Can the Feminist Body Hair Movement be Intersectional?

For the longest time, I believed that white women had no body hair. How lucky! No waxing, no shaving = no worries.

I was proven wrong when I was 12 years old and shopping for jeans with my father. I went off to the changing room, only to find Sienna Miller plastered on the door. There they were. Thin strands of hair. Visible only because of the lighting in the photograph and the close-up shot. What a revelation!

I had never seen women in the media with body hair.

It is no wonder that South Asia is obsessed with women’s body hair. A colonial hangover and the hairless ideal promoted by the media don’t make for a good combination. This is evident when tracing and reflecting on the history of body hair removal and hearing experiences of Indian women.

In India, waxing is a sacred ritual that starts as young as 12. It is common to hear your neighbourhood aunty snicker that you are due a parlour visit to ‘clean up’. 

Living in the Netherlands has changed my relationship with my body hair.

Long winter months are greeted with tights. Waxing prices are restrictive. The Dutch dress practically thanks to the wind and rain they cycle through daily. When summer comes around, many women shave their legs. Most tend to be more relaxed about their arms, as arm hair is generally lighter and less visible, and hence, not such an ‘issue’.

However, this is not necessarily the case for Dutch minority women. And this is the exact reason why the feminist body hair movement spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus have come under fire for lack of representation.

Although I still occasionally remove my hair, the pragmatic culture I’ve found myself living in has rubbed off on me for the better.

I suppose getting older (and wiser) also has something to do with it. I don’t remove hair as often, nor do I let my hair removal calendar dictate when I can or can’t wear a skirt.

Of course, I am not advocating that we must all stop removing body hair. We navigate and negotiate our ‘choice’ in the issue. When I return to India, I slip back into old patterns – albeit consciously. To avoid uncomfortable stares, I choose to wax. This is the reality for many with poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and for minorities with coarser hair, for whom the costs of rebelling against societal norms are too high.

How do we move away from the idea that hair is ‘dirty’ and create an intersectional feminist body hair movement that all South Asians can own?

Reframe and contextualise body hair in sex education.

Sex education should go beyond mentioning pubic and armpit hair. Discuss the options of body hair removal so that young women can be informed, without encouraging it as an inevitability. Talk about why it has become common, and place it in your country’s context. Frame body hair within changing fashion trends. And parents, support your kids to develop self-confidence.

Get the boys on board.

If you are lucky enough to have received sex education, you will know that there is often very little dialogue between girls and boys during puberty. As a result, many boys and men in India have disappointing attitudes to hair on women. Boys must not only learn about their own body hair, but also that of women, so that they understand what is natural and normal.

Let hair be seen.

Even adverts for razors in India are afraid to show actual body hair! Deepika Padukone, a famous Bollywood actress, shaves an already hairless leg in this one to show the wonders of her Gilette razor. I think a serious makeover of Indian school uniforms is needed, too. Mandatory skirts don’t allow girls to show their hair on their own terms.

Let us change the way women are represented. Have images in school textbooks that depict women with body hair. Check out illustrator Aqya Khan for inspiring examples.


Let’s take control of the narrative of body hair and allow it to be seen – for all those 12 year-old girls across South Asia.

In Conversation with Tasneem Kakal

Tasneem Kakal is an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Born and raised in Mumbai, she spent 5 years taking a daily train to and from university. In this interview with Girls’ Globe, Tasneem tells us what the experience taught her about navigating public space as a young woman.

“I would walk up the stairs and go to my platform in this huge crowd of people. And I realized I was doing something that I didn’t know I was doing…”

We all have the right to move through the world without fear. Public space should be accessible to all, regardless of gender. By raising her voice and bringing attention to the everyday nature of inequality, Tasneem stands in solidarity with other women and girls.

“I had to push the boundaries, little by little.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org to support women’s advocacy messages.

If you liked this post, we think you’ll love our interviews with Kinga, Winfred, Scarlett and Natasha, too! 

Will Education Alone Suffice?

In a not-so-small village in India, where people earn their livelihood by farming, education is booming. In the last decade, this village has seen the birth and development of a government school and several private schools. A couple of these are even elite ‘English medium’ schools.

The village has also seen the opening of a pre-university college. But to pursue any vocational or professional course afterwards, an individual must travel to the next town. With no frequent bus connectivity, this higher education remains a distant dream for many. But the people of the village are still ecstatic.

Their children can now say a few words in English. They can identify the English alphabet. They can – sometimes stutteringly – say a sentence in English too. Their children are educated – a word whose purpose and worth many of us fail to comprehend.

In a real-life scenario, each family enrolls their child/children in school dutifully. Fees are low, midday meals are provided and children are taken care of while the parents work in the fields as daily wage labourers. By the time the children are back, parents are back at home too.

When boys reach 5th or 6th standard, they drop out of school to work alongside their parents. Another breadwinner for the family is more important than learning English – which ‘they will never use anyway’.

The girl child, however, is sent to school to complete her education up to the 10th standard. Some progressive families will even allow their daughters to study up to the 12th. All because it increases their demand in marriage.

A boy educated up to 4th standard will work from the age of 9 till 24, manage to buy an acre of farm land with the joint earnings of his family, and then approach the family of a well-educated girl with a marriage proposal.

If all goes well, the proposal is accepted and a marriage is celebrated by the families. The daughter-in-law dutifully takes up her responsibility of cleaning the house, cooking three meals, tending to the cattle and bearing children – often before she herself is even 20 years old.

This is the story of young adults in most villages here.

Is there any need for change? Who is to blame? Does something have to be done, or is this something to be left alone?

Schools and colleges were, at some point, new to many living in villages across India. Yet most people accepted them with open arms. My question, though, is if this education does not translate into a good job and decent pay, is it of any use to poor farming communities?

Ensuring we don’t just stop with providing schools, but focus on creating livelihoods through relevant vocational training is a major need for our people.

Making opportunities for working and earning available to girls and boys equally is the responsibility of every government.

What use is a 12th standard education if a girl is unable to support herself financially? After all, financial independence is very closely linked to security and safety.

I believe that societies change and adapt to the opportunities presented to them. Law makers, influencers and policy makers must understand the needs of a population with a view to future growth, rather than simply providing dead-end educations!

“Why should women have all the responsibility for family planning?” – Parmila’s Story

This is the second blog in a 4-part series sharing personal family planning stories from around the world – presented by CARE and Girls’ Globe in the lead up to the 2018 International Conference on Family Planning. Catch up on the whole series with stories from HawaOun Srey Leak, and Olive.

When it comes to family planning, women in India (and in the rest of the world) are expected to do the work. This reality is consistent across the various methods of contraception, but the disparity between the sexes is especially obvious when it comes to permanent contraception, or sterilization. For each man who opted for a vasectomy between 2016-2017 in India, 52 women got tubectomies.

The 1:52 ratio is striking, especially when you consider that vasectomies are cheaper, less invasive, carry a lower risk of infection, and have a quicker healing time than the female equivalent.

In recent decades, the procedure has been improved with the advent of the no-scalpel vasectomy (NSV), which boasts an even quicker healing time and lower risk of infection.

For couples who do not want to have any (or any more) children, the NSV can be a great option, and one frontline health worker in India has made it her personal mission to increase uptake in her community.

Photo by CARE

This is Parmila Devi with her husband, Bigan Sahni.

Parmila is an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) in Bihar, one of the most populous states in India. She learned about NSVs as part of the ASHA family planning training, and she immediately decided it was the best option for her family.

“Why should women have all the responsibility for family planning?” she wondered.

“The first thing I did after becoming an ASHA worker was to convince my husband to undergo a vasectomy,” said Parmila. Bigan “thought she had lost her senses” at first, but eventually came around to the idea.

The procedure was a success, and Parmila began to tell her clients about her husband’s experience. She attempted to address concerns and correct myths and misconceptions prevalent in the community.

“Some men think [a vasectomy] would affect their sex drive or their ability to enjoy sex. Some also feel it would make them physically weak, which is not the case,” one state health official explained. Many women shared the same fears for their husbands.

ASHAs typically work most closely with women and children, but because Parmila wanted men in her community to understand the benefits of NSV, she talked to them as well.

“‘Ab ee mardo ken a chori!’ (She will not even leave the men alone!) the people in the households I visited in the early days would say.”

Bigan supports his wife’s efforts, and occasionally they make house calls together and he counsels the husband while Parmila talks to the wife. Gradually, people in her community have become more accepting of NSV as a viable method of permanent contraception.

Parmila received an award from the health minister of Bihar, Mangal Pandi, for motivating 43 men to get NSVs in 2017. Her goal for 2018 is to increase that number to 100, and so far, she’s over halfway there.

Given the volume of accurate information and quality family planning methods available now to individuals, we should be working to ensure this information and these services reach women and men.

There is no reason women should have to bear all of the burden for family planning and contraception in this day and age. Fortunately, there are activists like Parmila in this world to remind us of that, and to push us to be better.

Learn more about CARE’s work in Bihar here.

This case study was collected by Gaurav Masih, MPH candidate at Indian Institute of Public Health – Gandhinagar.