Twenty-six-year-old Eman El-Deeb left Egypt to move to Spain because she was tired of negative comments about her curly hair. "I reached the point where I felt I wanted to live in a place where my looks do not bother anyone", she told the BBC.
Egyptian hair is typically curly, kinky, frizzy and loud (I have it). But until recently, it hasn’t been so proud. It seems that Egypt has only just got the memo about the natural hair movement, with the country’s first salon catering specifically for curly hair opening this year – 2018 – which seems nuts for a country where the majority of women have curly hair. A shining light in a country that still holds up Caucasian ideals of beauty, the salon is run by 33-year-old Sara Safwat and currently gets about 30 young women through the doors each week: "The trend [of leaving hair natural] is very popular, especially among millennials", Sara told the BBC. The salon, along with Facebook groups like The Hair Addict which has thousands of active members and posts 'how to' videos about cutting and styling curly hair, are paving the way. But it’s sad it’s taken so long for Egyptian society to catch up with its own beauty.
"Even if you have the most beautiful curls, you still feel under pressure to get your hair straightened in Egypt", Carol Soliman, a fellow Egyptian woman living in the UK told me. Her friend Lama Matta agrees, recalling memories of "the sound of the old school metal tongs being whizzed and clamped around my head on trips back to Egypt and the olive oil hair baths that were mandatory action on the weekends to smooth... Always running from our untamed curls, trying not to look 'messy'".
As the only Egyptian in the village apart from my sister, growing up, my hair caused me a lot of grief. I used to avoid going swimming at school because it took me three times as long to wash it and I’d be so self-conscious about the way it would dry for the rest of the day – my nickname at school was 'Loo brush' on account of my frizz-bomb ponytail. Going to the hairdressers in my BNP-stronghold town was also a nightmare, with stylists perpetually rolling their eyes and making me feel bad for messing up their schedule because my hair took so long to blow-dry, exclaiming "Oh ma god, it’s like afro hair!" They even charged me more for haircuts. I never understood why women got their hair done to 'feel good' because for me, it was always a place of shame and embarrassment, where I wanted more than anything to just interrupt them and say "Please stop, you’re doing it all wrong – you need to blow-dry from the root", knowing full well I’d have to rewash and start again when I got home.
"Egyptian ideals of beauty are still of straightened glossy hair, in a way that’s consistent with our history – Nefertiti achieved straight hair with a constant wig," says Claire (my sister). "But natural Egyptian hair varies hugely," she points out, "the mix of ancestry means our hair can be coarse, tight curls, loose curls, or even fairly naturally straight. Afro hair has its own culture and its own styles, but Egyptian hair doesn’t have its own identity in the same way, so I think going 'natural' in Egyptian culture has less to do with emulating Caucasian ideals and more to do with personal preference."
My hair looks different pretty much every time I wash it, which is something I’ve only just come to appreciate. When I was growing up, it befitted the 'loo brush' description – coarse, curly, unruly, all the words on the Frizz-Ease advert, and it changed almost hourly as the day went on, never reliably by my side. Then when I had a Brazilian blow-dry two years ago at the age of 28, it had a personality lobotomy and became the hair I thought I’d always wanted: thin, flat, shiny; boring. I regret the blow-dry enormously because I’ve lost a lot of volume and wave and if it doesn’t come back, I’ll always regret that I caved and tried to stamp out my heritage instead of embracing it. I could have really used the natural Egyptian hair movement then.
"There’s an abundance of products in supermarkets now designed to help us embrace our natural hair that just didn't exist when we were growing up," says Lama, "I definitely still have this instinctive idea that my hair looks 'messy' when it's curly – etched into my mirror gaze because I grew up constantly trying to fit into a culture where straight and sleek was pretty… But now I take a second look," she continues, "and I love the curls and the mess. Somewhere along the road, curls and big hair has become the envy of others, and that by extension has given me the permission to rock it. Now, I see Egyptian hair bouncing all over the place. We're claiming it – and the newfound confidence that comes along with it."
Which is why I was so excited to see that BBC story yesterday about Egyptian women specifically entering the natural hair space and feeling empowered. I’ve read (and commissioned) so many brilliant articles on afro hair and the natural hair movement over the last few years, but I never felt truly a part of it until yesterday, reading that article, excitedly texting all my Egyptian friends for their views. Because our hair isn’t afro, or straight, in its many forms and variations, it is Egyptian, which is its own thing, and now it’s part of something big and cool – the natural hair movement – and that feels good.
One friend, Neveen Fouad, who lives in Cairo, said it’s really catching on, and several women at her work have gone 'heat-free' for a year (a campaign started by The Hair Addict). "The change has been remarkable," she told me, "new bouncy hair has surfaced and they feel really good about it!"
"Lots of Egyptian women in younger generations are leaving their hair natural now," confirms Sara Sawieres, another Egyptian woman in my network. "I used to feel the pressure to straighten my hair as curly hair was not considered 'nice'. I was always jealous of the girls with naturally straight hair, I wouldn’t say I felt ashamed, but I definitely wasn’t proud of it, because I didn’t always know how to manage it. But I don’t feel that way anymore!"
Egyptians are very proud people – we built the pyramids and invented lots of cool things like paper and ink (thereby writing), calendars and clocks, and we’re proud of our beauty Queens Cleopatra and Nefertiti, our brown skin, our high cheekbones and finally, our hair. Give it another few years, and you might just see us cropping up in the body hair movement.