From the Black Panthers’ afrocentric hairstyles to the Rastafari dreadlocks or the ’natural hair movement’, hair has long been considered a symbol of protest. At the beginning of the 20th century, the “flapper style”, with an androgynous silhouette and short hair, was already linked with women’s desire for emancipation and gender equality.

And now, hairstyle is being used this way once more in Iran, as demonstrated by a proliferation of videos showing women renouncing their long hair, like Iranian singer Donya Dadrasan, to show solidarity with Masha Amini, who died three days after being arrested by morality police for wearing an ill-fitting veil. "I cut my hair... I hope for a day when women in my country can laugh, dance, cry, breathe and live freely," Donya Dadrasan wrote on TikTok.

When cutting one’s hair is a sign of defiance

Women in Iran have already taken to shaving their heads in the past to show support for different movements, as well as to protest against the wearing of the veil. In 2016, the page ’My Stealthy Freedom’, created by a journalist of Iranian origin living in London, published a photo of a young woman who chose to shave her head to stop wearing the veil. "I sold my hair to those adorable angels who suffer from cancer. When I came to the street, I told myself ’no hair, no morality police! ’There is no reason for those who always tell me to cover my hair’ or arrest me now," she wrote to accompany a picture on which she appeared shaved and unveiled.

Last year, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, South Korean archer An San unwittingly found herself at the center of a salvo of protest. The Olympic champion was subjected to insults and threats on social networks because of her short haircut, which some considered "not feminine enough." As they always do with social media, reactions came swiftly with one user initiating a counter movement, giving rise to a slew of videos showing women cutting their hair live under the hashtag "#women_shortcut_campaign."

In Saudi Arabia, short haircuts - known locally by the English word "boy" - have become strikingly visible on the streets, conjointly with the rise of women in the country’s economy.

Hair as a political and cultural symbol

Sometimes it’s not necessary to cut one’s hair to make it a symbol of the fight against discrimination and inequality. Since the 1960s and ’70s, the Afro hairstyle has been popularized by many activists, including Angela Davis and Nina Simone, imbuing it with both cultural and political symbolism. At the time it was about establishing Black women and men’s natural hair as a symbol of resistance and celebration of African-American culture.

It’s a movement that continues today, under various names including the "natural hair movement," because of persistent discrimination and prejudice related to the hair of Black women, men and children. Don’t forget that the CROWN Act, a law aimed at prohibiting hair discrimination in the United States, was only adopted at a federal level by the House of Representatives last March, in the wake of earlier votes in California and New York. The legislation would aim at prohibiting discriminations based on hair texture, or certain hairstyles such as braids, dreadlocks or twists in access to employment, education, or even sports.

Whether we cut it, show it in its natural state, or shave it, the symbolism of hair has much more than an aesthetic dimension, playing a role in fighting against various forms of inequality for decades. And it probably will continue to do so.