Why Iranian women are cutting their hair

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Abu Dhabi, UAE

A weeping Iranian woman is seen kneeling by her dead brother’s coffin as she slashes through her hair with a pair of scissors. Her relatives wail for justice as she tosses strands onto the coffin.

They were grieving for 36-year-old Javad Heydari, who was fatally shot last week at one of the anti-government protests that have gripped Iran.

Images like these have galvanized women across the world to join Iranian women protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She died in hospital on September 16, three days after being pulled off the streets of Tehran by morality police and taken to a “re-education center” for lessons in modesty.

From the Middle East, Europe and across the United States, women around the globe have shown solidarity with Iranian women’s plight in rallies and demonstrations. Some have also cut or shaved their hair in public or while being filmed.

These protests are different, says celebrated Iranian author

Now in their 12th day, protests have swept through more than 40 Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran. Iranian security forces have been cracking down on protesters, with hundreds arrested and at least 41 killed, according to state media. Some human rights organizations say the death toll is as high as 76. CNN cannot independently verify these figures.

So, why are women cutting their hair?

For many Iranian women, cutting off hair – a sign of beauty that is decreed to be hidden in the Islamic Republic – is a poignant form of protest.

“We want to show them that we don’t care about their standards, their definition of beauty or what they think that we should look like,” said 36-year-old Faezeh Afshan, an Iranian chemical engineer living in Bologna, Italy, who was filmed shaving off her hair. “It is to show that we are angry.”

Afshan attributes the practice of cutting off hair to historical cultural practices. “In our literature, cutting the hair is a symbol of mourning, and sometimes a symbol of protesting,” she told CNN. “If we can cut our hair to show that we are angry… we will do it.”

The practice is cited in Shahnameh, a 1,000-year-old Persian epic and a cultural mainstay in Iran written by Ferdowsi. Made of nearly 60,000 verses, the poem tells the stories of the kings of Persia and is one of the most important works of literature in the Persian language. In more than one instance through the epic work, hair is plucked in an act of mourning.

“Women cutting their hair is an ancient Persian tradition… when the fury is stronger than the power of the oppressor,” tweeted Wales-based writer and translator Shara Atashi. “The moment we have been waiting for has come. Politics fueled by poetry.”

In the Shahnameh, after the hero Siyavash is killed, his wife Farangis and the girls accompanying her cut their hair to protest injustice, Atashi told CNN.

The characters portrayed in the poem “are in everyday use as symbols and archetypes,” she said, adding that the poem has helped shape the identities of Iranians, Afghans and Tajiks for 1,000 years.

“But there is haircutting in the poetry of Hafez and Khaqani too, always about mourning and protests against injustice,” she said, referring to other Persian poets.

Women burn their hijabs after woman’s death in police custody

The practice is also common in other ancient cultures. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a 3,500-year-old poem from ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) covers themes of grief and despair, where cutting or pulling out one’s hair is used to express anguish. The poem is considered to be one of the world’s oldest works of literature and is said to have influenced neighboring cultures.

Shima Babaei, an Iranian activist residing in Belgium who said she was arrested by Iran’s notorious morality police in 2018 for publicly removing her hijab as a sign of protest, told CNN that hair cutting had “historical meaning” for Iranians. Women who lose a direct relative would sometimes cut their hair as a sign of mourning and anger, she said.

Iranian women open up about hijab law and morality police

“For us, Mahsa was our sister,” she said. “And so, in this way, we are protesting.”

Cutting hair, said Atashi, “is itself a ceremony of mourning to better expose the depth of suffering at the loss of a loved one.” And in today’s context, she adds, it is a sign of “protest against the killing of our people.”

Saudi king names MBS as prime minister

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz has named his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) as the kingdom’s prime minister and another son Prince Khalid as defense minister, according to Saudi state media.

  • Background: The crown prince was promoted from defense minister and has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia for several years. Khalid previously served as deputy defense minister. MBS said the kingdom has increased its self-sufficiency in military industries to 15% from 2% and plans to reach 50% under the newly appointed defense minister, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported. King Salman will still preside over the cabinet meetings he attends, the decree showed.
  • Why it matters: MBS has changed Saudi Arabia radically since rising to power in 2017, leading efforts to diversify the economy from its dependence on oil, allowing women to drive and curbing clerics’ powers. His reforms, however, have come with a crackdown on dissent, with activists, royals, women rights’ activists and businessmen jailed.

Turkey summons German envoy after politician likens Erdogan to ‘sewer rat’

Turkey’s foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to Ankara on Tuesday to protest comments made by a senior German politician who likened President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a “little sewer rat,” Reuters reported. “We condemn in the strongest terms the insulting statements made by Wolfgang Kubicki, the vice-speaker of the German Federal Parliament, about our president in a speech during the Lower Saxony state election campaign,” Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said in a statement.

  • Background: Kubicki confirmed to Reuters that he made the comment during an election campaign rally while trying to draw attention to a rise in the number of illegal migrants moving from Turkey along the so-called Balkan route towards Germany. “A sewer rat is a small, cute, but at the same time clever and crafty creature that also appears in children’s stories,” Kubicki said, citing the popular animated movie “Ratatouille” as an example.
  • Why it matters: Turkey is a candidate for EU membership but negotiations have long been stalled amid disagreements on a number of issues including Ankara’s human rights record, migration and geopolitics. Insulting the president is a criminal offense in Turkey, where Erdogan and his ruling AK Party have held power for two decades.

At least 4 Palestinians killed, dozens wounded in one of this year’s deadliest Israeli West Bank raids

At least four Palestinian men were killed and 50 wounded during an Israeli military raid in Jenin Wednesday morning, Palestinian officials said, making it one of the deadliest Israeli raids in the occupied West Bank this year, which has already seen over 100 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said the raid was related to an attack in Tel Aviv in April which left three people dead, and that the suspects Wednesday fought back with explosives and gunfire.

  • Background: For months, Israel has been regularly raiding cities in the West Bank, focusing especially on Jenin and Nablus, saying it is targeting militants and their weapons caches before they have the chance to cross into Israel and carry out attacks. The operation, dubbed “Breaking the Wave” by the IDF, was launched after a series of attacks on Israelis. At least 20 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in attacks targeting civilians and soldiers in Israel and the West Bank so far this year.
  • Why it matters: This is already the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2015, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. More than 35 of those killed have been in Jenin. Israel says most killed were engaging violently with soldiers during military operations, but dozens of unarmed civilians have been killed as well, human rights groups including B’Tselem have said.
Henna MIME

Muhammed Semih Ugurlu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Henna, a reddish-brown dye famously used for body art in many parts of the Middle East, may be making its way to joining the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.

In the process of being nominated by the UAE and the Arab League, henna has long been part of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian heritage and identity.

Dating back thousands of years, the temporary dye is used to create elaborate designs mainly on one’s hands, often for religious festivals and celebrations.

Representatives from 16 Arab countries met this month to discuss the nomination, according to the Abu Dhabi government media office, stressing that henna plays an important role in Arab and Gulf culture and identity.

UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage includes both inherited as well as modern traditions, and is meant to promote practices that contribute to “social cohesion” and encourage a shared sense of identity.

The list includes practices such as falconry, yoga, and Arabic calligraphy.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Visitors look at artefacts displayed at the Egyptian Museum as Egypt's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities celebrates World Tourism Day, in Cairo, on Tuesday.

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