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From Jesus Christ to Rastafarians, from hippies to Cuban revolutionaries, long hair has long been a symbol of radical resistance and rebellion. Today, however, as fashion trends dilute the symbolism of the past, we have to ask ourselves: has this once potent symbol of non-conformity been exhausted?

Are there any politics in long hair?  Is hair simply about adornment and the brandishing of one’s beauty?  Or is it true that interwoven in every tressy mass are convictions on religion and senses of cultural identity, spirituality, and politics?

If we take the time to examine the human experience with any depth, and study, honestly, the annals of history, it is difficult not to acknowledge hair as a tool of self-expression.  Western convention dictates that women wear their hair long, or at least “effeminately,” and that men wear theirs neatly cropped and short. 

It is no wonder then that the likes of Rastafarians, hippies, and even Che Guevara have aroused the consternation of conformists who view deviation as an act of rebellion.  It is the abundance of such rebellious voices, whose heads are shrouded in long hair, that leads us to wonder if it is indeed an essential feature for humanity’s rebels.

“Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?  But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her” (1 Corinthians 11: 14-15).  These are believed to be the biblical words of God, inspired and given through the apostle Paul.  No surprise then that Western culture, with its Christian foundations, is so perturbed by long hair on men.  No surprise either that those men who want to express their distaste for convention should choose long strands to show their contempt for society.

So who are these long-haired soldiers so unwilling to conform to the status quo?  Isn’t it odd that if we closed our eyes and reach out randomly to grab any well-reared Christian child, and asked him or her to draw a picture of Jesus, we would invariably get a depiction of a man who clearly hasn’t visited the barber or had a shave for at least the last few years?  What?  Jesus, a rebel?!  Well, he is said to have lived during the Roman era, when short hair, clean-shaven chins, and a belief in many gods were the order of the day.  So the popular image of Jesus, and his message to “love thy neighbour as thyself,” and worship the one true God in heaven, would indeed make him a rebel.

Though most Christians seem quite happy to conveniently disregard this disparity between conventional pictures of Jesus and the words of the apostle Paul, there are those who are intransigent about making no such concession.  In an essay entitled “Did Jesus Wear Long Hair?” one E.L. Bynum contrarily asserts, “Unfortunately many men and boys who are not hippies have started to wear their hair in this manner.  Many try to justify long hair by stating that Jesus Christ wore long hair.  The time has come to set the record straight…Many popular images of Jesus that were painted in relatively recent time, have perpetuated the satanic idea that Jesus wore long hair.”  Amongst other things, Bynum goes on to say that long hair symbolizes “a revolt against God given nature, and against His precious word.”

Bynum’s school of thought believes that Jesus was a Nazarene (someone from Nazareth), as distinct from a Nazarite (a sect that vows not to cut their hair).  The argument will continue.  It is clear, however, that the world’s major religions have Holy Men who wear long hair: Nazarites of Judaism, Sadhus of Hinduism, Dervishes of Islam and the Coptic Monks of Christianity.  Can those revered for their obsession with self-discipline and determination to abstain from all forms of pleasure be classified as rebels?  In any case, it is certain that we can see just how deeply conviction is ingrained in the hair.

Another group of people, sometimes loathed and feared by mainstream society, is the Rastafarians.  The movement arose in Jamaica in the 1930s.  Embraced by the poorest classes, they revere Haile Selassie, a former Ethiopian Emperor, as God incarnate, and the Jamaican freedom fighter, Marcus Garvey, as a prophet.  Mainstream white society is referred to as Babylon: a land of confusion and oppression from which they should seek to free themselves.

Though not an essential attribute for believers, dreadlocked hair is closely linked to the Rastafarian religion.  This style of hair is said to have been inspired by the fearsome Mau Mau freedom fighters of Kenya, many of whom swore not to cut their hair until they had freed their country from the White man.  Kenya eventually achieved independence in 1963. Ironically, Rastas use the very same Bible that Christians use to promote short hair as a basis for their belief in dreadlocks: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard” (Leviticus 21: 5).  Odd!  The authors of convention, and the proponents of dissent preaching from the very same book?  Make of it what you will!

With their daggers (kirpan) and steel bracelets (kara) in tact, Sikhs too display a sense of having to fight against oppressive forces.  Unlike the five gold pieces (earrings, necklace, bangles, ring and belt) essential to the more conventional and supremacist Hindu tradition, Guru Gobind Singh aspired to create a uniform that symbolized unity, equality, simplicity, practicality and a militancy that would safeguard these values.  Their long hair (kesh) and turbans will help to protect their heads from raging swords; their loose fitting shorts (kachcha) will provide agility; their wooden comb (kangha), tucked into their knotted hair will allow them to keep their scalps clean and massaged, to relieve stress, even if having to survive in jungled regions.

The long hair of the Sikh, which must remain uncut throughout his life, is of great significance.  Guru Gobind Singh wanted his followers to model their appearance off sages, yogis and gurus.   He thought this more natural look made them appear more tribal, warlike, intimidating and shocking.  This focus on militancy is indeed tantamount to rebellion insofar that it expresses an indication that all is not well.

The anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, Marxist visionary Che Guevara, well known for his prominent role in Castro’s guerilla force, was yet another revolutionary who donned long hair.  This energetic, young and fearless pariah was willing to make his stand for the People, be it in the jungles of The Congo, Bolivia or Cuba.  The rigours of living in the wild, whilst attempting to overthrow the oppressive Cuban government, inevitably led to the rebels’ hairy, unkempt appearance.  Subsequently, Castro’s forces came to be known as The Beards, and their image has come to symbolize many rebel movements. Guevara’s brutal execution in 1968 served to remind the world how despised revolutionaries are, and how determined governments are to deal severely with those who attempt to overturn the apple cart of convention.

Particularly in more recent years, Guevara’s energy seems to have transcended even martyrdom.  His image of youthful militancy haunts conformists in posters, t-shirts, key rings and other paraphernalia of popular culture.  So beguiling is his image that it has been embraced, even by those who know little of him; but this face serves as an introduction! 

As the Imperialists attempted to tighten the grip on their colonies in the 1960s, hair continued to be drawn upon as a means of revolt.  The Vietnam War Era in the US saw the long-haired hippies ‘corrupting’ children with beads, colourful drugs, and talk about “peace, man!”  On the other side of town, there were the Black Panthers with their loud shouts for Black Power.  Their huge, natural afros stood high: black, strong, and immovable.  More long hair determined to build a wall against any further oppression. 

Anarchistic punk rockers of the 1970s also spat revolt and flaunted a combination of long, stiffened, dyed, and shaved heads, reminiscent of African warrior tribes.  As they reached for their scissors and waved them wistfully, the proponents of convention must have trembled in their boots.

Listen!  The voices of revolt throughout the ages resound.  Look!  Unruly strands shake and wave through the air, seeking to unsteady the bastions of conformity.  Indeed today, we have reflections and representations of our untameable predecessors.  We live in freer times where many are ignorant of the sacred origins of the hairstyles they don: dreadlocks of Holy Men and Rastafarians abound in every nation in each corner of the world.  The afros, which once stood high and bold for Black Power, now create a bushy mass in fashion arenas on our streets.  The hippies’ peace-loving lengths are also displayed, much to the dismay of the conventionalists, who fear it may have become convention!

Is their any rebellion left in long strands?  Are these simply fashion victims?  It may seem so, but if we look a little deeper, we will see that these are still the bolder victims of fashion, and it is the admiration of the more passive fashion victims (those who like it, but don’t quite have the guts), that keeps their more daring counterparts in focus.

So even today, as trivial and innocuous as it might first appear, long hair’s shadow of rebellion hovers among the world’s police, as they wait for freedom to spew out the bitter taste of conformity.

1st June 2006
The Politics of Long Hair
By Lawna Elayn Tapper