Gender and Hair Politics: An African Philosophical Analysis.

AuthorOmotoso, Sharon Adetutu
PositionHuman Hair: Intrigues and Complications - Report


Discussions that emerged from the widely read article 'Untangling the Knotty Politics of African Women's Hair' (1) necessitated a more comprehensive paper with a holistic approach of both philosophical and gender outlooks on the politics of hair. This transcends African women to include men in the hair discourse. It is important to clarify that while not ignoring the worth of considering politics of hair for Africans in the diaspora, this work will focus specifically on Africans at home. On one hand, philosophical analysis, as would be employed in this paper, will be an African philosophical analysis, using critical and analytic tools, while on the other hand, politics of hair in this work will encapsulate the cultural, spiritual, economic and aesthetic dimensions among others.

Hair is one of the important and widely shared human features which appear in different forms and parts of the body at different stages of life. Beginning with the Lanugo hair at birth, vellus hair in the first few months of infancy, followed by terminal hair, grown mostly in the pubic part and faces for men and some women (Pergament, 1999), hair remains an attachment to the skin serving varying purposes. Although hair is often argued to be dead and does nothing for humans, the physiological, aesthetic, social, psychological, cultural and religious significances of human hair are widespread across human societies. However, some points of possible variation can be gleaned in the attitudes towards hairstyling, hair-baldness, and complete intentional hair skinning. Sherrow (2006:iv) is perhaps correct in saying that such variations are a function of personal beliefs, status, age, gender or religion.

In Africa, for example, the hair serves a wide range of purposes such as: aesthetics and adornment, defining social status, class distinction and identification, enhancing self-image and esteem. It could also serve cultural and religious purposes in cases where the woman's hair is held sacred such as in situation of mourning the death of one's husband (Sossou, 2002) or in the case of men who as religious figures (spokesperson of deities) grow and weave their hair (Reference of Sango Worshippers). While the foregoing functions of hair were more pronounced in traditional Africa, recent trends in modern African societies suggest a gradual erosion of traditionally held rationale of hair. For instance, different classes of people now share similar hairstyles without reference to sex or class. The politics of hair in Africa presents hairstyles and colours in the global West as archetype to be copied in image while suppressing the traditional as unconventional and uncivilized. In this process, a subtle imposition ensues on Africans who see the necessity to wear non-African hairstyles in order to gain social acceptance. Winter and Bellows' (1981) conception of politics best captures the context of our discussion. Politics, for these scholars is 'a struggle between actors pursuing conflicting desires that may result in an authoritative allocation of values.' Africans have varying yearnings and desired objectives which in most cases gear them into actions aimed towards establishing respected authority, be it in their family circle, career, religious setting, or community. Such motivation does inform concurrent and recurrent change of hairstyles from hair straitening, to wigs, weave-ons, plaiting, growing beards or even keeping low cut. Therefore, this paper is sectionalized into six parts. After the introduction, the second section discusses traditional conceptions and significance of hair across selected cultures and genders. The third section provides justification for a philosophy of hair. The fourth section presents an African philosophy of hair. The fifth section critically examines hair politics in Africa viz-a-viz its ideological and economic implications on African peoples while the final section summarizes and concludes the paper.

Human Hair Across Cultures and Genders

Hair discourse is a space where race and gender intersect (Caldwell, 1991). With this understanding, human hairs have been linked with varying significances across cultures. This section attempts to establish hair significances across continent, to establish cross-cultural perceptions on hair, before moving into the African perspective. Among other things, Bartlet (1994) asserts that hair is a particularly fertile and more powerful bearer of meaning, stressing that hairs cover the part of the body (head and face) with the most concentrated and diverse communicative functions. In the work 'Symbolism of Hairstyle in Korea and Japan', Na-Young (2006) summarizes the significance of human hair in four points which are; to fend off evil influences, to express an ideal of beauty, to express a woman's marital status, and to express social status and wealth. Native Americans argue that hair, like skin, is an extension of the nervous system, it may be correctly seen as exteriorized nerves, a type of highly evolved 'feelers' or 'antennae' that transmit vast amounts of important information to the brainstem, the limbic system, and the neocortex. (2) According to Gordon (2012), long hair for Native Americans represents a strong spirit:

Men of some tribes used to cut their hair only for mourning for a death of a close relative which meant that a mourner's spirit was desolated by the loss of a loved one. When they cut their hair in the past they had to dispose of it in a ceremonious way... they put their hair that was cut off in a river. Since they are a part of the earth they always put themselves back into the earth. Leach (1958) observes that among Hindus in India and Buddhists in SriLanka, long hair represented unrestrained sexuality, short hair, tightly bounded or partially shaved hair depicts constrained sexuality, while shaved heads denotes celibacy. Na-Young (2006) points out that Indians keep their long hair because they believe that cutting of hair is a contributing factor to unawareness of environmental distress in local ecosystems; a contributing factor to insensitivity in relationships of all kinds, also contributing to sexual frustration (3). Might this be unconnected with the manner with which the hair on our body rises whenever we are confronted with extreme fear or anxiety? From this point, issues discussed are be limited to Africa.

Justifying a Philosophy of Hair

It is a truism that Philosophy began with wonders and curiosity. Salient recurring questions about life, humans and the world have sustained the discipline in retaining its relevance. Thus, inquiring if there could be any philosophy of hair is itself a philosophical enterprise. While certain philosophers would argue that to endorse any philosophy of hair is to relegate philosophical enterprise to realms of trivialities and strip philosophy of its academic nature, I present two theses to prove that philosophy of hair is a mentally instructive and academically sustainable discourse with cognitively relevant insights. First, a human nature thesis would maintain that curiosity is a fundamental human trait and that such inquisitiveness about human body parts explains discoveries which have aided improved health and living conditions. Accordingly, whatever has posed salient questions in human mind is worthy of philosophizing. Secondly, an inevitability thesis would rest on an argument that the role of philosophy is to sharpen concepts and systematically explore relations of mind to the body. Following the Greek Aphorism, 'know thyself, every part of the body has a purpose, which if unknown will ultimately result in loss of the true power possessed by that part; thus, when hair is considered as a part of the self, it necessarily opens itself to philosophical scrutiny.

A focused group discussion with selected African women probed why they change their hairstyles, straiten their hair, put on wigs and weave ons? The following responses which explicate both human nature and inevitability theses were captured:

It is a part of personal hygiene It changes my look and gives me a feeling of freshness and confidence It shows how ingenious and dynamic I am as a woman That is the trend across the globe and I cannot afford to be left out It is part of African culture, as our matriarchs also wore different hairstyles for different occasion The list goes on and on, thereby reiterating differences in taste and lifestyle, regardless of shared feminine physiology. Similarly, inferences from both 'natural' and 'inevitability' theses connect with Schwitzgebel's (2006) assertion that: for all X, there is a Philosophy of X. Justifying Philosophy of Hair, Schwitzgebel (2006) identifies the following as recognizably philosophically relevant questions:

  1. What distinguishes a haircut from other events in which one's hair ends shorter (e:g fire, lawnmower accident)?

  2. Is a good haircut timelessly good or does the quality of a haircut depend in part on the tides...

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