Words by: Farah Desouky
Design by Lina A.
This article is part of the “My Hair My Hair” issue 

My hair was my first entry point into femininity and performing womanhood. We style it, grow it, cut it, tame it and nourish it from the moment we are born. Our mothers were the first ones assigned to take care of our hair, a criterion on which their mothering was evaluated; then it was assigned to us, our hair becoming a determinant of our desirability.  

While entire industries are constructed to tell us that hair is to be celebrated and contributes to our sense of self, hair is also used as a tool for discipline in many contexts. Hair is governed and policed constantly through notions of race, class, cleanliness, religion, and family institutions. The power hair holds over our worth and identities is one that is often used against us, because, just like our bodies, our hair isn’t ours.  The idea of neat, clean, professional, or beautiful hair is rooted in Eurocentric standards, and additional context-specific hegemonic hair ideals – whether they promote straight blonde hair, long thick hair, or fully-covered veiled hair – also act on how we view and shape our hair.  Those whose hair falls outside these standards are coerced, whether directly or indirectly, into “fixing” their hair and, with that, erasing whatever identity their hair embodies. 

Internalizing this desire to erase one’s selfhood and bleach both their hair and identity is a result of cultural violence, a violence that comes to seem self-inflicted. It’s as if we are disciplining ourselves as we are disciplining our hair. Hair grooming practices become a code of conduct that one is obligated to follow. And, the ongoing alterations of the social self entailed in disciplining hair causes ongoing pain and experience of violence that come with grooming through heat, perms, wax, bleach, and laser – violence becomes an acceptable reality. 

Mahsa Ahmini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman was murdered on the 16th of September by Iran’s morality police (Iran’s Islamic religious force enforcing the state’s modestly and public morality guidelines) for wearing her hijab ‘improperly’ and since then anti-hijab protests have spread throughout the country. With collective street hair cuts, head scarves burning, and Tiktok haircuts posted in solidarity. In Amini’s case her hair lost her life, in others it is an ongoing act of discipline, a constant source of discomfort and femininity. 

Preserving Femininity 

Long hair is often associated with sexuality, femininity, and desirability. As such, many girls are warned to not cut their hair because men prefer long hair, and mothers tell their daughters to wait until after their weddings. 

A recent Twitter thread shared the jarring experiences of Egyptian girls and young women about haircuts, and how they had to get their father/husband’s permission before getting their haircut or even trimmed. This discourse was triggered by a story overheard in a hair salon in Egypt, in which a woman in her 20s talked about the “permission process” that she and her mother had to endure after her father punished them for a haircut she got. Another woman responded, sharing how her mother would take great care of her long hair since she was young. But, when she cut it at shoulder length when she was a senior in high school, her parents stopped talking to her for two weeks and her father threatened to shave it for her if she did this again. Another woman said she cut her hair as “revenge” when she became independent of her family.

In August 2021, a girl named Raneem who had just finished high school made national headlines when her mother attempted to hit her with her car because she expressed wanting to take off the hijab. Raneem shared her story in a Facebook post and filed a police report recounting what happened. In Egypt, the hijab is both a religious and cultural symbol and unveiling is a very complex, often traumatic process. Raneem almost lost her life as punishment for mere contemplation, and her story is similar to many women who were abused for unveiling and for their attempts at bodily autonomy in whatever forms they embody.

In Iran on September 13th, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police (Iran’s Islamic religious force enforcing the state’s modestly and public morality guidelines) for wearing her hijab ‘improperly.’According to eyewitness testimonies, she was repeatedly beaten on the head. Amini died three days later, the government claims it was heart failure despite leaked brain scans revealing signs of brain trauma, and she sparked a series of anti-hijab protests in Iran. Women are burning their headscarves, cutting each other’s hair in Iran’s streets, and on Tiktok all over the world. 

These kinds of policing are tactics of gendering and controlling women’s bodies and supposed morality from the moment they are born. Here, the family/state dictates and enforces a specific feminine ideal whilst simultaneously threatening to deprive the girls who don’t conform to these standards of femininity (ie. hair) or their entire life in the case of Amini. Family institutions are built on this type of patriarchal hierarchy, a chain of command in which the daughter reports to the mother and then the father, and, when “deviance” occurs, everyone is disciplined in accordance with their assigned position in the family or in the street. 

Because hair is such an emblem of the self and the social, it also becomes a threat to familial power dynamics. And when women retell stories at the hair salon, they are also narrating the forms of discipline and control aimed at maintaining familial social order. 

Punishing Disobedience

As we saw with the father threatening to shave his daughter’s hair for not conforming to feminine beauty standards, hair cutting can be a tactic to publish immoral or disobedient girls and strip them of the same long hair they have been taught to value. 

In Egypt in 2012, a school teacher made headlines for “disciplining” two sixth-grade pupils, Ola and Mona, by cutting their hair for not wearing the Islamic veil. This punishment was also a threat to terrorize other unveilled children in the class. In Iraq in 2019, police officers arrested one hundred boys and teenagers for wearing shorts that were deemed illegal and defied traditional values and shariʿah. All one hundred of them had their hair shaved as punishment. Additionally, schools often require girls to tie their hair and force boys with long hair to get hair cuts, and some punish students with braids and curls for having “messy” hair under a racist framework. 

In all of these cases, children are denied the right to choose how they present and express themselves in the public space;  they are publicly shamed and taught their bodies are not theirs. 

It is important to remember that the notion of “breaking” children’s selfhood and their tools for self-expression, of grooming them to conform, happens through various institutions. Whether it’s within the family, at schools, or through government, these institutions claim moralist and religious agendas to perpetuate violence. 


A friend of mine also shared that in her school girls with strict parents would give themselves short haircuts because to them, it is the only way to achieve bodily autonomy and rebel in a sense, another friend got an undercut also without her parents’ approval and she would always keep her hair down so they’d never find out, and they didn’t. This constant bargaining over hair length, style, and color is another negotiation over every other identity we claim and are denied. 

Hair is a semblance of who we are it’s one of the ways of expressing ourselves within our communities, and so hair historically has been used in queer coding. Queer hair practices within subcultures of the community are a way to signal gender and sexual preferences whether it’s through “boy cuts”, undercuts, or wigs. The policing of what is perceived as deviant hair practice is essentially an act of policing identities. And just as hair could be used to perform purity it could be used to perform what is deemed otherwise. 

Examining the role of hair is essential to understanding how marginalized communities have used it as a sight of resistance and how their hair was used to tame them, whether it was tribes using curls, locks, and braids to communicate with each other or the young Egyptian women afraid of trimming their ends without their fathers’ permission. The disciplining of hair and thus self is essential to maintaining authority over bodies and is a form of violence. Hair is a method of discipline and a sight for resistance.