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The Politics of Hair
|by Nilanjana Biswas|
"This time it's going to be all about hair!" announces the editorial of a recent issue of 'Scripts', the little magazine brought out by LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action), a Bombay-based collective. What follows is a fascinating collection of stories, narratives, poems, cartoon strips and illustrations that talk about hair, the long and short of it.
Such is the razor effect of advertising and popular media, shearing public imagination to the point of barrenness, that few can think of hair in any context other than that of fashionable models and cosmetic products. And so - as in the case of the current issue of 'Scripts' - when the context is radically shifted, a new terrain opens; imagination receives a new lease of life.
LABIA is an autonomous collective of lesbian, transgender and bisexual women. Established in 1995 and formerly known as Stree Sangam, this non-funded campaign and action group has been bringing out 'Scripts', which it describes as "a queer zine". The magazine was started in 1998, and was consolidated in 2003 as part of a three-day international film festival on sexuality and gender plurality. Since then, LABIA has been publishing 'Scripts' with steadily increasing consistency.
The issue on 'hair' (Number 9) is a slim volume of living history that subverts the categories of current political analysis. Hair is, after all, only hair; to offer it as a subject of critical political enquiry is almost to invite a rap on the knuckles. But, as the editorial points out, "the roots go deep" and the issue of hair is deeply intertwined with gender performance and with perceptions of body and self.
A few years ago, when Sharad Yadav dismissed the demand for 33 per cent reservation of electoral seats for women, it is not insignificant that he described it as an absurd demand from westernized, shorthaired women ("par kati mahilaein"). It was not the first time that a patriarchal stereotype was being used to divide women further on the basis of class and caste to prevent their political empowerment.
Nor is it insignificant that the most striking marker of the Brahmin widow was her tonsured head. Hair is, after all, intrinsically associated with feminine sexuality - a force that is worshipped in the open-haired Kali, strictly controlled in the married woman, and suppressed - if not obliterated - in the widow. Even today, there are shocking reports of women, upon suspicion of adultery, being publicly tonsured and paraded nude often at the behest of the local panchayat (village council).
Leafing through 'Scripts', it becomes clear that hair is a knotty issue, inseparable for a woman from her construction of self and sexual identity. When that identity is at complete odds with societal expectations, the journey for the haircut that fits is often fraught with deep trauma.
Modern Indian society shackles the sexuality of lesbian or transgender or bisexual women, not through chains but through oppressive denial. It is only when they struggle to claim the same conditions for themselves as are available, indeed prescribed, for heterosexual women and men - such as the right to marry or be together - that a violent clampdown occurs. The cases of lesbian women preferring joint suicide to separation forced by disapproving families bear testimony to society's extreme intolerance of women's 'deviant' behavior.
And since society has bafflingly simple rules that define how good girls should behave, the very first signs of deviance invite punishment and control. Often it is that first haircut. From emotional blackmail by a distraught mother to an outraged father's silent boycott, the first haircut heralds the beginning of trouble.
However, the first haircut, if it turns out right, may bring the joys of self-affirmation and self-acceptance. A woman's first visit to the male saloon or roadside barber shop for a 'chhota' may be an act poised on the razor's edge, as it were, both liberating and terrifying.
As some of the narratives suggest, hair may be the subject of a lesbian lover's tiff, of manifest grief and mourning, of a mother's anxiety, of mistaken identity, and hilariously, even lead to a sneezing bout that foils a grand seduction plan. In one narrative on the loss of a relationship, where the author of the piece is in deep mourning after her lover leaves; in a daze still, she snips off her hair.
There is a striking extract from a Marathi novel by Namdeo Kamble called 'Raghav Wel'. It describes a couple of Dalit beggar children, Raghu and Kaushi, who find a bunch of strange, curly hair mixed up in the bowl of rice they receive as alms; the sight induces a complex whirl of emotions in the young Raghu whose eyes know no sleep that night.
Hair is much more than a physical attribute. It has a loaded significance in our cultures and, today, as the winds of globalization sweep across the country, hair is also big business. Playing upon the mix of our deepest fears and fantasies, every year, through the sales of shampoos, conditioners, coloring agents and other such products, the Indian cosmetic and toiletries industry rakes in several millions of rupees annually
I carefully mark a recent newspaper article about a woman who fought for (and won) compensation through the consumer court after she went bald as the unfortunate result of trying to streak her hair a pretty shade. Of what, I wonder with a sigh as I return to my copy of 'Scripts'. Time to let my hair down!
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