Arts & Culture The Traditions Issue

How I became a ‘rebel’ when I got a haircut

Hair is just hair, right? Not so much, it turns out.
‘I…chopped my hair to a mere quarter of its original luscious length.’ Photo by Omar Al Nahdi.

When I was 21, I decided to get my waist-length hair cut. It was the summer of my college graduation. I had just finished my finals and was about to embark on a tedious internship. But I needed to break the routine of spending all my days and nights in my study cocoon beforehand, and cutting my hair somehow seemed like just the right answer.

Without consulting anyone, I marched into the salon I frequented in Washington and chopped my hair to a mere quarter of its original luscious length. I immediately felt rejuvenated and more representative of myself. I wondered why I had not done this earlier.

Flash-forward to a trip home to the Gulf, and I could not feel more out of place. I was at the wedding of an old childhood friend that belonged to one of the known and traditional families in Dubai, and surrounding me were multitudes of local women, young and old, with knee-length hair- no extensions added. At that moment, my short bob and I were reminded of a truth that our long years abroad had made us forget: long hair was still the adhered to norm for many there and in the Arab World.

But why was I suddenly feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious in the presence of people I’ve known for years? Hair is just hair, right? Not so much, it turns out.

Hair is a symbol of social belonging

A British hippie photographed in India. Beginning in 1960s, male hippies grew out their hair as a way of demonstrating their opposition to certain societal norms and policies. Credit: Shutterstock.

For decades, sociologists and anthropologists have studied hair as an indicator of social belonging or a person’s commitment to the ideals of a social group. Research indicates that even though hair is a biological phenomenon it is also a social one.  

‘Hair is perhaps our most powerful symbol of individual and group identity -powerful first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private…’ writes Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Dr. Anthony Synott.

‘Finally, hair is malleable, in various ways, and therefore singularly apt to symbolize both differentiations between, and changes in, individual and group identities.’

During the 1960s youth movement, male hippies famously grew out their beard and head hair in the USA and elsewhere to physically showcase their ideological opposition to the conventional social norms, values, and politics of the time, symbolised through crew cuts in the US.

Without realising it, I had become of my own society’s version of an inverse hippie after cutting my hair. What I thought was a simple haircut had seemingly turned me into a rebel- at least on the outside.

Long hair: a beauty standard in the Arab World

The woman at the centre of this 19th C painting by Rudolf Ernst embodies Arab beauty standards such as fair skin and long hair (apparent at closer inspection of the painting). Credit: Alamy.

Arab poets have praised the beauty of long hair on women at least as early as the 6th C.

And a perfect head of hair which, when loosened, adorns her back

Black, very dark-colored, thick like a date-cluster on a heavily-laden date-tree’,

said famous king-poet Imr’u Alqays .

Traditional female dances in many Arab communities, such as in the GCC states and Iraq, have centered on the rhythmic swinging of hair to music for years, as a way of showing off its length. A 1949 book titled The Arab of the desert : A glimpse into the Badawin life in Kuwait and Sau’di Arabia, even describes a dance contest in Kuwait:

‘All the women dancers let their hair down when performing, and sway their bodies and heads about so that the loose hair swings from side to side in circular motion. The woman with the longest and riches tresses gets the chief praise and invariably takes the prize.’

Along with wide eyes, fair skin, and an hourglass body, lengthy locks have occupied a special in the Arab psyche.  Centuries on, and due to a collective attachment to traditions, the social beauty standards poets once echoed seem to still rule the day in much of the Arab World.

Though not always grown to knee-length, it is observable that Arab women’s hair is usually kept at a ‘safe’ shoulder length or longer, and that long hair continues to be praised by poets, singers and many members of society alike.

Taken in the UAE in the 1990s, girls swing their hair from side to side in a traditional dance called al na’asha. Girls with long hair were specifically selected to perform this dance. Photo courtesy of The National Archives of Abu Dhabi.

In my personal circle, my short hair wasn’t always well received. Many friends my age have given me reluctant compliments but older women have given me a more blunt ‘Haram [here meaning: what a shame]. Why did you do it? You looked more beautiful before!’ By cutting my hair, I had become much less beautiful in the eyes of my beholders.

But my experience is pretty mild when I compare it to those of some of my relatives and Arab friends, some of whose mothers literally wept when they too got their long locks cut, and others who are forbidden to cut their hair without consulting their mothers first.

Whether it’s growing out your hair, moving out when you’re 18, or throwing tomatoes at each other like Spaniards do every August, traditions play a significant role in our lives, and choosing to follow or reject them defines us.

As for me, I’ve continued to maintain the short length of my hair, not with an intent to be a misfit, but because I’ve found that it’s easier to take care of and more complimentary to the shape of my face.

But I can’t help but wonder that because I continue to set my own standards and put my needs first in a society in which the collective’s cohesiveness is prioritised over the individual’s personal preferences, maybe I am ‘rebelling’ after all.

I love my Arab culture but after spending a significant chunk of my life abroad in the USA and Europe, I’ve noticed that my views, outlooks, and beliefs have become different than those of my Arab and Khaleeji counterparts, which has left me feeling out of place- a place I don’t particularly enjoy or hate either. It just took a haircut for me to truly realise it.

Latifah S. is a Khaleeji storyteller based in the US.