Iran, United States, South Korea… Hair, symbol of revolt

For four weeks, demonstrations have been a daily occurrence in Iran. They were provoked by the death, on September 16, 2022, of the young Masha Amini, 22, three days after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran. Reason: a judged dress “inappropriate”. Almost immediately, the images of these Iranian women on the front line of the mobilizations, the veil removed and shearing their hair, became the symbol of a revolt brutally repressed by the mullahs’ regime (185 dead, including 19 children, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights, based in Oslo).

The messy hair

“The act of cutting a woman’s hair is usually a sign of mourning, most often for her husband. It is to cut oneself off from the seduction associated with long hair. By extension, it has become a sign of revolt against the established order, often used in history by militant feminists. In Iran, it is symbolically a way of calling for the death of the regime.deciphers the ethnologist Christian Bromberger, professor emeritus at the University of Aix-en-Provence and author of The Senses of Hair. An anthropology of body hair (1).

With the nails, the hair is one of the only bodily elements that can be modified, dyed, cut, or on the contrary lengthened, without this having any irremediable consequences, since they can grow back. “No doubt for this reason, hair and body hair have always been used to signify social order, class and gender, particularly in Muslim societies: facial hair for men, long covered hair for women, notes Christian Bromberger. But what is fascinating is that the hair can at the same time signify the transgression of this order. Think of the shaggy hair of revolutionaries versus the respectable hairstyle of socially integrated people. To the scruffy beard of Mirza Koutchek Khan, compared to the perfectly trimmed ones of the mullahs…”completes the ethnologist, who has carried out several field surveys in Iran.

Long before Che Guevara and his romantic locks became the symbol of the revolution, Mirza Koutchek Khan (1880-1921) indeed took the lead, in 1914, of a rebellion against the Qajar monarchy in Iran. The voluminous-haired image of this hero of modern Persia, leader of the “forest movement”, is one of the references often taken up by the Iranians who are mobilized today.

Of life and death

Since Iranian women are on the front line, we have endeavored in the following pages, with the help of Christian Bromberger and the Iranian sociologist Chahla Chafiq (2), to understand how their hair could have become such an issue, sometimes life and death. And how they become, in certain contexts, a powerful tool of struggle, when women decide to cut them, to wear them short, in Afro cut or simply gray, without dyeing. “Especially for them, there is a whole possibility of using hair to express their relationship to reality”concludes Christian Bromberger.

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

Women’s hair has been at the center of struggles in Iran for almost a century, explains Iranian sociologist Chahla Chafiq. In 1935, Reza Chah, the father of the last Shah of Iran, decided for example to prohibit women from wearing the veil. “He does not do this by associating it with a criticism of Islam but by explaining that the compulsory wearing of the veil is a misinterpretation of religion”accurate to The Weekly Chahla Chafiq, who recalls that at the time of the Prophet, the women around him did not wear it. In Iran, Reza Shah’s decision has mixed results. While many women are taking a new place in society, others refuse to come out uncovered and confine themselves to their homes.

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

The last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, will reconsider this prescription before his dismissal (above, an anti-shah demonstration in 1978), during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After having been banned, the veil then becomes compulsory . Vice patrols are set up, resulting in widespread surveillance of the population. From 1979, “the Islamists have transformed the veil into the flag of their ideological orderunderlines Chahla Chafiq. Currently, some veiled women are supporting the protests. Even if they wear it for religious reasons or because of their upbringing, they think it is a mistake to impose it. »

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

“Is An San a feminist? » This is the question that thousands of South Korean anti-feminist activists are asking themselves in the summer of 2021. At issue: the cut deemed too short by the archer An San, 21, triple gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics – a first for a South Korean athlete. “Among young women, the short haircut often refers to a form of revoltexplains ethnologist Christian Bromberger. We think of “boys”, in France (below), those women who took the place of men in the factories during the First World War and who refused to be marginalized again in the 1920s.”

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

In South Korea, the public debate has recently degenerated into a “battle of the sexes”, explains the Korea Times in one of its many articles on the case. Of the “Online ‘male dominant’ groups believe men are being treated unfairly by feminist politics”. Asked about her hair choice, An San, who received the support of many compatriots, replied on the networks with an emoticon with a smirk: “Because it’s more comfortable. »

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

In March 2022, a law prohibiting employers and schools from restricting the wearing of Afro haircuts – and any form of “hair discrimination” – is passed by the US House of Representatives. Called the Crown Act (4), this legislation already adopted since 2019 in the states of California and New York is still under study in the Senate.

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

“Spurred on by the Black Panthers and activists like Angela Davis (the civil rights activist, Editor’s note)the frizzy hair, formerly stigmatized, has established itself since the 1960s as a symbol of resistance and the fight against racism in the United States and the Caribbean », explains ethnologist Christian Bromberger. The Afro cut had been prohibited for slaves from the 15th century.e century, as well as to free black women, whom the “Tignon laws”, adopted in Louisiana in 1789, required to cover their heads, before being dethroned by the fashion for straightening products, launched in 1845 by the Afro -American CJ Walker. Today it is a symbol of pride.

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

In August 2022, JT anchor Lisa LaFlamme was dropped from CTV News and replaced by a younger anchor. Who approved that we “let Lisa’s hair turn gray” ? would have asked the boss of the chain during a meeting, according to the investigation of the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. Wave of indignation. In 2010, she herself had replaced Lloyd Robertson, an experienced journalist whose gray hair bothered no one (below).

Iran, United States, South Korea... Hair, symbol of revolt

“Equality. Why should women hide their white hair? »interrogates International mailwhich relates the explanations of the 58-year-old presenter, who stopped dyeing her hair at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I ended up saying to myself, ‘Why am I bothering?’ I keep my gray hairexplains Lisa LaFlamme. Frankly, if I could have imagined how liberating confinement would be, I would have done it much sooner. » The case reveals – again – gender inequalities, but also “to what extent the rejection of old age and the desire to rejuvenate mark our societies”deciphers the ethnologist Christian Bromberger.

(1) Creaphis Editions, 2015, 240 p., €12

(2) Political Islam, sex and gender. In light of the Iranian experiencePUF, 2011, 228 pages, €25

(3) Author ofPolitical Islam, sex and gender. In light of the Iranian experience, PUF, 2011

(4) Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair


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