British Expat Newsletter:
11 June 2008

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: The Religious Significance of Hair
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

“When the Moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars…”

…Sorry, we’re talking about hair, not Hair the musical – although if it comes to that, Hair was based on a New Age theme and had several religious references.

It seems that virtually every religion’s had some kind of taboo, hang-up or prescription about human hair. Here are just a few of them.

Many religions consider the growing of hair as a sign of especial devotion. For instance, male Muslims are supposed to have a trimmed moustache and let their beard grow. This varies in practice around the Muslim world; in Pakistan and Bangladesh, it’s generally enough to grow a moustache, and many North Africans disregard the custom altogether. But in Afghanistan under the Taliban men were required to grow the full set, to the point where patrols would roam the street looking for men without beards.

But it’s not just facial hair. Hindu sadhus, or holy men, often let their hair grow to astonishing (some might say distressing) lengths. Likewise Sikhs of both sexes; uncut hair is the most important of the physical articles of faith that every Khalsa Sikh (“baptised” or initiated Sikh) is supposed to bear (as a symbol of the perfection of God’s creation). On the other hand, they’re also required to carry a small comb too, as a symbol of discipline and cleanliness – and, of course, to help keep their uncut hair maintained. (The others are an iron bangle, a small ceremonial dagger and, erm, boxer shorts.)

Then again, cutting head hair very short or shaving the head entirely are also marks of devotion. One explanation is that apparently this is bound up with the practice of shaving slaves’ heads, and symbolises that the devotee is the servant of the deity. Another is that shaving off the hair suggests a rejection of the worldly or the sensual, or even the self – this is especially the case with the Eastern religions.

Christian monks have historically had a variety of designs of tonsure (as the shaved patch on their head is known). The most familiar to Westerners is probably the so-called Roman tonsure, where the crown of the head is shaved, leaving the rest of the hair in a continuous band around the skull. (It was only in 1972 that compulsory tonsures were abolished by the Roman Catholic church.)

Oriental practice, followed by the Eastern Orthodox churches, was to shave the entire head, just as Buddhist monks – and nuns – do, although nowadays the custom’s to cut four locks of hair: once at the front of the head, once at the back, and once at either side, thus making the sign of the cross. (The hair’s left to grow back afterwards, and indeed Orthodox monks never cut their hair or beards after this ceremony.)

Weirdest of all was the Celtic practice. Some suggest that in Celtic Christianity the monks used to shave the front of their heads and leave the hair at the back to grow long, which must have left them looking a bit like Bill Bailey. But there are those who think that they did it by shaving a triangle in the hair, with the apex to the front of the head and the base from ear to ear at the back where the skull sticks out most. Sort of like a bizarre centre parting.

We don’t have to look too far to find a legend about the significance of freely growing hair as opposed to the shaven head. The Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah tells how the secret of Samson’s immense strength lay in his untrimmed locks – and how he was betrayed to the Philistines by Delilah after she cut all his hair off while he was sleeping. But he had the last, rather macabre, laugh when, blinded and chained, he was taken to the Philistines’ temple; his hair had by now grown back, and his strength with it, so he was able to bring down the temple’s central pillars and crush his captors (and himself) to death.

So much for cutting and growing: what about covering? The Sikh turban is a particularly visible sign of the requirement to keep hair covered, but it’s by no means the only one. Jewish and Muslim men often wear a skull-cap – the yarmulke for Jews, the kufi for Muslims – and there are a whole variety of head-dresses among Christian priests and ministers, from mitres to kamilavkas (the Orthodox priest’s round hat, worn with a veil) to zucchettos (the skull-cap worn by senior Roman Catholic clergy).

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the fashion of some Orthodox Jewish women to show modesty by covering their hair… with a wig (also known as a sheitel). This seems a touch paradoxical, and indeed some rabbis frown upon this as not modest enough. There have even been cases where wig-wearing Jewish women have gone a step further, by covering their wig with a hat or snood, to avoid giving the impression that they’re exposing their hair!

But the whole practice of Jewish women wearing sheitels was a cause for scandal back in 2004, when it emerged that thousands of wigs had been made from hair cut off the heads of Indian women as part of a Hindu ceremony of purification. Jewish wigmakers were forced to ditch their stock made of human hair and to replace the natural wigs with synthetic ones.

Hair and religion are a touchy matter all right. Earlier this year a series of adverts for ghd IV hair styling equipment, featuring a lingerie-clad young woman kneeling, clutching a rosary and praying that her new curls would choke her rival with jealousy, had to be withdrawn after the Advertising Standards Authority received complaints from Christians.

One of the strangest – and in some ways saddest – cases must have been the 15-year-old Edinburgh lad who alleged in 2006 that his hair, grown long in accordance with his parents’ Sikh tradition, had been cut off by racist thugs in an assault. It emerged later that there’d been no attack. Caught in the cultural conflict between his family’s demands and his peers’ expectation, he’d cut his own hair off to try to fit in with his peer group, and made up the story of the attack to avoid upsetting his parents. He even punched himself in the face to lend credibility to his story.

So much trouble over a few strands of protein…

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

There’s an interesting essay here on “The Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard”. Written in 1841, but still worth a read.

For those of you who remember the Sixties (and yes, we know that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there) here’s what IMDb has to say about Hair – the musical.

OK, we said that a few strands of protein weren’t worth a fuss. Evidently someone disagrees – a lock of what’s believed to be Jane Austen’s hair is going up for auction on 18 June.

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • guitars with indian flag
  • shooting drunk drivers on the spot
  • how not to worry about housework
  • emily erotic film
  • how to get into your man mind
  • strip surprise
  • photos of women pleasing men s penises
  • tips for good wife funny
  • slow blokes to morocco
  • mustard clear sinus

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat Magazine


“If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair colour.”

– Mark Schnitzius, US academic


A vicar, notorious for his lengthy sermons, is just about to start holding forth one Sunday when he notices a man get up and leave.

Over an hour later, the vicar’s just winding up his sermon when he sees the man come back in and sit down.

Afterwards the vicar asks the man where he went.

“I went to get a haircut,” the man tells him.

“But why didn’t you do that before the service?”

“Because I didn’t need one then.”

This entry was posted in 2008 and tagged , , by Kay McMahon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kay McMahon

Kay has been an expat for nearly 30 years. She set up the British Expat website back in early 2000, whilst living in London and missing the expat life. These days she spends much of her time lugging computers and cameras around the world. (Dave gets to deal with all the really heavy stuff.)

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