The Holy Hair Wrangles

illustrated drop cap for the letter TThere is a story about two sisters who became prostitutes in Egypt. Men fondled their breasts, caressed their bosoms, and poured all their lust out on them. They too lusted after their lovers, whose genitals, we are told, were like those of donkeys and whose emissions were like those of horses. The twins, Oholah and Oholibah, did not enjoy peaceful retirement after a long career in prostitution. A mob stripped, stoned, and cut them down with swords. Their children were killed, and houses burned down. This narrative is in the Bible, in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 23. 

I first heard this sermon story from my pastor. Even before I got over the horror of it, he reminded us that the modern version of these sisters was present in the congregation. While the Bible states that the sisters represented Samaria and Jerusalem, the minister clarified that any woman in the church who wore makeup, earrings, and kept long hair was the same as them. Hadn’t those “whoring” sisters as such adorned themselves? They had. We were therefore just like them. The woman whose baby I’d been bouncing snatched him back and scooted away from me and my long hair. This was nothing new: It was just another uncomfortable day in church.

The women in my church took their fashion style from 1 Timothy 2:9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes…” This verse had been used to admonish us, over and over. So much so that I only wore small studs in my ears during weekdays while going to work and removed them when attending church on Saturdays. My only visible sin was my plaited, uncovered hair. Shaved hair formed part of our dress rules — but if one was “weak” and couldn’t overcome that temptation, they had to cover their hair with the women’s ministry headscarf and not let any strand show. 

I refused to do this, but it wasn’t just me. Eleven of us wore our hair to church uncovered. Because of that, we couldn’t join the choir, serve as ushers, or do anything else in church. Only the so-called true daughters of Sarah could serve. I remember approaching the church gate every sabbath and making a silent prayer: “Please don’t let them preach about hair today.” And while that prayer was sometimes answered, it didn’t take away from the judgemental glares of the older women.

What puzzled me was seeing women from other churches fully adorning themselves and even preaching in the pulpit with uncovered long hair. Didn’t they know about Jezebel? Hadn’t they heard about the adulterous sisters? Hadn’t they read 1 Timothy 2:9? When I asked this during Bible study, the Elder said, “Their eyes have been blinded. But if those who know the truth fall away and become like them, it will be impossible for them to be restored. You will be crucifying Jesus all over again.” 

This hair rule was not only confined to our church, but even schools. When the missionaries established schools in African countries, they made it mandatory that all girls attending their “godly” schools had to cut their hair to the scalp. African hair, they said, was unsightly, ungodly, and untameable. Cutting hair was meant to minimize our womanhood and shrink our sexuality. They did this to diminish African women’s desirability to African men, “who were  constructed as primal beasts with no sense of sexual control.” This belief made our pastor feel that we were luring men to sexual sin. We were “like Jezebel who adorned her head and painted her eyes before she went to meet the Prophet.” 

I remember weeping as my father watched helplessly while the barber shaved me a day before I joined high school. For the next four years, it was the only look the hundreds of girls in our boarding school and I wore. When I completed high school in 2009, I vowed to never cut my hair again. And so every Saturday for years after, I’d attend church with my hair out as a statement of protest. Walking home with my “ungodly sisters” in solidarity, we would vow to stand our ground and show up every sabbath. But then the youth rally happened, and I broke my promise. 

On the final day of the Youth Revival Rally, when everyone had stood up for the closing prayer, the guest preacher started talking about the end times, and what a shame it was that the daughters of the woman of Babylon, the Mother of Harlots mentioned in the book of Revelation, were in the congregation. He asked everyone but the women who had long hair to sit down. It might have been his eyes that held mine when he asked, “How long do you want to continue being the daughter of a harlot? A woman of Babylon?” that took all the air out of me. The rally ended. When I got home, I left all the church WhatsApp groups, deleted and blocked the phone numbers of everyone I knew there. I didn’t cry, or get angry, or contemplate my destiny in hell as the daughter of a harlot. I was done with church. Two months later, I got another job in the city and left town.

For the next two years, I didn’t attend any church. But while flipping through the channels one evening, I came across a televangelist on God TV preaching about grace. I’d heard the word before, but I wasn’t sure what it really meant. We didn’t talk about grace at my former church, and so listening to this preacher intrigued me, especially since he was reading from the Bible — the same Bible I’d kept for years — but verses I’d never come across. It felt surreal. Were there two gods? Was the God of this televangelist different from the God in my old church? Why was our God fearsome and this one loving? Every evening I tuned in to him, and every evening I discovered a kind, just, compassionate God, my father and friend. 

The next time my co-worker invited me to their church, I went with her. The usher’s faces were made up, the congregation wore jewelry, and women sported the latest hairstyles on their heads. Two men even wore studs in their ears, and another was dreadlocked. Nobody bothered with how others dressed. I’ve been a member here for three years now, learning and unlearning, reading theBible, asking questions, being answered in love, and for the first time in my life, developing a personal loving relationship with God.

Last year, after the coronavirus lockdown was lifted, I visited my old town to see my relatives and bumped into a former church member. She was shocked to see me with short hair. I quickly clarified that I’d only had the big chop to get rid of the relaxer but that it was growing it again. Her baby was being dedicated on the next sabbath, so she invited me to attend.  

A mix of emotions surged through me as I approached the church. It had been four years since I left. The older members who recognized me were delighted and came to embrace me. I had “seen the light” and cut my hair. Disappointment filled them when I explained my reason for shaving, but they still dragged me to sit with them. When I looked around, I saw four of the 11 girls I had rebelled with; one had shaved her head, the other three still wore them openly. I saw the look of disgust in their eyes: I had crossed over to the enemy’s line. But to my pleasure, there were lots of unfamiliar faces, and for every two rows, there was at least a woman with long uncovered hair. I counted to 27, and when I saw that the children’s teacher, who had shaved her hair before, was now wearing box braids, I stopped. There was hope for the future. They would win this hair battle. The pastor was also new and younger, and though he never once mentioned hair, the tension was still subtly palpable. The division was clear as day.

I am now freed from the old hurt. Going to church is no longer a protest statement but a time to commune in fellowship and hear the word of God. I sometimes get anxious when someone mentions the harlot woman of Babylon, but I remind myself that I’m not her daughter, but rather a dearly beloved child of God. I toy with the idea of going back to my old church and asking the elders again why women should shave their heads. After they’ve answered, I’d stand up and counter by starting with Galatians 5:1: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery,” and maybe I’d finish by singing India Arie’s I Am Not My Hair.