Since I was in junior high school I’ve had a superficial attachment to my hair. It was long. It was gold and red. It was rare. And it defined me.
I recently underwent chemotherapy and lost all of my hair.
Sickness. Quietly under the surface, rogue cells proliferate in a coordinated fashion. They want to live just as much as you do. They rebel against your body and manifest in a myriad of malicious forms from swollen lymph nodes to tumors to night sweats to fevers. If you’re lucky doctors and nurses will respond with something equally as intangible—drugs. A cocktail of them.
But this isn’t an article on sickness of the body. It is about the sickness and contagion of perception.
For six months now I have donned the headscarf—and mostly a trifecta of layers and colors depending on my mood. When I’m feeling classy, I’ll put a bow on top. When I feel wild, I’ll wear my skulls bandana. But regardless of the color of my scarf, 90 percent of the time I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself.
It’s the tangible—the stuff we see everyday—that has deep relationships with our identity.
Being a woman in America, I am well-acquainted with the obsession our culture has with appearance. Despite the audacity of some of the questions I’ve encountered (“what’s with the pirate cap?” to “did you get a bad haircut or something?”)…who can blame them? We live in America. And the American conception of femininity is very extreme. There are codes–cultural codes that tell us we’re beautiful. We wear our hair long, we comb it, color it, straighten it…we fit it into sexual identity, neatly. Spray down the unruly bits. The cutting of one’s locks is often seen as a way to eschew them of their sexuality.
Compare these views to the Eastern and Arab views of femininity. The Hijab, a commonly worn head covering for Muslim women, was historically seen as a preservation of femininity and a sign of modesty. It is a paradox in today’s time—sometimes seen as a sign of oppression, as a sign of liberation, and often as a sign of respect for tradition–and largely misinterpreted by Westerners.
Professor Amina Wadud of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University commented on the Hijab: “I think the head covering as a form of oppression comes to the end of whether or not a person or a collective of people in one cultural context has the right to choose. …if we understand modesty as something that is not fixed in time, but is the primary principle that is being promoted within the Quran, for example, then we will recognize that there are many ways to symbolize this.” She points out that to wear the hijab for the sake of what it signifies—be it modesty, liberation, or tradition—is to miss the point.
There are written codes for rebellion. Just as there are written codes for tradition, for beauty, for femininity, for masculinity. This is a paradox because we often like to fancy ourselves as individuals, free to make our decisions as human beings. However, we are also individuals interacting with other individuals, and the codes and mores written into our culture complicate our freedom to act as if unaffected by others. No matter the cause I have to feel validated and victorious about undergoing chemotherapy and coming out a survivor, I still often feel the absurd need to explain my appearance to others.
I could write a book on it.
In the final installment of the series, Part IV, Minoo Razavi will examine cultural plurality as a controversial force in immigrant-friendly societies.
Check out the other 3 blogs in this series: