These are hair raising times. Hair removing as well. Last week, barbershop barbarians forcibly shaved off a young Muslim’s beard. Democracy gives all citizens the freedom to eat tenderloin if they like, wear miniskirts or burkas according to their dressing preferences and live in a ghetto or a penthouse as befitting their economic and social security; with the caveat that laws, religion and sensibilities not be offended. Splitting hairs is the theological mood of the moment, with barbershops being turned into battlefields of faith, there you are—in this age of bullies when cow mob lynchings threaten to be the new normal, the All India Faizan-e-Madina Council has also announced a cash reward of `11,000 to any devout Muslim who chops off the hair of women opposing the sexually sadistic nikah halala and stones them to death afterwards.
The women were warned to ‘‘leave the country’’ within three days to escape their grisly fate.In the hair spa of history, a close shave is a dubious blessing. Coiffure has been a matter of identity for millennia—religious, social, gender and cultural. Christian monks shaved their crown and kept the fringe on. Widows in India were forced to go bald. Pilgrims shave off their locks in Tirupati. A devout Hindu’s shikha, the Sikh’s profuse locks and the unkempt curls of Hassidic Jews are proud cultural emblems.
Beards are not strictly Islamic either: the great Chhatrapati Shivaji kept a magnificent one while the Egyptian pharaohs and Abyssinian dandies could have given Toni&Guy hairy moments. In the Flower Child days, long hair was for rockstars and were symbols of youthful rebellion against war and WASP values. The hirsute in feminism is on occasion offensive and soul searching; once a chauvinist Union minister mocked ladies with short hair, even as jokes about stereotype blondes still raise a laugh. “Afro or straight hair?” is the debate black women in America constantly agonise over: is straightening crinkly hair akin to Michael Jackson whitening his skin?
For hair maketh the idol. Amitabh Bachchan’s pre-glabrous hairstyle that segued into wigs created a style rage across salons populated by stylists sporting the same haircuts. There is no greater fashion medium in the world, with the hair care industry set to be worth $211.1 billion by 2025. India’s fuzz industry is at `200 crore and growing. I shave (or don’t), therefore I am.
The fundamental truth is that hair defines personality and all hair-shaming is deplorable. The majority of Muslims do not keep beards, nor do all Hindus wear a ‘choti’. During the Sikh genocide, rioters cut off the hair of their victims before burning them. When hair becomes a crisis of faith, we risk the dark symbology of deeper conflicts entering the mainstream by a hair’s breadth. Culture is having a bad hair day.