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Hair: An Islamic Gendered Limit

From mediaeval times, hair has played a crucial role in dictating the boundaries of gender and piety in Islamic societies. In the Sharia, growing a beard was considered a norm that implied piety, masculinity, and submission to God’s creation (by not changing the beard’s natural growth). Naturally, pious Muslim men were supposed to observe this multi-dimensional limit. For women, however, hair, like the rest of their bodies, was considered ‘awra (an intimate part), which the Sharia required to be covered. In this brief blog, I will explain a discrepancy in how Islamic regulations are implemented today with regards to “masculine” vs “feminine” hair, regardless of what the Sharia has sanctioned for centuries.

Slowly but surely, the enforcement of Islamic norms regarding hair has developed into an asymmetrical gendered issue. When it comes to the Qur’an, there are no verses referring to hair or how it should be treated. In the Sharia, on the other hand, where hair and its treatment are gendered issues, there is a plethora of discussion around hair and its do’s or don’ts. What actually happens in present-day Islamic societies, however, is another story.


According to the Sharia, women are required to cover their hair (like most of their bodies) from the gaze of namahram (men, except for a woman’s spouse, or adult male members of her family with whom marriage is permanently unlawful, or haram). Laws about women’s hijabs (headscarves) have been put into practice from the early stages of Islam. Until now, such compulsory regulations for women have generally remained in place in many Islamic societies. Regardless of the degree to which women transgress these limits, such regulations have turned into a means of political control and propaganda in the hands of the Islamic authorities in some countries, like Iran after the Revolution of 1979. Muslim women who break the hijab law in Muslim societies often face consequences, ranging from minor cases of institutionalised punishment to violence in which women lose their lives. One recent example is the death of Mahsa/Zhina Amini on September 16, 2022, in the custody of the Morality Police, after she was detained for not observing her hijab properly.


In the past, Muslim men were also required to observe various Sharia law regulations concerning their hair. For the purpose of this blog, I shall merely talk about the law’s requirements concerning men’s facial hair, particularly their beards. From the onset of Islam, the close shaving of men’s facial hair has been sanctioned as unlawful or haram, whether Muslim men observed such laws or not. For men, shaving the beard was considered a transgressive act, which had severe implications regarding their piety and masculinity. Muslim men were required to keep their moustaches short and their beards long, to distinguish themselves from unbelievers with different grooming habits.

Referring to verses from the Qur’an, mediaeval theologians inferred that only Iblis would attempt to change God’s creation. Since shaving the beard was changing the God-given natural characteristic of men, it would imply unbelief. Last, but not least, the beard was considered a marker of masculinity. Shaving it would indicate an attempt to resemble women and hence it was forbidden. Discussions on the unlawfulness of close shaving of male facial hair are still alive in Islamic seminaries and forums.

The Gendered Discrepancy

The implementation of rules and regulations concerning hair in today’s Muslim societies have certainly changed over time, but they have changed asymmetrically. Concerning the beard, not all Muslim men who shave their beards face dire consequences, such as being openly accused of unbelief, lacking masculinity or practicing bid‘a (reprehensible innovation) in Islamic law. Men commonly have the freedom to groom their facial hair as they wish. This freedom has actually found a very firm place in the Muslim fashion world for men. Apparently, the close shaving of facial hair has lost its heavily religious and gendered implications. At least there are no legal consequences for men in Muslim societies (such as Iran) if they shave their beards. In some Muslim societies, it is mainly the Islamic clergymen who still closely observe the prohibition on shaving beards.

However, on the other side of the coin, the hard-and-fast rules concerning women’s hair (i.e., covering it according to Islamic hijab requirements) have remained in force. Women who demand changes in mandatory hijab laws are commonly rejected and face violence of various kinds. It seems as if the implementation of centuries-old Sharia laws concerning hair have been relaxed for men, at least in some Islamic societies, while women still need to obey those laws. One wonders if laws such as the compulsory hijab would also have changed, if women had not been marginalised from having active roles in establishing Islamic law.

Zhinia Noorian is a postdoc in the ERC Advanced Grant project Beyond Sharia: The Role of Sufism in Shaping Islam in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University and is specialised in Iranian and Persian Studies. Image copyright: Wikimedia Commons.