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Untangling Egypt’s Beauty Standards

July 20, 2015
Hair textures in Egypt vary greatly, from soft coils to silky straight

Coiled wire: this is the best description for my hair. Well, soft coiled wire. It looks a lot rougher than it feels, and if it’s long enough, it could resemble an Afro.

I still remember the little boy with the beautiful silky hair in day care when I was 4 or 5, making fun of my kinky tresses. There was a new TV commercial at the time for a product made of rough coiled wire, used for rubbing sinks and pots. He looked at my hair and laughed, making the sounds you hear when you pull something and then let go. That’s what my hair does when it’s long enough – you pull, and it recoils back to its tiny curls.

I don’t remember how I felt that day. I don’t think it devastated me, but I know that it’s something I’ve never forgotten.

My hair was a very big part of my life when I was growing up. Almost every Saturday night, my mom and I would embark on a beautifying, head-aching journey. My mom would sit on the bed with her feet on the floor; I would sit between her legs with my back to her. Equipped with patience, hair rollers and all kinds of brushes, she would split my hair in small parts. She would place each on a single roller and pull as hard as she could. In the end, she would wrap my head with a scarf, and tie it so the rollers don’t go loose. I would then have to go to bed and figure out how to place my bumpy head on the pillow and go to sleep.

Amina Ashraf, crowned Miss Egypt 2014 - how in line are Egypt's beauty standards with how average Egyptian women look?
Amina Ashraf, crowned Miss Egypt 2014 – how in line are Egypt’s beauty standards with how average Egyptian women look?

No one has to tell you upfront that something is wrong with you, but trying to fix you or change you sends enough of a message that what or how you are cannot just “be”; it is indeed in need of changing. With endless hair rolling sessions and visits to hairdressers to get my hair blow-dried and straightened, it was inevitable that deep down I thought that the straighter my hair was, the better.

Many of the hairdressers at salons are exceptionally chatty. Whenever I visited a new salon I walked in with a heavy heart because I knew what they were going to ask me: Why haven’t you permed your hair? In other words, why have you been putting up with your hair? This was a question I got fed up of hearing over the years.

Once, as a teenager, a hairdresser “over-permed” my hair, and parts of it started to fall off. After this incident, I swore that I would never do that to myself again.

I’ve always loved the diversity of Egyptian genes. Some of us have Turkish, Arab or Ancient Egyptian origins; we come in different skin tones, features, and hair types. Why hasn’t Egyptian society made peace with the fact that not all girls have silky hair? But also, why is silky hair the only hair that should be viewed as feminine or beautiful?

Thermal perm techniques  are thought to be as old as 1872
Thermal perm techniques are thought to be as old as 1872

The very first compliment I ever got about my natural hair was the age of 24. I’d worn the Islamic veil at the age of 13 and took it off a whole ten years later. Interestingly enough, my first compliment was paid by a non-Egyptian. I’d started working at the British Council in Cairo as an English teacher. It was just a few months after I’d taken off the veil. I had decided that since I had to “deal” with my natural hair, I couldn’t possibly get it done every day. So I just let it be (with the use of oil replacement of course – I can’t really let it be!)

One evening I met up with Ed, a British colleague of mine, at the beginning of my employment at the British Council to play backgammon in Goal Café in Zamalek. I was not surprised that I lost the several rounds we played, but I was caught off guard when he told me he once pointed me out to other colleagues as “the girl with the great hair.”

For the first time in my life my dark curly hair was eye-catching. It had personality. It was not straight, it was not boring; it was unusual.

Differences attract, that’s for sure. That’s why my hair to a European is very “cute” and different, and that’s also the same reason why Egyptians like straight hair. That is, however, not reason to value one type of hair over another, and to make girls and women feel ugly or unattractive.

It is true that there isn’t an exclusive “Egyptian” look, but it is known that in Egypt we value all that is foreign, or anything that resembles it. And in Egypt, foreign means white.

As in most societies, Egyptian media and TV propagate unattainable and often foreign beauty ideals, particularly for women
As in most societies, Egyptian media and TV propagate unattainable and often foreign beauty ideals, particularly for women

The texture of my hair has not been the only reason for people’s unsolicited comments, but also its length. I have been getting my hair cut really short my entire life, and there were a number of times before I hit puberty when people thought I was a boy.

Being 29, I am no longer mistaken for a man, but I am asked not-very-subtle questions about why I make decisions about my hairstyle that make me look less “feminine”. Since 2012, I have had about 10 haircuts – all of them most people found “controversial”.

I was waiting for my turn to get my eyebrows done in an overcrowded hair salon once, when I noticed a tall woman standing with her teenage daughter whining about wanting to get her hair cut really short. Her mom tried to dissuade her of course. The girl, with the beautiful long hair, didn’t seem too convinced, but decided to remain quiet for a little bit, until they came and stood next to me. I smiled at the girl, admiring her desire to be different, and then turned away. She then pointed at me and told her mom that she wanted to get a haircut like mine. Her mom then took a risk she shouldn’t have.

“You wish your hair was longer, don’t you?” She asks in hopes to win her argument.

“No, not really,” I replied with a smile.

It is believed by many that I, as a woman, should have long hair, and that the longer her hair the more feminine you are, especially for woman with a hair like mine.

The writer of the piece, rocking pre-haircut curls
The writer of the piece, rocking pre-haircut curls

I’m a very observant person; I know that men with long hair don’t turn as many heads as a girl with short hair. That does not go for all places of course, but society is more tolerant of men doing what they want with their hair than it is of women.

I am at peace with the status quo. By that, I mean it doesn’t get to me as much as it used to in the past. Nevertheless, I think about it all the time , especially these days.

“I know I’ve driven you crazy Mr. Hassan,” I say to the talented Dokki hairdresser.

“Not at all Miss,” but I know in his head he either wants to just kick me out of his salon, or sit me down and tell me that I have gone officially crazy.

Mr. Hassan has been cutting my hair since 2012. My aunt pointed me in his direction one day when I was in desperate need of a new look. This visit to his salon is the third in one week. With every visit, my hair has gotten shorter. Hassan had an unusually straight face as he sliced at my hair with his thinning scissors. Ready to leave the salon, my obviously round head was covered in small black curls, and decorated with a blue headband.


I had given in to the appealing easiness of straight hair and the constant nagging of hairdresser in the summer of 2013. I got my hair permed in a fancy Maadi salon. However, don’t let the up-market location fool you, because my hair has been suffering until this very moment. One perming solution after the other, and a few months ago I felt my hair was dying – and Mr. Hassan confirmed it. The ends of my hair were straight and rough, and the roots curly and soft.

I hated myself for giving in and I decided I wanted to cut all the left-over straight hair I had on my head and leave the just the roots. It was by far the boldest thing I have ever done.

I told Mr. Hassan “I want all the straight parts off.” He cut away but still left the front part really big and puffy (curly hair on the inside, straight on the outside).

“Can you cut that part too Mr. Hassan?” I said, looking at him in the mirror.

Mr. Hassan looked puzzled and took a few seconds to respond: “Well, if I cut more than that”, he said articulating a fear that was beneath many passive aggressive hair-related comments I’ve been hearing throughout my life, “you’ll look like a man.”

The writer of the piece, post-haircut
The writer of the piece, post-haircut

I insisted that he cut off the straight ends, and he did so with my heart pounding, because I’d never worn my hair so short. I, however, have always loved my short hair and so I calmed myself down and convinced it that I’ll be able to pull this off too.

And I did.

I have so far received derogatory comments from men on the street, stares from women at cafes, and a few compliments from acquaintances and close friends.

But what really matters is that I am at peace with my decision; my short curly hair is a reflection of my boldness and free-spirit.

At this point in time in Cairo, I am the only girl who is wearing her hair that short with my type of hair, and decorating it with hip bandanas- and for this uniqueness I shall be grateful.

Comments (48)

  1. Cristina Abdel Mallak says:

    I’ve noticed “people’ straight hair worshipping attitude” some years ago too, but then I decided I liked my curly hair -especially when I understood how to treat them- and I began to appreciate this natural gift I’m given! I was happy! Until I didn’t decide to cut it this year.. and I became even happier! I mean taking care of long hair everyday was starting stressing me and giving a feeling of “boring self image”. It took me a lot to make up my mind about it but I don’t regret it at all! Then I’ve been part of two completely different scenarios: my relatives started asking me if my parents gave me permission to do it! Ha-ha! What’s permission about a personal thing like hair?! But for them seemed important as “it was affecting” mine feminine image. On the other side I got many nice congrats from friends acquaintances. What’s really important above all, is that i’m comfortable with my decision! 🙂