Recently, I celebrated my very own adult Aqiqah. A writer, making a living in Kuala Lumpur, I hustled over to Wangsa Maju, an area overflowing with budget hair salons. I happened upon a salon with a red sign. Twenty Malaysian Ringgit for a haircut, which is approximately $7 CAD. Even better, there was a separate enclosed area where Muslim women could be served unobserved. The eyes of the Malaysian stylists widened to saucer-size as I entered the establishment, perhaps worried that my tightly wrapped scarf hid a springy afro I was expecting them to coax into Kate Middleton waves.
What I wanted was far more off-beat. “Shave it. All of it.”
As a baby, I never had the traditional Muslim ceremony, in which a newborn’s hair is shaved, then weighed, its mass in silver given in alms. While the stakes are admittedly lower than in an adult circumcision, choosing to have an Aqiqah at my age is no less significant a rite of passage, and invites its own judgements. Shaved female heads are frequently associated with mental instability. Epithets like “erratic” and “unhinged” heavily spice tabloid accounts of famous feminine close shaves.
A cultural coordinate of this phenomenon: there is an indie band formerly known as Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head. When Britney Spears shaved hers in 2007, the media consensus was that she had completely cracked. More recently, similar conclusions have been drawn about Miley Cyrus and Amanda Bynes. But it’s not immediately obvious, to me, what the length of one’s hair has to do with one’s mental stability. Women are unlikely to escape judgment, whether from our family members, men or other women, especially when it comes to our hair. Media scandals recur at regular intervals, seeming to reinforce the idea that something must be seriously wrong with a female who removes her hair. Hell hath no fury like a woman shorn?
My own decision to shave my head has been simmering in my consciousness for years. I remember, nine years ago, hearing about Cennet Doganay, a fifteen year old Muslim woman in France so incensed by a newly-instituted ban on hijabs in her school that she shaved her head in protest. Afterward, she told reporters that she respected the law, but the law did not respect her religion. At the time, I was an undergraduate student of philosophy at McGill University, and the incident came up for discussion in our Muslim Students’ Association (MSA). One male student intimated that what this young, frustrated Muslim woman had done was Islamically unacceptable. My hapless peer had completely missed the point.
But not all hirsute pressure comes from men. My own mother treated my black curly tresses like the family jewels. Every so often, as a child, she would pin me between her legs, and, with the best of intentions and plenty of hair oil, rake a wide-tooth comb through my hair’s tumbling expanse. I kept this extravagant length, evidence of my mother’s consistent love and care, until I entered middle school. I had become grungy and whimsical, and a friend snipped it off, just for fun.
Now, my hair (or lack thereof) has once again taken on more significance. I asked a spiritual teacher within the Muslim community whether or not I should shave my own head. He advised me not to go through with it, saying that a woman’s hair is an important part of her beauty, and that I should give money to charity instead. At the time, I hadn’t yet cultivated my agency within my religious identity to the level where I could proceed according to my own individual evaluation.
But now I know my own mind. When I entered the salon with the red sign, they leapt into action without trying to counsel me out of my decision; I was, after all, a paying customer. Into the adjustable barber’s chair I went, a wide plastic cape efficiently snapped into place around my neck. The stylist whipped out a very masculine instrument, a black electric shaver, the kind with detachable combs for different buzz cut lengths. My hair fell around the chair in circular arcs. When the stylist was finished, the next step in seeing my adult Aqiqah to completion was both weirder than any mid-shave Britney paparazzo photo, and more difficult to carry off.
“Um, could I, by any chance, save my hair?” Pause.
“Okay!” A plastic bag was proffered, and I hunched over, scooping up fistfuls of my former mane, shoving them as quickly as possible into their new plastic home. My stylist was so charmed by the whole ceremony, thinking this to be an updated version of the 19th Century locket-of-hair-as-memento, that she got into the spirit. She helped me shovel hair into the plastic bag and took a selfie with her camera phone. Meanwhile, the male manager of the salon made the private female alcove obsolete by prowling busily through, periodically glimpsing me in all of my de-maned glory.
My next stop was a Wangsa Maju internet cafe, which I only frequent if absolutely necessary because of its raucous hordes of belching and farting adolescent gamers. I needed to play the Muslim call to prayer in my right and left ear as well as check the current stock price of silver. I thrust my white Apple earplug into my right ear, searched for a YouTube video of the Adhan and listened. Okay, next. Left plug in left ear, Iqamah found on YouTube, listen. Now, what was the current stock price of silver? Google said 23.895 USD per ounce.
On to step number three, in which I had to weigh my plastic bag of hair without the police apprehending me for public oddness. I returned to my living quarters and spotted a hanging scale, the kind one uses for carry-on luggage before heading to the airport. I dutifully hung my plastic cache of hair on the hook. Not even a tick of the dial, its load too light.
I tried a nearby drugstore, but they only stocked step scales, nothing like the precise digital organic chemistry scales I remembered from my university days and suddenly intensely desired. The only other thing I could think to do was pay a visit to a fruit and vegetable stall. In between diversionary mango purchases, I stealthily laid my plastic-wrapped burden of hair to rest for a split second on the metal weighting tray, registered its approximate value, and rounded up for good measure (after all, the money was going to charity). I paid for the mangoes and scooted, but not before eliciting a few confused yelps from the fruit vendor.
Just as the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, experienced when he shaved his head, I felt a great sense of release. It was as though my Hajj, too, was accomplished, a pilgrimage toward understanding my hair as a matter between me and God.
I still haven’t managed to identify the apparently direct link between the length of a woman’s hair and her sanity. There is never the suggestion that our hair is damaged and we’d like a fresh start. Or that there is spiritual significance to our hair cut. Or that we’re making a brilliant political statement as a response to an impossible situation in which our religion is pitted against our education. All of these possibilities are omnisciently swept away by the foreknowledge that only a woman hopping mad could shave her hair off. Contrary to the cultural dialogue, shaving my head has given me good things; my adult Aqiqah, an added degree of autonomy as a human and spiritual agent, and a new sense of mental release and peace.