The TikTok is only 45 seconds long and the young woman in it, TikTok user @lunafairy.ir, doesn’t say a word. The silence invigorates the decisive sound of scissors cutting into her thick hair.
“Please bring the voice of the Iranian people to the world,” her caption reads. The hashtag is “#mahsaamini.”
In another TikTok, a woman who wears a black hijab grips a pair of pink scissors, then cuts off a piece of the cloth that hangs over her shoulder, section by section. “Today exactly two years ago, I started wearing hijab,” @persianziba wrote in the caption. “Today, I cut my hair for #mahsaamini.”
Users in Iran and around the world have been cutting their hair or hijabs on the platform in a radical act of autonomy that 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was denied. On September 13, Iran’s “morality police” — a force that terrorizes citizens (mostly women) for what they determine is a refusal to comply with Iran’s strict dress code, particularly the mandatory hijab — arrested Amini for not wearing her hijab properly. They then sent her to a “re-education” center where she’d receive “guidance” on how to properly dress. Three days after her arrest, she was pronounced dead. Iranian officials say that Amini died as a result of a heart attack — but her family says that she had no pre-existing heart conditions.
Following her death, Iranians have taken to the streets to demand justice for Amini and call for abolition of the morality police and hijab law. So far, there have been eight casualties reported, consisting of protesters and pro-government militia members. Videos circulate of Iranian women protesting by publicly taking off, and even burning, their hijabs ― an act of defiance that could cost them their lives. The movement is active on TikTok as well, where women of the Iranian diaspora are chopping off their hair and headwear in solemn solidarity.
The demonstrations sweeping Iran and the rest of the world are just the latest in a powerful resistance against a history of authority politicizing and policing women’s bodies. But it’s also a show of purposeful resilience in people fighting to reclaim their identity, whether that means cutting their hair or covering it.
France, a nation plagued by rampant Islamophobia despite housing the largest Muslim population in western Europe, is part of this past and present. It has long waged a war against the hijab, banning them (along with other visible religious symbols) from French public schools in 2004, then outlawing full-face coverings from public places in 2010. And just last month, the French Senate introduced an “anti-separatism” amendment that would ban minors from wearing “any conspicuous religious sign” ― like headscarves.
These bans were billed as a pursuit to achieve total secularism, and the most recent amendment seeks to ban “any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men.” It’s kind of ironic that a government attempting to eradicate oppression on women as a whole can’t see that prohibiting Muslim women from wearing whatever they want completely negates their attempts at “liberating” women.
In the face of this gross contradiction, people have fought back with #PasToucheAMonHijab — which translates to #HandsOffMyHijab — a hashtag that accompanies selfies and photos of people wearing hijabs and headscarves. These photos are a gleeful, powerful celebration of identity and bodily choice, two things that the French government has deprived Muslim women of.
On the surface, the politicization of hair in Iran and France may appear to be two sides of a coin — one nation enforces hijabs, the other bans it. But their motives are the same. “To be (hijabi) or not to be (hijabi) is the business of no state or man,” tweeted writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Yet, this concept seems to be too radical for governments across the world, who continue to befuddled by the sheer notion of bodily autonomy and choice.
Hair has also served as a radical device to stand up to political or social authority. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, afros were a proud display of Black identity that America’s racist structures attempted to erase.
“Afro styles became intrinsically linked with civil rights, as natural hair came to be viewed as an important symbol of the movement and its ‘black is beautiful’ ethos,” hair historian Rachael Gibson told Vogue.
And Seth Cardinal Dodginghorse, who has family ties to the Tsuut’ina Nation in Alberta, Canada, and was raised to wear his hair in braids as many Indigenous men do, grew up with the notion that cutting his hair is a tribute to those his family have lost. So, when he went viral for severing his braids in protest of a highway construction through his family’s land that would ultimately displace them, the message was clear.
“With this, I leave a piece of me with the road,” he said unwaveringly at the highway’s ceremony in the clip, as Calgary ministers and officers uneasily standing behind him, are watching.
If there’s anything that our past and present has shown, our relationship with hair varies by identity and circumstance. However, what any of us decide to do with our hair has sociopolitical implications. Amini’s death is a gruesome stain on women’s rights and the liberty of choice. But the response to her death is a lesson, albeit a painful one, in the willful perseverance of the protesters — on TikTok and IRL, in Iran and beyond — that the people are not a reflection of their governments.
Digital creator Cyrus Veyssi said it best: “I hope one day you’ll see the beauty of Iran and not the headlines that have made our country an enemy,” they wrote. “And I hope one day you’ll see the wind flow freely through the hair of all the resilient women who choose to let theirs down.”