Curly-haired women in Egypt are 'mocked in the street', says entrepreneur Doaa Gawish

A negative stigma still surrounds non-straight hair in the Arab world

Doaa Gawish's The Hair Addict serves as a platform where women exchange tips on taking care of their curls. Photo: Doaa Gawish
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Negative stigma surrounding curly hair still exists in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of women and girls facing discrimination on the street, at school and even in their own homes, with their hair being associated with an untidiness that signifies a lack of self-care.

Graduate student Noha Ibrahim, 28, believes this issue stems from western media pushing a certain image of beauty, historically pedalling images of sleek, shiny hair.

“Our standards of beauty are impacted by our image of the white woman and I think it relates to colonialism," she says. "We aren’t satisfied with the way we look and we are always striving to meet unrealistic beauty standards imported from the West.”

Noha Ibrahim was told she'd need to straighten her hair in order to get a job. Photo: Noha Ibrahim

In the 1990s, there was a surge in commercials in Egypt representing curly hair as the undesired, the “before”. The overarching message in such ads was that, after using certain hair products, a woman’s curly hair would magically transform into a silky, smooth texture — the desired, the “after”.

For Ibrahim, discrimination extended beyond school and glares from strangers in the street, to the workplace.

She was interviewing to be a teaching assistant at her alma mater and, during her interview, she was told that in order to teach at the university, she would have to “do something about" her hair.

“Their only reservation about me was the way I look, so I had to straighten my hair to get the job. No one else among the applicants received any comments about their appearance.”

Over the past decade, Egypt has witnessed a movement encouraging women to embrace their natural curls, with a noticeable rise in curly-haired influencers and Facebook communities.

One such community is The Hair Addict, a Facebook group with more than 200,000 members and a haircare company, founded by Doaa Gawish, that encourages women to celebrate their natural hair. It also serves as a platform where women exchange tips on taking care of their curls.

Doaa Gawish's The Hair Addict serves as a platform where women exchange tips on taking care of their curls. Photo: Doaa Gawish

“Through the community, I realised the extent to which we are bullied,” Doaa tells The National. "That the reason why so many curly-haired women in Egypt choose to straighten their hair isn’t because they want to, but because of pressure from their families and workplace.

“So many women straighten their hair because they simply don’t want to be mocked in the street.”

Accountant Maria Maged, 23, was in an interview at a world-renowned bank when she was met with negative criticism about her hair.

“After asking the standard interview questions, the HR manager told me ‘Your hair would be appropriate for the beach, but this is a bank'.

“As soon as I left the interview, I kept thinking about what I would do if I was to get hired, I wasn’t ready to ruin my hair with heat, but I considered wearing a wig to conform in the workplace.”

Maria Maged's hairstyle of choice was criticised in an interview with a global bank. Photo: Maria Maged

Despite the rising movement of natural hair acceptance in Egypt, for many people, the idea that straight hair is the only acceptable look runs deep.

Menna Ahmed, 45, is the owner of a local clothing store and implements a rule that female sales employees must straighten their hair.

“I think it’s a matter of looking presentable and nothing more. Every business has the right to enforce a dress code, and it’s up to the employee to decide if they will accept it or not.

“For me, it’s a matter of perception. Curly hair can make a woman look carefree and that’s not how I want my business to be perceived.”

Ibrahim finds this sort of control is cyclical in nature and can be traced back to previous generations.

“I think the reason behind this stigma is heavily related to the fact that many people view women who choose to keep their curly hair untouched as being rebellious, especially mothers and grandmothers,” she says.

“This type of thinking is definitely internalised because many of these family members were oppressed themselves, and so, putting their daughters and granddaughters through the same thing is normalised, but I think it needs to stop with our generation.”

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