Hair is the western woman's veil or something

Whether it’s covered by a veil or coloured by Vidal Sassoon, hair is a feminist issue. Indeed, hair is so bound up with ideals of femininity that, to some degree, the measure of a woman is found in the length of her hair. In the semiotics of female sexuality, long hair is (hetero)sexual, short hair is non-sexual or homosexual, and no hair means you’re either a victim or a freak. When Natalie Portman shaved her head for a film role she summed up these stereotypes with the observation that: “Some people will think I’m a neo-Nazi or that I have cancer or I’m a lesbian.” But Portman also added: “It’s quite liberating to have no hair.”

Involuntarily losing your hair is an incredibly traumatic thing. When I was anorexic it was the fear of going bald that prompted me to get better, rather than, you know, the possibility of osteoporosis or infertility or death. Pulling out clumps of your hair is like pulling out clumps of your identity. But isn’t it a little worrying that a bunch of dead cells on your head holds this much power? And isn’t it odd that we should talk about chopping off our locks as “liberating?”

In a sense, women’s hair in the west functions as it’s own sort of veil, one which most of us are unconsciously donning. The time and money women spend on their hair isn’t just the free exercise of personal preferences, it’s part of a broader cultural performance of what it means to be a woman; one that has largely been directed by men. Rather than fixating on what the veil means for Muslim women, then, we should probably spend a little more time thinking about our own homegrown veils. Because it’s still an unfortunate fact that, across the Muslim and non-Muslim world, women are often judged more by what is covering their head that what is in it.