iran

The death of Jina Mahsa Amini on September 16, 2022 rocked the government with a significant force. She had been arrested by the “morality police” for incorrectly wearing her hijab. The hijab has long been a bone of contention between the state and the women of Iran where women’s bodies have been systematically politicised as an element of 20th-century modernisation and statecraft. This dynamic reached its zenith with the 1979 revolution during which women’s bodies were deemed political battlegrounds to be fought over and won.

Those who supported Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution then, however, were left deeply disillusioned and betrayed when the Supreme Leader, after coming to power, brought theocracy instead of democracy and introduced the idea of a mandatory hijab law.

On March 8, 1979, on Women’s Day, thousands of women, including those who had previously marched for the revolution, took to the streets to protest against the imposition. By 1983, however, the law had been passed and all women in Iran had to abide. Article 638 of the 5th book of the Islamic Penal Code in Iran states that women who do not wear a hijab may be imprisoned from ten days to two months, and/or required to pay fines.

“As long as I remember, hair has been a frontline for women in Iran where hijab was vehemently advertised as a pillar of Islam. There was a lot of indoctrination in favour of it from a young age,” says Iranian scholar Tara Mehrabi, who was born in a secular family in Teheran two years after the revolution. She states that Iranian women have struggled to retain autonomy over their hair for decades. The news of Amini’s death following alleged torture was the last straw and thousands of historically oppressed and repressed women once again braved potential torture, incarceration and even death to take to the streets of Iran in protest, demanding more personal freedoms for women.

Iranian women have struggled to retain autonomy over their hair for decades. The news of Amini’s death following alleged torture was the last straw.

And they cut off their hair, screaming “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (Women, Life, Freedom) and “Marg Bar Dictator” (death to the dictator).

“The act of cutting hair became a form of protest and self determination of the body,” says San Francisco-based Iranian artist Mobina Nouri. Like the women were finally telling the regime to “cut it out”. The powerful image resonated with women across the world and soon, social media and news were swarming with photos and videos of women cutting their hair in solidarity. Not just activists, politicians or celebrities but also ordinary women in their homes, in public spaces, thousands joined the movement. The hashtag #HairForFreedom got millions of hits.

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Beyond Boundaries: San Francisco-based Iranian artist Mobina Nouri performs at Legion of Honor in California to support Iranian protesters | Courtesy:Mobina Nouri Instagram

In January this year, Nouri wore a red dress draped in shiny scissors; eyes bandaged, and stood in the heart of San Francisco in the United States. She tied her flowing hair to the spires of a gate, each of the strands bearing the photograph of a protester imprisoned by the Iran government. She invited people to come and cut her hair. “It was to show solidarity for my sisters and raise awareness about the atrocities taking place in Iran,” she states.

In the days following Amini’s death, the Iranian regime led a harsh crackdown on the women’s movement and arrested protesters en masse. By January, over 19,000 had been arrested or det­ained, four people executed and over 500 civilians killed in clashes with forces. The vituperative response is perhaps a reminder of how history (written largely by men) has treated women’s bodies as sites of political and sexual control.

Of Sex, Religion and Hair

Anthropological and psychoanalytical studies on hair and the inter-relations between sex, religion and the public/private or ritual/religious sphere in the 19th and 20th centuries tended to look at its cultural and psycho-social connotations through a male lens. Be it by equating the not cutting of hair with phallic sexuality or cutting of it with castration anxiety.

In conservative patriarchal societies, the sight of women’s head hair, especially that belonging to an unrelated woman, is believed to trigger “uncontrollable sexual desires” in men. Stanford University’s Carol Delaney, who researched the sociology and sexuality of hair in Turkey, says this desire stems from the psychoanalytic connection between hair and female sexuality.

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Beyond Boundaries: Women in Toulouse, France, cut their hair Courtsey:Mobina Nouri Instagram

“Women’s hair”, writes Delaney in her 1994 paper ‘Untangling the Meanings of Hair in Turkish Society’, “comes to symbolise the physical entanglements by which men are ensnared, and thus must be kept out of sight”.

A majority of both Shia and Sunni Muslim schools of thought hold the consensus that it is obligatory for women to cover their hair when in the presence of men other than close family members. Covering of hair is seen as a way to protect and preserve the beauty and modesty of the woman.

Under cover of religion, Mehrabi contends that mandatory hijab is also used as a tool for governing the gendered and sexualized female bodies, their  behaviour, and policing their mobility in public spaces. With the law of mandatory hijab women's freedom of choice is taken away from them as they are forced to obey. “Every time a woman steps out into public spaces, the morality police may stop her, asking her to “cover the hair” — even if she is already wearing a scarf decently. It doesn’t even matter. This is a tactic used by the regime and the morality police to harass women and constantly remind them that she does not belong in the public sphere, even with the hijab,” she adds.

There are various interpretations of what the Quran says about covering hair. When asked if hijab was mandatory to Islam in the context of the hijab ban debate in Karnataka, scholar and activist Zakia Soman said that the hijab was a patriarchal imposition based on a male interpretation of the Quran. She has nevertheless been fighting for the right of Muslim women in India to wear it. While women in Iran have been fighting the imposition of the hijab, Indian Muslim women are fighting for their right to practice their religion and exercise their physical autonomy and right to education as a minority. “It is not a question of whether the hijab is patriarchal or not, it is a question of allowing Muslim women autonomy to choose,” says Soman.

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India’s anti-hijab ban protests are similar to protests by women in Iran in the late 60s and 70s when the Reza Shah’s regime forcefully tried to remove the veil from women’s heads as part of the ‘White Revolution’ reforms. The reforms, which were overturned after 1979, included some key developments in gender equality. Eventually, the lack of feminist ground-level consciousness at the time and anger against the Shah regime led to the reforms being rebuked, even by women.

Hair: A Universal Language

The approach of the Western media while covering women’s issues in the Middle East has traditionally looked at issues of the region through a male, post-colonial lens. The University of York researcher Haleh Afsar points out in a 2008 paper how such narratives create myths about the hijab that perpetuate a modern-day form of Orientalism and Islamophobia that objectifies the women who cover their hair and otherises them as oppressed and even exotic or dangerous. The successive portrayal of the women’s movements in the Middle East by Western media reflects these post-colonial attitudes and global north-south tensions.

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Beyond Boundaries: Iranian women in London stage a protest march on Women’s Day Courtsey:Mobina Nouri Instagram

The stories of Iranian women are nevertheless finding their way out, be it through their art, or through social media. By cutting off their hair, they are speaking in an organic language that is universal because controlling women’s hair as a means to control women’s sexuality and political agency is not limited to Iran or Islam.

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Hair is an intrinsic part of women’s public and private life and represents the intersections of public expression and private motivation. Social anthropologists have also pointed out the symbolic use of sexuality (embodied by the hair) for religious or ritual purposes. In his 1958 paper ‘Magic Hair’, Edmund Leach talks about hair as the link between “public, social ritual” and “private, personal meaning”.  Covering the hair has been a part of Orthodox Judaism since the 15th century. Among orthodox Hassidic Jews, women are not allowed to show their real hair to anyone after their marriage and are expected to cut it off and wear wigs or scarves for the rest of their lives to show compliance toward the traditional rules of propriety.

According to The Philadelphia Church of God website, the Bible God views women who cut their hair short like men “might as well be shorn (shaved) to symbolise a fallen woman”. The dissonance between Christian redemption and women’s sexuality was perhaps best captured by Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem ‘Goblin Market’ in which the golden hair of the female protagonists becomes a metaphor for chastised female purity, sexualisation and male gaze.

The approach of the Western media while covering women’s rights in the Middle East has traditionally looked at issues of the region through a male, post-colonial lens.

Women’s hair has also been used as a ritual tool in Hinduism where long, luxurious hair symbolises fertility and marriage while the heads of widows, until recently, were tonsured to mark her departure from the life of sexuality following the husband’s death.

Hair is connected to communities and regions, not just through the customs that surround it but even the texture, colour and the politics of materiality of the hair itself. It is a marker of ethnic and racial identity and the learnings from the Black feminist movements have highlighted how the texture and volume of their hair has been used to discriminate against them. In Iran, where ethnic minorities make up a mass of the population, the hijab has also been a tool to erase ethnic differences and distinctions by covering up the differences in hair texture. The hijab law also replaced the traditional headgears of ethnic minority women that represented their community and cultural identity in an attempt to subsume all ethnic groups under the umbrella of a united, strong, Shia Muslim nation.

“The law doesn’t allow women to be in public spaces bare-headed. At the same time cutting it short is also considered ‘unwomanly’ and even frowned upon by some religious figures if the aim is to look like a "man". This is one of the reason cutting your hair in public spaces become political. It is as if women are resisting patriarchal gender politics and its ideals of womanhood and nationhood, reclaiming their bodies and the control over it," Mehrabi, who teaches gender theory at Karlstad University, states.

The HairForFreedom campaign also shares the same universe of other movements by women, especially women of colour, against the imposition of Eurocentric beauty standards. Be it the feminist Afro that became a hit during the Black Panther era in the US or Black women’s refusal to straighten or “tame” their hair for job interviews today. In one of her self-portraits drawn just a month after her divorce from her husband, surrealist feminist Freida Kahlo painted herself with cropped hair and wearing an androgynous suit. She held in her hands a scissor with locks of her hair strewn around, with the lyrics of a Mexican song:  “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore”. Was Kahlo mourning Rivera? Or announcing her independence, a rebirth from the shadows of his personality? Perhaps it was a bit of both, of sorrow and anger. Much like the women in Iran who are cutting their hair in both, seeking perhaps to metaphorically be reborn.

(This appeared in the print as "Iran's Sorrow, Anger And Politics Of Hair")

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