For Mother’s Day last year, my husband surprised me with a spa treatment at a Muslim-owned beauty salon. Long overdue for self-care, I gladly accepted the gift of the works done under the care of an Afro Brazilian Muslim woman. When we arrived at the shop, my daughter ran into her arms and gave her the biggest hug. “She looks so much like my grandchild,” the woman said, and I felt like I was in good hands. The Moroccan shop owner escorted me to the private room in the back and suggested treatments. I asked for a manicure, a pedicure, and some red highlights. I hoped that they would match the auburn undertones of my childhood, when I used to spend hours swimming and basking in the sun.
Eight-year-old me, unprocessed hair
The owner of the shop decided to split the work of my highlights, manicure, pedicure, and hair styling to other salon workers. My highlights were tasked to a Syrian woman. I smelt the chemicals and had no mirror to know what was going on. It didn’t take long before I could sense her frustration. Unlike the Brazilian sister, she didn’t understand Black hair. They knew I spoke Arabic, so the Syrian stylist would escape the room to talk to the owner. I became embarrassed and apologetic about the length and thickness of my hair. Ever since I was little, Black stylists in the past would complain, “Girl you have so much hair.” They’d charge me double the regular prices.
With sections of bleached hair covered in foil, my anxiety rose each moment as I waited for the color to lift. What if the bleached sections fall out? How many years would it take to grow my hair back? I felt so helpless. But once the Afro Brazilian sister returned to fix the situation, I felt more at ease. She twisted my hair into ringlets and gave me tips on how to care for my hair. When my daughter saw me hours later, she threw the biggest tantrum because she wanted hair styled in ringlets, too.
The Kinks in the System
Hair typing Courtesy of askeaboutmyair.com
The ideal of silky straight hair has social, economic, and even romantic implications for Black women. Some men will insist on their partners wearing their hair straightened. Even without coercion, social pressure plays a part in many women’s choice to wear their hair straight. Black women have lost jobs for wearing their natural hair to work. Before I wore hijab, my mother told me I look more professional and polished when I straightened my hair. My family bemoaned the change my hair went through when I hit puberty, from silky and straight to wooly and wavy.
Growing up, I knew that hair textures that are closer to European were considered “good hair” while tightly coiled hair was looked down upon and called nappy. These ideals exist all over the African Diaspora. Pelo Malo (2013), which means “bad hair” in Spanish, is a Venezuelan film that explores racism and homophobia. The ways in which communities in the African Diaspora ascribe value to a woman’s worth based on her hair texture is similar to colorism. One traditional scholar from a Gulf country sought to marry his East African student, but then retracted his offer when he saw her natural, kinky hair. My friend once tried to match make an African American brother who refused to consider a Black woman because of “their hair issues.” He eventually married a Yemeni woman who had silky hair that could wash and go. Someone told me about her friend, a light skinned Black woman, whose African American husband found her unattractive and divorced her because she did not have long, silky hair.
Marouane Fellani courtesy of Wikipedia
The politics of hair even extends to the Middle East and North Africa. When I lived in Kuwait and Egypt, rocking an afro was like an act of resistance. Many Arab and North African women will chemically treat and straighten their hair with heat in order to make it similar to the ideal of silky straight hair. The Egyptian stylists who did my hair cooled their marcel irons by spinning them in the air like pros. A Libyan stylist came to my apartment in Palo Alto, CA to do my hair and makeup in preparation for my wedding. We shared this desire to iron out our kinky, wooly, nappy, wavy, curly, frizzy, and tightly bound coils.
Women all over the African Diaspora feel the intense pressure to fit the European standards of beauty. They don wigs, sew or glue in tracks of hair or have long longs. Many women are in a catch 22 — they are criticized for having kinky hair, but then derided for being fake when they wear extensions and weaves. As Suhaib Webb points out, most Muslims consider wearing wigs haram, although some scholars give expiation if it’s done with the husband’s knowledge.
A woman’s self esteem can plummet if she experiences hair loss due to a health condition. Women of all races can suffer from alopecia or receding hairlines from stress, friction of their scarves, or tension due to tight ponytails. But for African American women, the stigma of hair loss is layered with stereotypes about Black women’s hair. An African-American man told me that Moroccan women like his wife have a term for Black women, nisaa bidoon sha’ar (“women without hair”). Even though most Black women have an abundance of hair, there are some African cultures where women shave their heads. And hair loss happens because curly hair is more fragile than straight hair. The harsh dyes, chemicals, and heat that many curly and kinky-haired women use often contribute to breakage, and therefore shorter hair.
I Love My Hair
To counter the emotional turmoil of trying to live up to impossible beauty standards, many are reclaiming their hair. We are teaching our children to love their hair. Whether sheering their tresses off, straightening with a blowout, locking their hair, or styling their natural curls, Black women are embracing who they are despite outside pressure to be someone else. Women like Amber Rose and Lupita N’yong have shown that a buzz cut can actually reveal a woman’s beauty. Black women wear braids, locks, afros, twists, and twist outs and relish in their unique hair textures. We refuse to comply with external standards to match others’ stereotype of what women’s hair should look like.
And that’s even when, as Muslims, our natural hair exposes us to “What do you have under your scarf?” one too many times. The question is then followed with reminders about the hadith that describes women whose “heads sway like camel humps” who will reside in hell. Several Black Muslim women have told similar stories about being told something is wrong with them because of the shape of their hijab.
My bun at ISNA 2015
My hair – like the hair of other Black Muslim women, whether we cover or not and whether it is short or long — is magical. Refusing societal definitions of beauty, we have to create spaces for ourselves to appreciate the beauty that Allah has given us.
Margari Aziza is an Associate Editor at altM.