My hair is not curly; it is a a mixture of textures that more closely resemble afro, kinky hair. However, the techniques and tricks I’ve taught myself and learned from black women over the years, in real life and from the internet, have helped me coax it into heat-less curls. I learned all the braiding and twisting techniques and adopted a hair care routine that consists of trial and error to get the curls I want. My hair, like most people’s, is a mixture of textures.
Over the course of my life, I’ve never met a hairdresser in Cairo who would happily agree to cut and style my hair in its natural form. They didn’t know how to. Not that I could blame them—my mother didn’t know what to do with it either. Everyone was programmed to do the opposite; straighten. It was, and still is, the knee-jerk reaction people have when they see my hair. I haven’t cut it for four years in an effort to challenge myself to learn more about how to care for it. Before that, I would cut it short myself. I haven’t been to a hairdresser or a salon since 2010.
For a very long time, they made me feel like my hair was the issue, that my hair was unmanageable, unattractive, not ‘normal’ or good. The word “khishin” [rough or coarse] was thrown around a lot about my hair, and every time I heard it—which was often from family and hairdressers—I felt like I had “bad” hair. I didn’t have good, easy or manageable hair, which fell down my back and blew in the wind. I didn’t have white-people hair, and this made me feel ugly. It took me years to unlearn this Eurocentric beauty ideal, and eventually, I began to unconditionally love my natural hair.
Eurocentric beauty pressures
From a very young age, I felt like my hair would be a burden and a struggle my entire life. My mother didn’t understand how or why each time she came to detangle one section of my hair, another part would become ridiculously tangled. Knotted hair and a tender scalp meant I absolutely dreaded getting my hair wet because of the pain combing it out entailed. On the recommendation of a hair stylist, my mother decided that to save us both the pain of hair maintenance. It was decided that my hair should be cut short…very short, so short that I spent a couple of years in my childhood being regularly mistaken as a boy. I didn’t mind having short hair at all as a kid, in fact, it was a blessing and a freedom. It was everyone else who minded.
By the time I was 12, my hair had grown out and my mom invested in a blow dryer, hot irons and several different chemical straighteners. During my teen years, my hair was subjected to all manner of daily, weekly and monthly chemical or heat treatments to keep it straight. I was still afraid of getting my hair wet—but for different reasons now. I was afraid people would see my hair frizz and all that work I’d put into making it straight would be wasted.
When I turned 16, the years of hair straightening had taken their toll on both me and my hair. As I stopped caring about what anyone thought about my hair, or caring for my hair at all, I unknowingly entered into my transition phase where chemical relaxers and other treatments were left to work their way out of my hair and allow for healthy hair growth take place.
For the first time, my head felt lighter and I felt freer than I had in years. I still didn’t love or know how to care for my hair, but I finally felt like I had agency over it instead of blindly wanting what others had, or listening to hairdressers about what they thought was best for it. I started to learn what my hair looked like, what it did and didn’t like, and how to love and care for the hair that naturally grew out of my head.
I started rethinking every aspect of myself that didn’t conform to social beauty standards I would later realize were deeply Eurocentric and glorified white, western beauty ideals that demanded a social group as varied as Egyptians conform to a one-size-fits-all beauty standards.
I slowly began questioning the lack of representation of people who looked like me, and how even Egyptian women prized western beauty over their own. Were the women in my real life, the ones I saw every day, not beautiful? I couldn’t subscribe to this ideology any more as I started to know and see so many beautiful Egyptian women who did not fit in this mold.
Photo Via Creative Commons
As I could finally spot other forms of beauty, in particular African beauty and the black community in the US and African diasporas across the world, I understood that beauty is vast and not uniform. It is not just what the predominately white media represents and tells us is beautiful. This belief has caused industries to sell us harmful products that bring consumers closer to whiteness; skin lighteners, bleaching creams, and of course hair-straightening chemicals which strip the protective coating of your hair to leave it fragile and damaged. But we can never be white.
You know better than your stylist
I haven’t stepped foot in a salon in almost a decade since going natural. I had been traumatized time and again by my bad hair experiences.
In 2009, a renowned stylist insisted that to cut my hair, it first needed to be straight. I told him I wore it curly…I stood my ground and insisted that if he didn’t know how to deal with my hair texture, I might as well just leave. I obviously touched on a nerve, and despite his reluctance to cut my hair curly and wet, he eventually did. I left with the worst haircut of my life. I was so upset I broke down into tears on my way home, upset less about my hair and more about how embarrassed I had been made to feel about my own hair. There remains nothing as intimidating to me as stepping into a hair salon and being condescended to. It was at this moment that I decided no one would do anything more to my hair without my consent, knowledge and full understanding.
Unfortunately, in Egypt, the stylist knows best, and what they say goes. This is the shared sentiment across Egyptian society, with women carrying the burden of having “presentable” hair, which usually means white-passing straightness. As the majority of hair-straightening techniques and products come with a high price tag, in a country suffering from economic woes, it speaks volumes about the social pressures women face. They are expected to spend hundreds and thousands on products and services that will make them look a certain way.
Keratin treatments, which are widely available in Cairo, will set you back anywhere from LE 800 to LE 2,000. Relaxers, the go-to staple in my household and a more economical alternative, are a harsher and long-lasting form of the recently popular Keratin trend. Relaxers will set you back LE100 to LE300, a more affordable, yet more harmful alternative to getting straight hair.
Lastly, we have heat treatments, epitomized by the blow dryer and the hot iron; which invariably lead to long-term damage that affects its health and growth.
Sharing the communal struggle
Is all of this damage worth looking like people we will never be, rather than embracing the idea that beauty is not one defined look or hair texture? I talked to several women who, just like myself, have rejected social pressures and began the journey to embrace their natural hair textures. Unsurprisingly, we have all shared the same struggle.
Leila Fahmy, a recent graduate from the American University in Cairo (AUC), was always pressured to straighten her hair during college years, despite having kept it curly for most of her life. “All the girls had their hair done and they looked good every single day. I felt like a child compared to them. So I decided I didn’t want curly hair anymore and I was going to straighten it. I didn’t do any treatments but I used to straighten my hair myself at home,” she recounts. Years of doing this have left Fahmy with damaged hair that she describes as very thin, dry and in a much more fragile state.
Since going natural a year ago, Fahmy says her hair has transformed. It’s still a work in progress, but she remains extremely optimistic and enthusiastic, keeping a hair journal with her goals for healthy hair growth.
Every time Fahmy steps foot into a salon, stylists still give her unsolicited advice about straightening her hair despite the fact that she’s usually there for a manicure.
“At the age of 14, my friends didn’t like my curly hair, so I straightened it with Keratin, but it ruined my hair, so I had to cut it very short to get rid of the damaged part. It had become neither straight nor curly,” Norhan Elfarra, now an architecture student at Sixth of October University, recalls.
As her hair got longer, Elfarra continued to tame her curls into straight or wavy styles as her self-confidence took a hit again and again. “People would call me ‘mankoosha’ [messy] or tell me to comb my hair, it really affected me for a while,” she says. However, ever since she has entered college, Elfarra proudly wears her hair curly and doesn’t care as much about what people think.
Adaora Oramah, a Nigerian student at New York University who previously lived in Egypt for 18 years, recalls her experience here, having big, curly hair. “I was never confident about my natural hair, until I moved to New York. I hardly ever wore my natural hair out in Egypt because I was insecure about it and I subconsciously didn’t believe it was beautiful. That’s why I always had my hair in braids because it was the closest thing to the long and straight style I’d always desired.” Since moving to New York, however, Oramah says she has embraced her natural hair in a way she didn’t feel able to in Egypt.
A new generation’s hair revolution
Women with hair similar to mine have gone through similar experiences of being conditioned to straighten their hair, and subsequently not knowing any other way to care for or style it. The online natural hair community has helped me in more ways than I can explain, but a lot of it still feels very distant. Most bloggers, video tutorials and natural hair products tend to be based abroad and target a different audience with different experiences from mine.
All is not lost, though, as there is a small but growing and committed natural and curly hair community emerging in Egypt. Attitudes and mentalities are shifting towards inclusion; and with every woman who embraces her natural hair, more women are encouraged to wear theirs. Fahmy is an ambassador for the Hair Addict, an online community that embraces curly natural hair and provides representation for women with curly hair to encourage and communicate with each other. The recently opened Curly Studio, the first salon to cater solely to curly hair in Cairo, is also a beacon of hope and a potential hub for women with natural hair. While progress may be slow, things are definitely changing, and I remain optimistic for women in Egypt making peace with their natural locks.
Photos courtesy of Nour Ibrahim
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