hair raiser

Indian schools and the Right-Wing have something in common – the desire to control women’s hair

Everyone has something to say about a woman’s hair, and it’s always based on stereotypes and a wish to control her life.

My eleven-year-old daughter has a detailed mandate from her school on how to wear shoulder-length hair: whether it is gathered into a plait or ponytail, there must be a pair of them and not one. So, she had her hair cut to the length of her chin instead and declared herself emancipated of rubber bands and inane rules. This demonstrated two attitudes – that she has developed a resistance to institutionally-organised control on female hair and that the endless stream of advertisements hailing the virtue of long and beautiful female hair have been wasted on her.

We are emotional about hair in a way that no other species is. Which is not surprising – for how many body parts, besides hair and nails can be both part of our living story and be shed at will? What’s more, how we wear our hair is intricately entangled with race, religion, fashion, class, culture, history, and epoch – which makes hair both intensely personal and extremely political at the same time. Hair isn’t just of great significance to the wearer, it’s a signifier of sorts, a symbol or how we as people fit into different worldviews.

I watch a Bollywood movie, and a lock of forehead hair, pulled back from the young heroine’s face by her beau, becomes the ultimate cliché of romantic attachment that goes back generations. In a totally different context, I remember the persistence with which Iranian women, Saudi men, and unidentifiable others jabbed in the direction of my hapless forehead every time a few strands of hair peeked out through their binding, whilst I performed the rituals of Haj. Their expressions suggested great personal offence, and wore a range of disgust, anger, and worry.

Across centuries and cultures

This puzzling range of emotion that we attach to hair, whether ours or others, and its commercial and historical journey, is the subject that anthropologist Emma Tarlo researched for three years before writing her non-fiction book, Entanglement, The Secret History of Hair. Maintaining the data gathering of an ethnographer and the keen eye of a traveller looking for personal stories she considers hair in the light of its many social meanings traversing cultures and time periods.

What emerges is a story of human struggle and aspiration that establishes a busy economy around hair, which runs into millions of dollars, and an inestimable number of workers. She writes, “The hair trade mobilises hundreds of thousands of people around the world on a daily basis – collectors who scour poor rural and urban areas in search of this much valued human fibre, pilgrims who travel hundreds of kilometers to donate it, traders who transport it, workers who move to hair-processing factories in search of labour, exporters and importers who enable its global circulation and distribution.”

Tarlo establishes anecdotal stories and data at every point of the chain that connects the donor to the receiver of hair. Ironies abound: the doctrinally encouraged, nearly industrial-sized tonsuring practices at traditional temples in South India translate into big business by the time they end up on the heads of Jewish women who prefer to practise sheitel rather than reveal their own hair. However, a respected rabbi’s decree against such “pagan hair” once turned the industry inside out. Toral, however, considers it a “…happy symbiotic balance… an unspoken pact between women of different nationalities and faiths who had, without knowing it, found ways of expressing their devotion and humility through sharing the same hair… At its best this might have been seen as a form of divine recycling.”

Myriad little-known facts pop up through the book suggesting the ubiquitous way hair has penetrated everyday life: We learn, for example, of how hair makes its way into soya recipes, paints, bagels, cosmetics, suits, artworks, instruments, pharmaceuticals and cement. A chapter on how animal hair makes its way into things as varied as lathering bristles to orchestral equipment suggest that how we treat and use our hair doesn’t just signify our distance and proximity to other people’s belief systems, but also defines “both our distance from animals and our proximity to them”.

Hair, in Tarlo’s book, is both base commodity and precious ideal, and has historically reflected societal norms about the female body in general.

What it says about you

Closer home, Mumbai based author Lalita Iyer’s semi-autobiographical book The Whole Shebang treats hair as a personal hurdle to be surmounted when growing up. She dedicates a chapter to hair, titled “Woman and the art of maintenance”. It includes an anecdote of her mother saying to a hairstylist, “Do something that will make her look soft and gentle,” because, culturally speaking, a young girl with big curls is begging to be tamed. She writes, “As I grew older, and the hair wilder (they no longer had to be plaited), there were jibes at every corner: When was the last time you oiled your hair? Have you combed it?... You have so much hair! How do you manage? Why don’t you try straightening?” She recalls that it took her years of being “apologetic” to finally muster the courage to accept her look and enjoy being herself.

Understanding the role of hair can require some meditation, particularly when you grow up amongst a Sikh community where, as Deepika Arwind, the Bengaluru-based playwright of A Brief History of Your Hair, observes, “it’s presence and absence… was always quite weighted, to the extent that chopping off her long hair left her feeling odd even three years after the event.”

Hair, in her case, “takes up a bit of mind space,” and she chose to explore the subject of hair and gender in cross-disciplinary way through a devised work, using mythology, fantastical explorations of stories related to hair, and deeply personal stories, to arrive at an understanding of hair as an external marker of gender, caste, and attractiveness.

While Arwind recalls audience reactions to this treatment as mixed, it is easy to see the fascination with this protein-based fibre is one that is likely to continue so long as we attach external values to the treatment and ownership of the human body. The politics of female hair in both traditional and western societies has much to do with how control is exercised on the female body by society, religion, custom, and culture, if the past is anything to go by. It’s up to women and girls to look at themselves and their hair with fresh eyes.

Karishma Attari is the Mumbai-based author of I See You and Don’t Look Down, and founder of Shakespeare for Dummies workshops. Her Twitter handle is @KarishmaWrites.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.