When the hair is more than just hair
The Ethio Telecom office in the Gurd Shola area is crowded with people who are waiting for their turn. Amidst the hullabaloo two women were whispering to each other pointing at a woman who had shaved her head.
The whispers got a bit louder and it was clear that they were making fun of the shaved woman. “Did she actually think shaving her head looks good on her?” one of them asks. The other, who sounded sympathetic, says, “You never know; she might be sick.” This remark did not sway the first woman. She says that the woman was following western fashion and said that she looked unattractive.
While this was going on, Yodit Arefaine, 18, a first-year anthropology student at the Addis Ababa University, who had the shaved head, listened to their conversation solemnly. Then the criticism became contagious and another man and a woman who were sitting next to them joined the conversation. Eventually, Yodit decided not to listen to them and went outside to wait for her turn.
This is not the first time for her to receive candid assaults because of her shaven head. In fact, she says that the streets of Addis Ababa are swarming with mean people. She has been called “melata” (bald) and has faced rude comments and confrontations from many.
“So far, more than 70 percent of the people I encountered want to be involved in my hair’s business. This is completely a violation of my personal privacy,” Yodit says.
In many cultures the hair has been associated with a woman’s beauty. Refuting this mainstream standard and going beyond this narrative of duress is not taken lightly. Girls and women for various reasons, who voluntarily cut their hair short, undergo a range of experience, which questions their womanhood.
Yodit understands that having longer hair is a generally accepted beauty standard for women all over the world but she chose to push that thought. “Our daily lives, our appearance and our outfits are dictated by the culture we are part of. The hair is not different from that. It is a societal fabrication. The hair has for long been a mark to distinguish between women and men, with which I totally disagree ” Yodit says.
As far as she is concerned, the fact that she has a shaven head does not harm others, adding that it is ok to shave one’s hair. For Yodit, who has been cutting and shaving off her hair on and off since primary school, there is a freeing feeling to it. “Whenever I shave my hair I feel so relaxed and at ease,” Yodit says.
This time, when she planned to shave her head, she consulted friends who were totally shocked. “Why would you do that?” “It looks ugly on you,” “For women, their whole beauty lies in their hair,” and an extreme one, “I would not greet you if you shave it,” were some of the comments. Despite all that, she went on and shaved it of accepting all the consequences of her action. Her teachers assumed she was grieving and with their assumption they tried to console her but when she told them it was just spontaneous and deliberate they were horrified. According to Yodit, there were others who said it was a brave thing to do. “What is the bravery in shaving your head? It was supposed to be a simple thing,” Yodit says.
For long the hair has been used to convey different messages in sports, correctional facilities and in various other institutions. Nowadays, shaving one’s head is not a only fashion but also one way of making a political statement.
The Independent reported that a significant number of Iranian women shave their heads and change their hijabs to trousers to avoid the morality police. The law requires women to wear hijabs and headscarves and there is a penalty for those who do not follow that rule. The cutting of their hair came after eight Iranian women were arrested for posting bareheaded selfies on Instagram. All over the world, people are pushing stereotypes, gender roles and boundaries. In that regard, Addis Ababa’s fashion scene is changing with alternative hairstyles and it is common to see women who shave their heads on the streets of Addis.
Though some take it as a fashion or a political statement, for Hiwot Shifa, 22, who shaved her head last year, the case was different.
Because of the thinning of her hair she decided to shave it off, it shocked many. Her friends assumed she was grieving and was met by many who wanted to pay their condolences. She never thought about her hair and she did not imagine shaving her hair would stir a conversation. Around her neighborhood, Gofa area, many would comment and stop her to ask her about what was going on. Later on, many gave her the moniker Zeritu, the famous singer who is also renowned for shaving her head. One of the things that scared her was being under the spotlight.
“When I take a walk in my neighborhood people ask me if my hair is growing. When I am in the taxi, many stare at me. It is scary,” Hiwot says.
She rarely gets compliments and most of the time she is criticized for her personal hairstyle choice. Now her hair has grown and the staring is not there any more. She strongly believes that the hair adds beauty to women. “I believe the hair brings out the beauty in women. Longer hair is beautiful,” she says, adding that it is hair that distinguishes men from women. “Now I know I am not going to shave my hair,” Hiwot says.
Hiwot observes that many women are coming up with bold fashion statements and like Yodit says that she will keep shaving her head.
“The only thing that matters is that it makes me feel comfortable,” Yodit says.