Maha Al Kharusi
It has swept through the West, and is now making its debut in the Arab world, but not without resistance. The natural hair movement, a rejection of the beauty standards passed down to us from generations past, is a rebellion against conformity.
“Aren’t you tired of this hair already? Just blow dry it,” said my aunt to me recently. My reply was cool and confident, “No, this is the hair I was born with. I love it.” It might seem like a simple exchange, but it has taken a lot of self-reflection and growth for me to accept my natural beauty. This has led me to play my part in spreading a message of self-acceptance, along with a doctrine to no longer allow other people’s opinions to shape our realities. I have come a long way from being the little girl who grew up, having her hair blow-dried before the start of every week.
“Do you ever brush it?”
“Have you ever thought about straightening it?”
“I’ve got a treatment that will help tame this!”
“You look much nicer with straight hair.”
Sadly, being exposed to comments like these is all too common for curly-haired Arab women, and they enforce the idea that curly hair is substandard, or something that requires fixing. This message is echoed by hairdressers giving their professional opinions, magazines for Arab women, strangers who are “just being helpful” and pretty much every advertisement shouting its judgment on television. But the loudest of all is the silence that descends on a room full of aunties and cousins as you enter proudly displaying your natural curly crown, with each piercing gaze breaking through the wall of confidence you have spent years building.
I wanted to delve deeper into the issue of resistance towards natural hair, and why many women in our region submissively, or unconsciously, adhere to a set of arbitrary and uniform standards decreed by society. I took courage from a growing online movement around the world in support of natural curls and created my curl Instagram account @curl.heritage in 2017. I have confronted this issue through my platform, and it has sparked a very interesting discussion on cultural identity.
Over the years, the world has been subjected to a universal standard of beauty. Through the silver screens of Hollywood, television, social media and the internet, all square pegs have felt a silent coercion to fit into a round hole. This has been highlighted by products sold at haircare aisles with promises to tame, straighten and smoothen“unruly” hair. In an interview with natural hair blog “Naturally Curly” , Hadear Kandil reflects on what it is like being an Egyptian-American with curly hair, and says that “the pressure to straighten naturally non-straight hair goes back to this deeply ingrained perception that deems European features beautiful.”
I would add another factor at play in (not only) the Gulf Region: the prevailing idea of being a “pure blooded Arab”.When searching for a potential bride for her son ,for example, it’s not unheard of for a mother to hold a candidate’s coily hair, or darker skin, in particularly low esteem and as factors that work against her.
In the natural hair community, we often refer to our curls as our crown, with each whirl and twirl proudly showcasing our roots and heritage, and breaking away from the conditioning of mainstream beauty ideals, a subservient act. However, whenever the topic was discussed, I was left feeling like the conversation around beauty was still only skin deep. We haven’t really scratched the surface. Why do we still idealise smooth hair? Why should coily hair be concealed, or altered? The less than comfortable truth is that the resistance to natural, coily hair lies in the unspoken inherent association with African lineage, which is viewed as undesirable by prevailing traditional beauty standards in the Arab world. This lack of desirability stems from an ingrained prejudice against that heritage that is held by some, and the fabricated notion of a purely Arab bloodline.
There is a deeply rooted history of Arab presence in East Africa, where those Khaleejis who trace their lineage to these shores are at odds with the concept of the “pure Arab”. So is the fact that some populations on the Eastern Gulf were oriented towards Persia, as the book The Origin of Arabs tells us. We are, in fact, a people of diverse backgrounds. Oman, for example, has a unique history that sets it apart from the Gulf. Its strategic location as a trading route has infused East African, European, Persian and South Asian influence. As a result, the Omani people are a melting pot of ethnicities and the different features and characteristics that go with them, all of whom are proudly Omani. But this is where the discrimination can begin, the Arab/Omani identity versus heritage.
The result? Generations of women taught to blindly and unquestioningly believe that their inherent value is tied to their ability to fit into a mould that was never made to include them. The side effects? Shame and denial. They grow up ashamed of their ancestry that passed on these “unfitting” traits, with an unwillingness to take ownership, or embrace their origins. It has created a subset of the Arab demographic that continue to face discrimination by a number of people in the Arab world. Despite the breathtaking ethnic diversity that exists in our region, many of us have been raised on the belief that any identifier other than Arab is undesirable.
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Maha Al Kharusi is a Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum. Through this platform she advocates sustainable living, but a true passion of hers is in all things curly hair. She finds her voice through her writing, and in her free time gets lost in her thoughts.