The complex politics of Iranian women’s hair

sharareh siadat
The complex politics of Iranian women’s hairCourtesy of Sharareh Siadat

On September 16, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, died after being detained by Iran’s so-called morality police. Her death ignited a long-simmering anger in the people of Iran and sparked a revolution, largely led by young women, demanding an end to the Islamic regime. For the past six weeks, they’ve faced brutal government crackdowns, but they remain undaunted, adopting the Kurdish rallying cry: "Woman. Life. Freedom."

Harper’s BAZAAR has asked celebrated Iranian writers, artists, journalists, and more to help make sense of this moment when so much is at stake. Their stories are collected here, with more to come.

For TooD Beauty founder Sharareh Siadat, it all comes back to hair. As a young Iranian woman born in Maryland and raised in small-town Massachusetts, she tweezed, waxed, and lasered her way into fitting in with what she saw as the ideal American beauty standards. But when she became a mother and witnessed Iranian features flourish in one of her children, she realised she had to embrace them in herself. "We are blessed with a lot of hair," she says, and now she sports it proudly, unibrow and all. She also knows that one way Iran's government controls the country's women is by covering this signature of Iranian beauty behind mandatory hijab laws. For Siadat, the current women-led protests in Iran—following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police who detained her for not covering her head to their liking—are about abolishing a regime that weaponises every part of a woman's body, right down to the last strand of hair.

Here, Siadat traces her journey towards embracing her Iranian identity through her relationship with hair and beauty—and how her love of her heritage has propelled her onto the streets to protest alongside, and on behalf of, the women of Iran.

On drawing inspiration from her family history:

I am a first-generation Iranian American. I say that proudly now, but for many years of my life, I would lie about even being Iranian. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my background. I was born in America in 1980, right after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My father came here in the early 1970s for college, went back to Iran where he met my mom, and they married in 1977 before returning to the States.

My grandparents came here in 1979, when my mom was pregnant with me. The very next day, Ayatollah Khomeini's terrorists ransacked my grandparents' home. This story is not uncommon. These men would travel to terrorise and murder people; say you were in Paris, they would come after you. This was the world order of Iran that I was born into, that my parents and my grandparents were forced into. In a weird way, my birth saved my grandparents. It liberated me, too, because that very easily could have been my life. And that's why what is happening right now hits so close to home for me.

There are a lot of parallels to what has happened in the historical context of Iran to what I see happening in America today. This is really a wake-up call, not only to help Iranian people, but also for American people as our liberties slowly get taken away. Now more than ever, there is a need to amplify Iranian voices, first and foremost.

On the experience of assimilation:

I was raised in a very small town in Massachusetts, and I was always made to feel less-than. I had a unibrow and what you might consider "Middle Eastern features". Because I lived in a town that was so homogenous, I was bullied a lot. This was around the time of the Iran hostage crisis, which didn't help public perception of Iranians in the U.S. The driveway of our home would be set on fire, and people would vandalise our house with shaving cream. As a little girl, I never understood what it meant, but I knew that it wasn't a good thing. Yet my parents, even to this day, never complained about what happened to us.

We moved when I was in eighth grade, and I looked at that as an opportunity to reinvent myself. So I tweezed my unibrow. In my culture, if you groom yourself as a woman prior to being married, you're considered a slut, because that means you want to beautify yourself for the male gaze. This way of thinking was pervasive even in times when my parents were being raised, when the culture was more Westernised. There are always elements of patriarchy present when it comes to beauty, especially as a form of control. When we talk about bodily autonomy, we aren't just talking about abortion.

On learning to love being Iranian American:

I tweezed, waxed, and lasered my hair for 20-plus years. I married a WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] so I could have WASP-y children. Then I had my third kid, who looked like me, which made me realise I needed to rewire myself—and grow my unibrow back. Because I saw her joy, beauty, and effervescence, I needed to witness it in myself.

So about five years ago, I decided to reclaim my identity as an Iranian. I had a personal revolution, and now I'm witnessing the global revolution happening in my country. I stand here very proudly today as an Iranian American. I am both. I support both. And it's time that my sisters are liberated and given the life that I was so fortunate to have.

On how beauty can be intertwined with the political:

What's happening in Iran is not about Islam, it's not about wearing a hijab or not, it's not about covering our hair or not. This is about personal choice. That's why women cutting off their hair has become so central to this revolution. Long hair is often associated with beauty, youth, and fertility. Chopping it off speaks volumes.

In Iran, because we are blessed with a lot of hair—whether it's on the tops of our heads or on our bodies—we have the capacity to shape and groom it. There are infinite options. So it's an easy thing to police in pursuit of dominance. It all has to do with psychology, with keeping women busy—because women are powerful.

I think there's a misconception in mainstream media about why Mahsa Amini was murdered. Some people still think she walked out without a hijab and that was the reason she was taken. But no, she walked out wearing her hijab, but in a way that showed some of her hair, and one man, a morality police officer, decided that this was indecent, and she was taken and beaten unconscious.

Journalist Masih Alinejad said, "To me, the compulsory hijab is like the Berlin Wall. If we tear this wall down, the Islamic Republic won't exist." This law is so symbolic of the domination and trauma that my people have experienced for the last 43 years. And it's going down.

On harnessing social media for change:

My whole life, I waited for someone to tell me that it's okay to be Iranian, to be proud of my heritage, to be okay with having a unibrow. So when it comes to a cause like this, if I don't use every single platform that is available to me, then I'll be letting down the little girl inside of me who wished someone had done that for her.

The number one thing is to continue to spread the word. First and foremost, spread awareness of the basic facts of what is happening in Iran. Teenagers and children have been killed.

I've been really inspired by my people. They saw that the media wasn't covering us, and they said, "Don't want to cover us? No problem. We'll be the media." [The Iranian Diaspora Collective] created a fund to buy billboards, to buy ad space, to buy air time. That's how Iranians are.

On the bottom line:

My whole life, Iranians were villainised. The Iran hostage crisis, the Iran–Iraq War, the Gulf War, September 11, being considered part of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil"—all those things happened before I was 21 years old. Americans in my generation believed all Iranians were terrorists because they were portrayed that way in movies. Understand this: Iranians are not terrorists—they were being terrorised. For all those Iranians, and for my five-year-old self, I'll continue to amplify and centre Iranian stories and voices—because it's time for the world to meet us and know us for who we really are.

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