I am told that when I was 10 days old, my paternal grandmother had my ears pierced. This is a very common practice for girls in Egypt where a popular gift for baby girls is gold stud earrings. That same grandmother was a teacher and a smoker - in a society where smoking is considered a male privilege - and supported Zamalek, the other Cairo football team, to spite her husband and eight children who in their majority supported Ahly (much like I support Manchester United and the majority of my family support Liverpool). When my mother complained to her that I cried every time she tried to detangle my hair after washing it, my grandmother’s advice was “Just cut her hair short.”
And so from the age of three or so, my mother kept my hair very short. See the above pictures.
I moved to London in 1975 at the age of 7. The first time I went downstairs to play with the other children, they asked me if I was a boy or a girl. My English wasn’t so good and I ran back home.
What does a girl look like?
What’s your name? Do you speak English? Are you a boy or girl? None of the questions were asked with malice but the last one was indicative of an expectation they had for markers of “boy” and “girl.” They didn’t see those markers in my appearance and they were confused.
It was said with malice in Cairo when I was 13 years old by the guy who told his friend “That girl used to be a boy and they gave her a sex change.”
What does a girl look like? Who taught me to be a girl?
When I shaved my hair off, I was preparing to wrestle with femininity. It’s been a multi-decade bout and neither one of us have been able to deal the knockout blow.
This is one of several vignettes from my new project: Buzz-Killer - A Memoir of Hair and Revolution. In my notes, I have sketched out a skeleton. In these vignettes, I want to share with you that process.
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