The school in which I study has been harshly trumpeting the need to unthinkingly follow strict rules regarding hair. While boys have been ordered to keep their hair short, girls have been asked to plait their hair. These practices – prevalent in almost all schools in India – are highly problematic. First, the association of short hair with boys perpetuates the homophobic assumption that every human being should be instantly identifiable as either male or female, and that identifiable males and females will always follow masculine and feminine behavior, respectively. Instead, as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) people are demonstrating, each person can embody a distinctive and variable combination of masculine and feminine attributes.
By partitioning students into two transparently visible genders, school authorities implicitly pressure boys to live up to the standards of masculinity. So, some boys are ridiculed for keeping long hair, despite the fact that long hair was the symbol of the peace movement of the 1960s which succeeded in mobilizing large swathes of people against the possibility of war. In this way, rules regarding hairstyles result in moral policing, toxic machismo and gender divisions. In opposition to this, we need to recognize the fact that there is only one human race with multiple gender possibilities that can be either repressed or liberated, depending on the way society is organized. A schooling environment that considers short hair to be the most fitting attribute of a boy can’t foster this kind of gender liberation because it imposes a militaristic mindset in the name of “discipline”.
Second, the aggressiveness of masculinity finds its female counterpart in the patriarchal discourse of the “modest” girl. In Indian popular culture, there is the myth of the “churail” or “bad girl”, whose depravity is expressed by her loose hair. That is why respectable woman must keep their hair confined in a tight plait. The constant invocation of this myth serves to intimidate the modern and sexually autonomous young woman who disobeys patriarchs. In contrast, the girl with braided hair is considered as the ideal “shy” female, who walks with eyes modestly downcast. This conservative commonsense was stridently opposed by the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, who considered shamelessness a quality that should be embraced by girls with pride. He praised the woman who “walked with her head held high/Looking everyone boldly in the eye”.
The homophobic and patriarchal nature of school haircut rules make it evident that they need to be scrapped. Currently, they serve no other function than to strengthen unquestioning obedience to the arbitrary decisions of disciplinary authorities; the roots of political authoritarianism can be found in this school culture of passive acceptance. In place of this dysfunctional system, we need new frameworks that promote personal independence. Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) member K Nazeer has stated that it is a child’s “constitutional right” to decide how to wear his/her hair. “The educational institutions can prescribe a pattern of uniform to maintain discipline but cannot force a child to wear her[/his] hair in a particular fashion”.
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.