On the Symbolism of Hair in Islamic Societies

An Analysis of Approaches

in Anthropology of the Middle East
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  • 1 Ethnological Museum in Berlin
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The contemporary preoccupation with the headscarf and the new veiling shows us the importance of symbolic messages of hair behaviour not only in Western but also in Muslim societies. This article gives a survey of different methodological approaches to hair, namely the anthropological hair debate of the 1950s, studies on new Islamic dress, regional and culture-specific anthropological research on hair symbolism and hair sacrifice. Hair is either treated in the context of religious texts (Qur’an, Hadiths), Islamic institutional concepts of the sexual body (purity rules) or in the context of sacrifice revealing religious concepts of an asexual human body. It is shown that the contradictory statements of these diverse theoretical approaches are the result of a cleavage that can be traced throughout the literature and also accounts for the polyvalent meanings of the symbol of hair. Hair can be viewed in the context of individual versus society but also in the context of individual versus God. Therefore, the analysis of hair behaviour in Islamic societies has to combine both relations to understand the seemingly exotic behaviour of ‘the other’.

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