Defining women’s beauty in Bangladesh: How my short hair defied the norm

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By Arpona Ghosh

2016. Arpona defied tradition and stood up to her choice.

Towards the end of my education in Dhaka University in Bangladesh and while preparing for my first job, I tried a new comfortable look. I cut my long, bouncy and silky hair short. It was sassy and manageable.

At that time, I was also seeking for a soul mate I can tie the forever knot with. In other countries, it was just a haircut. In Bangladesh, it is not.

That was 17 years ago and it was not welcome change for my parents. In fact, they got seriously worried I might not find the best groom in town because the men in my country would usually prefer their women with long hair and fair complexion. You can roll your eyes from where you are, but in my country, these are critical priorities for many prospective bridegrooms.

With the short hairstyle, I looked odd to many of my peers and people around me who did not lose time expressing their dislike to me frankly. I was determined to keep my short hair. I want to set my own description of beauty.

1992. Her moms and aunts found the time to nourish her hair to make it look nice to people.

In Bangladesh, just like many Asian countries I should say, long hair and fair complexion are two major indicators for beautiful women. In thousands of literary works poets, novelists and artists praise women by describing their long and black hair like clouds or fair complexion like milk white.

When it is time to choosing brides especially in arranged marriages (mostly decided by parents end elders), these two things automatically come in their checklist. The bridegroom’s status, whether he is a student, a professional or unemployed, often do not matter.

This practice is gradually changing in urban areas but still many people are not ready to accept or welcome women with short hair (if I may add, dark complexion).

Just like the millions of Bangladeshi girls, I grew up amidst these socio-cultural perceptions. In my childhood, I observed, my mother and aunts have very little time even to comb their knee-long hair properly since they were busy with their children, running around for household chores and their day jobs. Many of the women in my family are schoolteachers.

2002. Defying the norm. Cutting her hair short caused a lot of alarm and arguments in her family and even at work.

However, they would all take time to nourish my hair, keep it longer and silky. All it aims is to attract people’s attention. This alongside making sure I go to a good school for quality education.

Cutting my hair, therefore, is challenging an age-old tradition. I chose comfort than what is fashionably acceptable.

When I started working with this ‘unusual’ hairdo, many of my colleagues remarked negatively, some even regarded me indecently. To them, I was trying to be younger or I am hiding my real age. Yes, I get that with my hair short.

By just looking at me, some concluded I was a very rude, unfriendly and a cruel woman. In 2004, in one formal gender training session, one of my feminist friends wrote an appreciation note for me. She said, “She is a wonderful lady but she looks like a boy due to her short hair.”

Even today, when I am in public, I can sense there is still a raging debate around me speculating if I am a boy or a transgender. When I stand up to my decision or choice, I often heard, “Oh, she is behaving like this because she is a man.”

1996. In the country, a beautiful woman is defined as someone with long hair and fair-complexion.

Despite all the odds up against me, I kept my hairstyle because I believe it suits me well and shows my personality perfectly.

My story represents the challenge many women from different cultures are faced with – if we choose what we want that goes against common socio-cultural norms, we must be ready to stand up to it. In Bangladesh, pulling tussles of hair is a common form of violence against girls and women.

During the International Women’s Day celebration this year, one renowned local branded hair oil has advertised one woman who went to the parlor and had a short haircut to protect her from domestic violence.

However, cutting hair to prevent a form of violence might create hundreds of different forms of violence by the husbands, in-laws or other perpetrators. It is not a solution to the problem. This sort of advertisement also teaches women to adjust and to remain silent against violence committed often. This is also a provocation for continuing the culture of silence and accepting violence as normal.

Women need to be bold from our innermost hearts to respect ourselves and make a choice. We need to come together to stop violence against women. At the end of the day, it is our life and we must live it according to our own choice.

Arpona has stuck to her own decision; she is a mother of two boys and continues to advocate for the rights of women in Bangladesh.

Arpona Ghosh, a communications and media relations expert of Bangladesh works in a development organization. For more than 16 years, she promotes stories of successes and challenges in the communities focusing on women and children through NGOs and donor organizations. Apart from roof top gardening and reading, her great passion is to analyze electronic and print media advertisements and other media content. A mother of two growing sons, she also loves to listen and discuss issues on children.

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