Wash those men outta your hair!
NEW YORK—Were the theocratic regime in Iran to tumble it could very well be on account of hair. Women’s hair, in particular. It’s a subject—and object—that seems to have put the ayatollahs’ hair in a tizzy.
The protests that have erupted nationwide, even in conservative regions, were sparked by the death of a young 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, while she was in the custody of the morality police. She had been arrested for not wearing the hijab, the head scarf required by Iranian law to be worn in public, in addition to loose-fitting clothes.
The authorities claim she died of a heart attack, and thus of natural causes. No one believes that for a second, certainly not the bereaved family who says she was a healthy woman, nor by the public that have seen photographs of her in a hospital, comatose, with a bruised and bloodied face.
Her death has lit the most intense public display of dissatisfaction with the Iranian autocracy. Crowds of women, with their supporters, tear off their hijabs in public to protest the harsh, misogynistic hardline government policies. Demonstrators boldly chant, “Death to the Dictator.” Recently President Ebrahim Raisi was heckled when he gave a talk at a Tehran university.
What is it about a woman’s hair that is so troublesome to men, that unbound and plain-to-see tresses cause so much distress in the macho brain? Does that crown so constitute a serious threat to the patriarchy, that restrictions are crafted to contain it, literally?
Hair, it seems, punches far above its weight. To that mass of often unruly locks has been attributed extraordinary powers, as in the case of long-haired Samson and his extraordinary strength. Recruited by his enemies to discover his secret, the beautiful Delila—whom Samson yearns for—gets him to disclose the source of his power. It’s his hair, he finally confides in her. And thus, when he is asleep, his hair is shorn and along with that, his unusual strength.
Then there’s golden-haired Rapunzel. In the Grimm fairy tale the young and lovely damsel is imprisoned high in a tower, sans door and steps, by a sorceress. But Rapunzel’s long golden tresses enable her prince to climb up to her cell and the story proceeds to its fairy tale ending. Another woman with formidable hair is the winged Medusa of Greek mythology, who has venomous snakes in place of hair. (No need for a shampoo and a rinse in her case.)
In Christianity this fetishization of women’s hair as a source of temptation and waywardness can be traced to St. Paul formerly-known-as-Saul, who deemed an unveiled woman as dishonorable, likely drawing inspiration from the Bible wherein the veil symbolized female modesty. In certain Christian sects, the belief is that women should have their hair covered at all times.
Growing up in Manila, I remember going to Mass where the women would put on a veil as they entered the church. And the Belgian nuns at the Catholic school I attended as a kid had these huge head coverings that seemed more like helmets making them even more forbidding in appearance.
The 1960s and the rise in rock ‘n’ roll made long hair a potent symbol of youth rebellion, much to our delight, and to the dismay of the Prefect of Discipline at the Jesuit university I attended. Those of us who let our hair grow beyond the prescribed length did our best to avoid him as he made his rounds on campus. The fact that he was bald gave his mission a sense of pique. The next decade, however, with Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s declaration of martial law, the pendulum swung the other way. Having long hair was now verboten, and one could be detained at a military camp and forced to have a haircut.
And now in the theocratic prison of Iran its women and men who demand the freedoms long denied them may wish to add to their chants these lines from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific:
I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair
and send him on his way!
Don’t try to patch it up
Tear it up, tear it up!
Wash him out, dry him out
Push him out, fly him out
Cancel him and let him go!
Copyright L.H. Francia 2022