Untangling the knotty politics of African women’s hair

Balkissa Maiga, 17, wears a traditional Songhai headdress made by artisan Hally Bara in Gao, Mali. Reuters/Joe Penney

Hair is a crucial part of a woman’s body image. It has aesthetic, social, psychological, cultural and religious significance in all human societies. There are points of variation which can be gleaned from individual women’s attitudes towards hairstyle. Victoria Sherrow, in her Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, describes these variations as a function of a person’s personal beliefs, status, age, gender or religion.

In Africa a woman’s hair serves many purposes. It can be an aesthetic adornment, define social status or mark class distinction and enhance self-image and esteem. It could also serve cultural and religious purposes, such as when a woman’s hair is considered sacred while she is mourning her husband.

These functions were more pronounced in traditional Africa and seem to be gradually eroding. For instance, different classes of women now share similar hairstyles unreservedly.

Remarkably, the politics of hair in Africa is quite unique and different from the situation in other parts of the world. For instance, despite India’s shared colonial experience with Africa, Indian women have largely retained their cultural hairstyle - basically because they do not have the coarse, kinky hair which is peculiar to Africa and requires straightening.

In the US, multiracial, liberal and environmental factors have conventionally determined the woman’s hairstyle. However fashion and fad are more recent explanations for hairstyles in contemporary US.

A more fundamental dimension of hair is its political underpinning. The politics of hair in Africa is highly debatable. Herbert Winter and Thomas Bellows’ conception of politics best captures this. Politics, for them, is “a struggle between actors pursuing conflicting desires that may result in an authoritative allocation of values”.

For centuries black women around the world were discriminated against because of their skin, hair and culture. White attributes, including straight hair, were seen as superior. Hence black women felt the need to emulate hairstyles that made them seem more superior.

Politics traceable to colonial era

The current, seemingly modern politics of African hair – the choice to keep it “African” or in tune to global trends – can be traced to the colonial era. Then and now the African woman found herself in a dilemma: to either imbibe the white woman’s culture or to keep strictly to her cultural hair ideals and rationale. This was a politics of ambivalence.

Africa’s contact with the West through the slave trade and colonialism exposed it to civilisation through Western education and Christianity, which were laden with Western cultures and lifestyles.

The politics of hair in Africa presents hairstyles and colours in the West as an archetype to be copied while suppressing traditional hair as “unconventional” and “uncivilised”. In this process, there is a subtle imposition on African women – they begin to see the necessity of wearing non-African hairstyles to gain social acceptance.

African women have varying yearnings and desired objectives which, in most cases, gear them towards actions aimed at establishing respected authority. These could be in their family circle, career, religious setting, or community. Such motivation for a competitive edge over other women does inform concurrent and recurrent change of hairstyles, from hair straightening to wigs and weaves to plaiting.

This perhaps informed South African hair blogger Milisuthando Bongela’s assertion that “black hair has been treated with disdain for years because black people have been made to be a problem”.

Globalisation and choice

Change and continuity are recent clichés in African politics. When these ideas are applied to the politics of hair, an African woman is left with two dimensions of choice: she should maintain a constant and consistent commitment to African hairstyles or be dynamic and ingenious with her looks by succumbing to the pressures of neocolonialism and globalisation.

Each option has inherent consequences. It then becomes a choice for the African woman. Does she project to the world that her culture is unique and worthy of emulation? Or does she dogmatically add chemicals to her hair and wear synthetic fibre with its accompanying inconveniences?

The intimidating option is whether to retain her African identity with pride or to surrender to the trickery that conformity breeds acceptance. The politics of hair in Africa must take a right turn to pride and self-assertion.