Let’s Talk Hair

“Hey, aren’t you hot in that?”

As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, I’ve gotten a whole host of strange and unusual questions about my hijab-everything from: “Do you wear that in the shower?” to “How do I know you’re not bald?” Take my word for it, the hijab isn’t meant to shield eyes from our shiny hairless heads.

And while these questions might seem rude or ignorant to some, oddly enough, I can appreciate where the confusion stems from; people who haven’t been exposed to the hijab don’t understand why something as fundamental as hair is worth hiding.

I mean, what’s the big deal with hair anyways?

I spoke to three ethnically and religiously diverse women- a Muslim woman who chooses to cover her hair, a Sikh woman who never cuts it and a Black woman who struggled to embrace its natural form- in order to understand what value hair holds to each of them.

Here were these strong and independent women who couldn’t be more different from each other, yet it was the struggles and meaning they found through their hair that drew parallels between their stories.

1. Beauty is contingent on hair, but not in the traditional sense

When Raneem Alozzi, a second-year journalism student at Ryerson University, started wearing hijab at the eager age of 11, she instantly felt “out of place”.

“I thought to myself: ‘Oh my god, I’m no longer pretty’,” said Alozzi. “Especially in those preteen years, I wanted to tie my pigtails, do my hair, and look like all the other girls.”

When asked why the hijab made her feel less beautiful, she told me it was because of the false value we give to “outwardly superficial beauty features”  - features that aren’t telling of our beauty, as people, at all.  

Alozzi’s experiences sound all too familiar. When I wore my hijab to school for the first time in the sixth grade, excited to share this new side of me, people instantly remarked that I looked much prettier without it. The concept seemed strange-  I was still the same person, except with a little less hair and a little more cloth.

If I was considered “beautiful” before, why should that perception change only from the covering of my hair?

Essentially, I was asking myself the very question that birthed this story: what’s the big deal with hair anyways?

Raneem Alozzi, a hijab-wearing student at Ryerson University.    

Raneem Alozzi, a hijab-wearing student at Ryerson University.    

Alozzi told me that covering her hair pushed her to redefine what she considered to be beautiful; she no longer cared to fit in, because blending in with a hijab almost seemed impossible to her. She focused instead on beautifying her character, on trying to be “kind, humble and generous,” so she could be judged on the premise of her qualities, not her features.

“My beauty isn’t only limited to what it is you are able to see, there's so much more that I stand for,” she said.

The other women I spoke to sought beauty through the expression of their hair.

Kiranjot Jagpal, an 18-year-old Sikh woman who hasn’t cut her hair since birth, and Imani Walker, an African- Canadian fourth-year journalism student who sports her natural hair , both told me that, maybe, it was the ability to express yourself through hair that really made it central to beauty.

“People are siding more with creativity nowadays as opposed to typical, ‘nice’ hair,” said Walker. “They’re a lot more liberal in terms of styling their hair.” She references women who can rock their half-shaved heads, and those with hair dyed every imaginable colour.

She tells me hair is central to self-expression, and this freedom of self-expression is what allows us to feel beautiful. What most don’t realize is that the hijab itself is also a form of self-expression, and for Alozzi, is one that allows her to achieve the most beautiful version of herself.

2. Eurocentric beauty standards didn’t account for variations in hair, resulting in issues of self-acceptance for these women

Imani Walker has always worn her hair naturally; these days it is styled in dreadlocks that fall halfway down her back. By wearing it “natural”, she means it has never been relaxed -- a term referring to the process of chemically “relaxing” the kinks and curls of black hair, so that it becomes easier to straighten. The hair relaxing industry is a booming one, and statistics show that in America alone, it is valued at an estimated $1.8 to $15 billion dollars.

When asked why black women are so hesitant to wear their hair natural, Walker said that while a big part of it is just tradition, Eurocentric beauty standards of straight, or wavy, hair often leave black women feeling their natural kinky hair isn’t good enough.

“In the past, black women were made to feel less womanly than the white woman through their hair ” said Walker. “For you to be considered pretty or have beautiful hair, you had to have straight hair or European looking hair”.

“To wear your big afro just isn’t the norm.”

She tells me she grew up feeling insecure about wearing her hair natural, and this feeling was only amplified when she saw black women on TV with weaves and wigs, but never afros or kinky hair.

We’re often quick to celebrate any non-white diversity we see in the media, but Walker’s comments made me realize that even if diversity is present, it doesn't always represent the true narrative of a community. It reminds me of the time I saw Nimrah Amin on Quantico removing her hijab before kissing her lover- as if something as sacred and complex as the hijab could be reduced to a piece of cloth to be tossed aside when it was most convenient.

While Jagpal told me these ideals didn’t affect her growing up, Alozzi’s experiences rang true to Walker’s sentiments.

“When I started wearing the hijab, I slowly grew to understand how beauty is viewed through a Eurocentric lens,” said Alozzi. “That lens involves hair by default, so obviously the hijab never fit in.”

When asked how she coped with this, Alozzi told me she stopped trying to conform to an ideal that made no space for her or people of her religion. Instead, she started viewing herself through value-oriented and religious lenses which helped her to embrace the hijab.

“We’re slowly chipping away at the stereotype of what a typical Western woman looks like.”

3. Hair serves as an “anchor” that connects us to our roots, whatever those roots may be

Kiranjot Jagpal could be the South-Indian version of a modern-day Rapunzel.

Jagpal, like many Sikh men and women, hasn’t cut the hair on her head since birth. To her, hair is a sacred gift from God, and by preserving this gift, she is better able to be a practicing Sikh.

Religiosity amongst twenty-first century young adults is hard to come by. Those in university are still unsure of what they want from themselves, let alone what God wants from them (should they even believe in a higher power).

When asked why growing out her hair held such personal value, she said it allowed her to connect with her “Sikh heritage and religious roots.” It seemed for her, religion was the guiding force behind how she expressed her hair.

I again came across a similar idea while speaking to Alozzi, who described the hijab as an “anchor” tying her back to both religious values and God.

“It [the hijab] reminds me constantly of who I am and what I stand for, even on the days I don’t love it,” she said.

As someone who grew up wearing the hijab, I can sympathize when Alozzi says it is sometimes hard to love. I often look in the mirror and wonder if I’m even worthy of wearing the hijab. I am hardly the perfectly religious Muslim woman I aspire to be, and the pressures of being visibly Muslim given today’s political climate are overwhelming.

If anything, the hijab is a symbol of my flawed nature, a piece of cloth that visually embodies my struggle in the pursuit of self betterment.