The Politics of a Haircut

For some, a simple haircut is not so simple after all. Hanna El-Mohandess writes about how this challenge is especially present for Muslim women, both in the US and around the world.

Imagine this: you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and going through your daily checklist. Outfit’s good, makeup’s fine, teeth are brushed–once you get to your hair, you notice that something is off. Maybe it’s getting a little too long, or you’ve found a few split ends frayed at the bottom, but it’s nothing a quick trim won’t fix. You call up the nearest hair salon to make an appointment or you just walk in; it’s no big deal, just a haircut. You sit in a salon chair for an hour or two, make small talk with your stylist, and then leave with fluffy, voluminous new hair and a confidence boost.

The scene I just described might be a mundane memory to some, but for me, it’s a seemingly unattainable goal. As Muslim woman, I wear a hijab. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a headscarf that I wear out and about to cover my hair in front of men who aren’t a part of my family. I usually view my hijab as a beautiful symbol of modesty and devotion to my religion, but I’m the first one to admit that it comes with its challenges–haircuts being one of many.

For reference, here’s what the scene would look like in Muslim:

I’m looking at myself in the mirror and going through my daily checklist: outfit, makeup, teeth, all fine. The only thing I have left to do before I leave is put on my scarf. I tuck my hair back in a bun and choose whichever scarf goes best with my outfit. As I’m wrapping the scarf around my head, I notice that my hair is too long to fit under it. I try to tug at it and rewrap it for another ten minutes, but I can’t keep strands from peeking out the back. I sigh, defeated. I’ve avoided a haircut for far too long.

I call around to different salons and ask if they have a private room; I can’t just walk in and sit down. I have to make sure that they have a female stylist who can cut my hair in a space where other men can’t see me. Most salons will say no. Those who say yes usually describe a spot in the salon where there are no other chairs, but there are windows where pedestrians passing by would still be able to see me. Some salons offer up a haircut in their basement.

I now have two options. I can either go to a salon and anxiously sit through an uncomfortable haircutting session in a semi-private room where I jump every time new footsteps approach, or I can just cut my own hair in my room. I usually choose the latter.

Why should it matter? No one sees my hair anyways, right?

I don’t cut my hair for others just as I don’t dress, speak, or exist for others. I do it for myself. If I cut my hair at my sink by following a questionable Youtube tutorial, it remains damaged, dry, and uneven–I can feel that under my scarf, even if no one else can. Every time I’ve managed to get a real hair cut at a salon, I’ve left with a unique bounce in my step–an unparalleled type of confidence boost. No one can see it but I know that it’s there. It’s my secret little gift to myself.

It goes further than just self confidence. Not being able to get a haircut can be such an “othering” experience. It’s a an experience that everyone should be able to partake in, and it sounds silly to say but the ease that comes with getting a haircut is a source of privilege. Writing this article about how much haircuts affect hijabi women seems a little ridiculous, but it is true; there are so many barriers a Muslim woman must face throughout her life purely because she exists as a Muslim woman. Something as simple as getting a haircut shouldn’t be one of them.

Luckily, Muslim women have taken their hair into their own hands.

Recently, there have been a string of women’s only hair salons that have opened up across the United States, with Massachusetts's first opening on February 25th, 2019. Shamso Hair Studio and Spa was designed to be completely secure, with cameras at the door and frosted windows, so Muslim women can have the experience of getting a haircut without the anxiety that usually follows.

This is monumental for all the reasons I’ve already described, but mostly because Muslim women finally get to be normal.

We get to look at ourselves in the mirror and notice our hair is getting a little too long, then call up one of these salons to make an appointment --  or just walk in, no big deal, it’s just a haircut. We get to sit in a salon chairs for an hour or two, make small talk with a female stylist, and then leave with fluffy, voluminous new hair and a confidence boost.

The dream has finally become attainable. A haircut can be a part of our routine instead of a special occasion.