Monday, May 27, 2024

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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Hair, anywhere?

We’ve all heard of ‘freedom of expression,’ but what about ‘freedom of hair?’

Update : 20 Apr 2024, 10:28 AM

In a world grappling with untold sufferings such as faced by Palestinians, and the recent lawsuit Nicaragua filed against Germany for allegedly violating international law by supporting Israel with arms and supplies, one might question the relevance of discussing something as seemingly trivial as hair.

However, I would argue, hair is not as trivial as you may think.

In a rights-based society you have all kinds of rights and freedoms, from the right to express your opinions and thoughts to the right to what you wear or not wear.  Although the so-called “burkini” controversy in France some years back seemed like an assault on one’s right to choose one’s swimming attire that does not show much flesh, which was not viewed favourably by the French state.

French law-makers, then, essentialized swimwear.

But the right to fashion your hair the way you see fit, and more, is something no one -- especially your employer -- has any say over. One cannot be discriminated against on account of one’s hair or hair style. This is music to the ears of many.

France's National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, passed a bill in late March 2024 that would make workplace discrimination rooted in hair texture and style illegal. In other words, the bill, which would be a law if ratified by the upper house.

The bill was approved 44-2, with many members not voting.

Advocates of the proposed law argue that it would safeguard the rights of Black women who choose to wear their hair in a natural style.

A National Assembly deputy for the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and the bill's sponsor, Olivier Serva, said it would make any workplace discrimination based on "hair style, colour, length, or texture" illegal and would help victims of discrimination make their fights visible through court cases. The proposed law included discrimination faced by blondes and redheads.

Apparently,  a lot of people suffer discrimination based on hair and the issue needs to be tackled. Many job seekers trim their hair before job interviews to look professional.

In the United States there are laws in some 23 states which recognize hair discrimination as a form of racism.

While statistics about hair discrimination are less available in France, Serva mentioned  a study conducted in 2023 which showed that roughly two-thirds of Black women in the United States alter their hair before a job interview because a natural style is 2.5 times more likely to be viewed as unprofessional.

What is professional and what is not is often determined by the norms of tradition in respective professions. In some professions, hairstyles as dress-codes are strictly enforced. Try fashioning long hair if you are in the military -- unless you’re a glutton for punishment.

At one point, the Swedish army flirted with relaxing restrictions on standardized crew-cuts -- and I remember seeing photos of long-haired, uniformed soldiers in a magazine which looked quite anomalous. It did not take long for that policy to be reversed.

Sometimes dress-codes change with time. My friend Yunus narrated an anecdote to me in the early 1980s when a television crew visited their newly-minted software company office in Pittsburgh, they were surprised to see that no one was wearing a suit or tie.

The IT revolution brought about a silent and somewhat surreptitious sartorial revolution. Think of Steve Jobs who introduced the new informal formal dress code for the IT company bosses. 

The French bill does not invoke racism, since there are already laws banning discrimination based on appearance. Some critics argued that the bill was unnecessary.

The bill's critics argue that passing it would not improve the legal protections for those facing discrimination. Some critics even mocked it by saying that maybe another bill on discrimination against bald people is in the offing.

Some French lawmakers felt the bill was inspired by similar laws in the United States. In the United States, at least 23 states have passed legislation aimed at protecting people against discrimination in public schools and workplaces.

In 2019, California became the first state to pass an Act to tackle discrimination apparently against Black and Brown individuals based on characteristics such as hair texture and style. The law is known by its acronym CROWN Act which is Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair Act. This allowed people to fashion their hair in line with traits associated with race, which also included braids, locs, and twists.

In 2019 the headmaster of a high school in the northern district of Bangladesh made it to French television for cutting the long hair of 50 students in his school, a move deplored by civil society and district administration.

In September 2021, a certain head of department at Rabindra University of Bangladesh took upon herself to cut the long hair of students before allowing them into the examination hall which led to a furore. The High Court judges were sympathetic to the students and admonished the self-styled enforcer of the hairstyle.

What was lost on the enforcer was an irony that the university is named after laureate poet Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore), who used to fashion long hair himself.

The length and fashion of one’s hair is not just about the hair itself, it is about personal autonomy. It is about freedom of choice, which needs to be protected and respected.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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