A Muslim Woman Shares How She Uses Her Hair as a Form of Resistance

Photo:

@rhianna.beau

To me, hair has been a big part of my identity—growing up as a non-Muslim, my hair was always my crown and glory. It was a symbol of my femininity and a means of fitting in with society. As a black girl, I grew up hating my hair. I wanted it long and straight like the white girls in my class or even long and curly like the mixed girls. I never did like having Afro hair. It couldn’t move like everyone else’s; it wouldn’t lay flat, and the uncontrollable shrinkage after a sweaty day on the playground meant that I could NEVER wear my hair out.

These feelings carried on with me into my teenage years when I managed to convince my mother to let me perm my hair. It took a lot for her to say yes, but she eventually did. I was so happy; I felt like a new person with a newfound confidence in myself. Pushing the bar as most teenagers do and wanting to experiment with my look even further, I started to dye my hair and took over perming my hair myself. By my late teens, I had taken my shahada and had also damaged my hair. It had all broken off at least twice. I was addicted to perming, cutting, and dyeing my hair crazy colors, trying to fit in with what society showed me was a beautiful girl.

I had been jet-black, brown, ginger, and bleach-blonde, and as a black girl, toying with my hair from extremity to extremity was a dangerous game. Becoming a Muslim was also something very difficult for me, as I really did not want to cover my hair. My hair was an integral part of my identity as a female and to cover it was a big deal. After years of damaging my hair and another few years of trying to recuperate what little hair I had left, I decided to big chop.

Big chop [noun]:

To cut off a significant portion of one’s hair, usually to remove hair that is damaged or hair that is no longer natural due to chemical treatments such as perming or dyeing.

It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do. As I mentioned earlier, my hair was wrapped up in my identity. To cut it all off, to tear my very identity back to its bare bones and start again, was both an emotional and exhilarating experience for me.

They say, “When a woman cuts her hair, she is changing her,” and I can truly relate to that. After doing the big chop, I spent the next year and a half trying to love myself, love my hair in its natural state. It wasn’t easy, as for so many years, I had not known my natural hair. I had gotten used to the laziness of not having to maintain my hair as much and now I felt like I couldn’t handle myself.

My hair ended up being damaged again. It was dry and brittle and snapping off at the ends. I decided to take control and big chop for a second time. This was heartbreaking, as I had to face myself and take account of my shortcomings. Why wasn’t I putting as much effort into my self-care as needed? Why did I feel all these years that my natural hair texture was not right? Not good enough? Why did I feel like I wasn’t enough?

All of these questions played on my mind. After the big chop, I decided to fully embrace and learn about myself. This ironically coincided with the birth of my daughter. I experienced a traumatic labor, and this too may have played a part in me wanting a fresh start, wanting to cut everything away. The patriarchal expectations of me as a woman, the societal pressures to be the perfect mother even though I had just experienced what was the most traumatic thing in my life, and I just wanted to be me, bare-faced and raw.

I wanted to grow again as a person and as a mother and put the same amount of effort that I put into other people into myself. I promised myself I would never perm my hair again, that I would never dye my hair again, that I would never do anything to myself that I know to be damaging. I vowed to myself that I am enough as I am and that even though Western society tells me different, God made me perfectly imperfect. This is me.

Although I was covering my hair, the societal pressures didn’t stop. Having the extra pressures of making ghusl and wudu frequently wreaked havoc on my hair, and popping out my TWA (teeny-weeny afro) in the masjid bathroom wasn’t easy to do either. It truly humbled me. The experience brought me back to me. Grounded. Pure. It helped me to see beauty in something I once detested and also allowed me to bring my daughter, Aaliyah, along for the journey.

Ghusl [noun]:

A religious and ritual bathing usually in preparation for prayer, after sexual intercourse, or after menstruation, according to Islamic traditions.

Wudu [noun]:

A religious and ritual light washing usually in preparation for prayer.

I do so much with her to show her she is enough as she is, she is perfectly imperfect, and to be fine with that. In this day and age, it is a revolutionary act to engage in loving oneself as you are. It is revolutionary to be persistent in being yourself, in all of your glory. I aim to make her love the fact that her hair cannot lay flat; it’s magical that her hair can defy gravity. I show her the beauty in the way that her hair texture changes from bouncy and curly when wet to cotton woolly after a blow-dry or a thick dense sponge if we haven’t combed it out.

I make time for both of us to bond as mother and daughter as we have our girly days in because we all know washday for a black girl is literally a whole-day affair. We watch our movies and walk around the house donning any plastic bag we can to steam our deep conditioners deep into our strands.

Being a hijabi and constantly wearing your gravity-defying afro hair in a flat, low bun will have you forgetting what your hair is. I stopped doing this. Any chance I get, I will whip off my hair bands, give my hair a shake, and let it be. I try to show her our African roots and incorporate a variety of natural African herbs, oils, and butters into our skin and haircare routines. We regularly use jojoba oil, castor oil, shea butter, aloe vera, brown sugar, mallow root, and horsetail for our skin and haircare. We also use a range of hair products from Aunt Jackie’s.

We live in Kent in a predominantly white area and have to take a 35-minute drive to our nearest black hair shop. Our monthly trips to Ace come like clockwork, and I know they will be a source of nostalgia when she grows up. I try my best to use all-natural products to care for my skin, which also doubles up as a plus because it means Aaliyah can also join in. Our favorite mask is turmeric and honey.

Recipe to try:

1/2 tbsp. of turmeric
2 tbsp. of raw honey (organic, preferably)
1/2 tsp. of milk (optional)

To moisturize our bodies, we use a variety of oils, including olive oil, jojoba oil, and chia seed oil. The oils absorb so quickly, and leave your skin feeling super soft and supple. I also use coconut oil as a makeup remover—this oil is one of my vital lotions and potions because I use makeup so much. During my journey of self-discovery, I found that expressing myself, the way I feel, the way I want others to feel is so empowering.

I love to express myself through my fashion, beauty, and makeup styles. As a Muslim woman, modest and observing the hijab, I have a lot of expectations placed upon me. I have a neat little box that I am supposed to fit tidily into. Unfortunately I refuse. I cannot be any less than my authentic self, and no religious sheikh or the haram police who enforce a patriarchal interpretation of Islam can tell me otherwise.