By Nisha Susan
When I was a teenager, my best friend told me the story of her cousin with the long, beautiful hair. She was standing in the yard of their old house in Kerala and combing her hair one morning, when her brother saw her. He stormed into the house and returned with a pair of scissors and hacked her hair off.
This story terrified me and enraged me for years. Whenever said friend’s male cousin came by, I plotted revenge. All the while I tried to understand what mysterious ‘cultural’ reasons had made him do it. My Kannadiga friends in Bangalore did tease me and call me Bhadrakali when I ran about with my hair open. Was that it? But then my best friend, her cousin and I were all from a state that was advertised with ladies with long, open hair. So was it an erotic charge, rather than dynamite, that had exploded in that terrible young man’s brain that day?
Nowadays, I no longer spend time thinking of cultural reasons for the man who cut his sister’s hair. I’m content to feel that the desire to police sisters has to be beaten out of some men with long prison sentences. Nothing else can help them. And that the State and its satellite institutions are often the brothers with the sharp pair of scissors.
Last week, Kerala schoolgirl Alsha PS went to the State Child Rights Commission arguing that her school shouldn’t force female students into double braids. She’d tried to convince various school bodies that it’s a pain in the morning, and forces girls to either pick between not bathing or making hair stinky by braiding it while wet. The Commission, miraculously, agreed with Alsha.
Why miraculous? As a woman your hair, along with most of your body, is constantly policed. Your hair is too long. Too short. Too thin. Too bushy. Too curly. Too brown. Too coloured. Too shampooed. Too oily.
In fact, your hair is too much.
As an 11-year-old I used to take my five-year old cousin to get haircuts. I had poker straight hair and she had short, tight curls. We were both exclaimed over, and I was asked each time if my cousin’s hair was ‘natural’ and ‘real’. Over the years, several cousins have caved to such weird responses to curly hair and done everything from using the straightening iron to the re-bonding gig. Some years ago, when interviewing women television journalists in Delhi about body image pressures, I was told that curly hair was strictly a no-no. Several women had been told explicitly that their entry-level jobs depended on their willingness to get their ‘mess’ straightened.
In Gayatri Bashi’s wonderful children’s book Minu and Her Hair (2013), Minu has a big mop of extravagantly messy, curly hair. When she takes her troubles to her grandfather, he makes no attempt to tell her that she’s pretty or her hair is pretty. Instead, they think of its immense possibilities – a bird’s nest, a cow with two horns and any number of other fun things. Certainly more fun than the option of ‘if your hair is straight you will find yourself a prince’.
In an interview with The Ladies Finger, Bashi said, “In spite of growing up with hair I was self-conscious about, I learnt to embrace it for what it was – quirks and all. Because it's inherently part of who I am. Maybe straightening it would have felt liberating, just for a change.”
A few years ago, academic J Devika began one of her delicious diatribes thus: “All of Mallu FB world is agog with discussion about a brainless ad for the Indulekha Hair Oil, in which a fiery-looking woman whose dress-style follows the dress conventions of our Malayalee AIDWA Stars, bursts with indignation over the terrible harassment that women with long hair face on buses, how we are all forced to cut off “the hair that we have” (‘Ulla mudi’) and go about with short hair “like men” because of this horrible injustice, and finally, how we all ought to grow our hair long (and let it down, possibly) and hit back at such harassers.”
The hair oil advertisement in its evil genius tapped into two of our major panics about hair. One, that our hair is thinning. Even women who are strictly against nostalgia can’t help a twinge for that one day when we were 16, and our hair was at its thickest and glossiest. Two, that men will use it to inflict pain.
As far as this second panic is concerned, sometimes it’s that we think somehow our hair (along with our other body parts from liver to big toe) is giving men a signal for violence. Sometimes it’s that we think (like in the ad) that a man will actually use it to cause pain. Think I’m exaggerating? Last week, a friend walking to work on Lal Bagh Road in Bangalore passed a pair of schoolboys. One of them reached out and held her by her hair, slapped her hard in the face, and then ran away laughing.
The day after I shaved my head the first time (11 September, 2001), I was asked for obvious reasons whether it had been a political decision. My haircut had been a wee bit political, but it had preceded the towers falling. Woman after woman talks about decisions around her hair in relation to freedom.
Devika wrote in the same piece, “I did everything to evade grandmother’s seemingly endless combing, plaiting, oiling, washing with shoe-flower paste.” When she cut it short, it sent her whole family into mourning and rage. Bashi says, “Let's just say there are many autobiographical elements in the book. I did have to struggle with my hair being forcibly combed. It did break a few teeth. Of combs, not people’s! It has also seen its share of being oiled into submission. When I reached college, though, I chopped it all off. That taste of freedom, the wind tickling my scalp, and my head feeling 5 kg lighter – happiness.” Incidentally, a recent documentary about black women in London who defy expectations to chemically treat their hair, is also called Hair Freedom.
The young revolutionary Alsha seems to understand this. Even after the commission ruled that schoolgirls don’t need to wear plaits, Alsha appeared at school in neat double braids. She reportedly said, “I want my teachers to say that. I want them to say that we have a choice, and plaiting is not mandatory.”
The Ladies Finger is a leading online feminist magazine.