It’s the Nineties. A little girl is sitting cross-legged on the floor watching Egyptian beauty icon Sherihan. As she dances across the television screen, her thick, waist-length hair cascades behind her. If ever there was a head of hair worthy of the title “Crowning Glory,” hers, is it.
The pang of envy the little girl feels is heightened by the sharp pain in her scalp as her mother scrapes her hair into an uncomfortably tight ponytail; an attempt to tame the girl’s obstinate, coiled locks.
It’s a familiar scene for a generation of young women across the Middle East. “I used to think that my hair was just frizzy and dry, I didn’t even know how curly my hair actually was. I was made to believe that the only way to deal with it was to either pull it back or cut it short,” says curly hair activist and entrepreneur Doaa Gawish. In 2016, Gawish founded The Hair Addict, an online forum focused solely on healthy haircare. Like many of her curly-haired peers, she never questioned the assimilated Euro-centric beauty ideals that have dominated the region for decades. “My hair had to be pulled into a ponytail and slicked back with any type of grease or straightened to make it look ‘tidy.’” The result? Frazzled, broken hair and traction alopecia, aka a receding hairline. A common result of years of tugging and tight hairstyles.
Gawish’s experience is echoed by countless women across the region who have recounted their stories of lives that revolved around endless visits to the hairdresser and being told to control and manipulate their akrat (coarse) and mankoosh (messy) hair, as though it were an untamable beast.
Fast forward to 2010 and the first wave of North African pro-democracy uprisings have begun, spearheaded by the younger generations, challenging some of the region’s entrenched authoritarian regimes. A brave new world was on the horizon, inspiring young Arabs to voice their opinions and dare to dream of a future, free from the suffocating boundaries endured by their predecessors.
Women across the region began transitioning to natural texture for their own personal reasons. In turn, it’s led many to believe that this follicular revolution is in fact a permanent modification in the way women, and many men, style their locks. A way of breaking free from the mental shackles of centuries of imperialist oppression—a literal reclamation of their roots. By the 2010s, actresses like Dina El-Sherbiny and Hend Sabry were breaking the taboo on the big screens, while curly-haired social media influencers, such as Ascia Al Faraj, Merian Odesho, Nirvana Salam, and Shadia Arsalan were carving this shift in pop culture and setting it in stone.
Gawish’s forum encourages its members to go heat-free and embrace their natural texture. Within months of its launch, the group ballooned from a meager few hundred enthusiasts to over 100,000 members. “I realized then that the trauma we impose on our hair is for the benefit of others, and not for ourselves. I couldn’t go to the office with my natural hair; if I did, I’d be faced with comments like, “Have you just woken up? Did you just come from the beach? My hair, in its natural state, was deemed unprofessional and not worthy.” She invited global natural haircare experts, like founder of The Curly Hair Method, Lorraine Massey, to speak to the group, leading her to not only launch her own hair care brand, but also organize the Natural Hair Festival. As the first of its kind in the Middle East, the 4000 strong event aims to not only educate professional stylists, but also re-condition a new generation of curly heads.
Curly Hair Solutions
One of the biggest hurdles in the Arab woman’s journey to the acceptance of natural texture was the availability of products suited to the specific needs of different hair types. After embarking on her own curly hair journey, Kuwait-based entrepreneur Vijai Vadivu Rangasamy established The Curl Nation, the first webstore in the GCC dedicated to natural hair. The store offers over 40 different brands from around the world, as well as free consultations via the TCN social media platforms. “We have so many parents reach out to us to educate themselves in order to help their kids embrace their curls. We also get lots of DMs from straight-haired people wanting to have curly hair. It’s a huge change to witness.” This former social taboo has transformed into a multi-million-dollar industry with the appearance of countless curly hair salons and regional curl-considerate brands such as Chaos, Joviality, and Braes.
The current landscape of the natural hair movement is not as explicitly political as it once was, but it is undeniably bigger. A celebration and proud exclamation that the hair spiraling from people’s heads is innately beautiful and should be left to flow free. What was once considered a fleeting idea and tokenistic fad is happily becoming another norm.