The Middle East has a rich history in everything from art to cuisine to spirituality. Many people are curious about the traditional dress and appearance of people who reside in Middle Eastern countries. Hairstyles especially have meaning and tradition that date back hundreds of years, and many style choices are inspired by religious obligations, gender roles and climate.
For centuries, Middle Eastern women have braided their hair in order to keep it healthy and out of their faces. Traditionally, many women in Middle Eastern countries have long hair; however, farm work or tending to family has required them to maintain practical hairstyles. The Middle Eastern climate is also very hot, and women in Mediterranean locations such as Turkey, or desert climates such as Egypt, often keep their hair tied back in head scarves. Women who identify with the Islamic religion wear hijab, or a head scarf. While Islam is the predominate religion in all of the Middle East, including countries with secular governments, certain places like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq maintain stricter policies. However, the Islamic religious text, or Quran, has no specific law instructing women to wear hijab, and many women choose to wear hijab for personal reasons.
It is also traditional for men to sport long hair and beards. Much of this has to do with Islamic tradition and rules, and to this day it is common to see Middle Eastern men with elaborate facial hair. Men in arid desert landscapes such as Egypt also wear head scarves to protect their hair, scalp and neck from the harsh sun.
People maintained their hair by visiting local bath houses. Women with long hair often treated it with henna, a natural dye. Men shaved and doused hair with oils in order to keep its shine. Men and women with thick, wavy hair were often admired.
While many Islamic women in Middle Eastern countries wear the hijab to cover their hair, recent generations of Muslim women are becoming more experimental with haircuts and hair dye. Youth or university students commonly sport shorter hairstyles than previous generations, and many young men choose not to have facial hair.
Some young women choose not to wear head scarves, and while this is generally accepted on a college campus or at a youth-oriented business, wearing a head scarf is still common for many middle-aged women. In more secular countries such as Turkey, a head scarf can be worn casually, with some of the hair visible at the crown of the head. In some stricter regions, such as Saudi Arabia, many women cover all of their hair and much of their faces as well.
Men who live in rural areas still grow facial hair, and women still dress conservatively and grow their hair long. In urban environments, rules are generally less strict, and both men and women can choose to have alternative, Westernized hairstyles.
Coloring hair is becoming more popular in the Middle East. Many Middle Easterners have naturally dark hair, especially in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Turkish men and women may have lighter hair. Because dyeing darker hair is often more difficult, many people choose to embrace their natural color and to experiment instead with different haircuts.
Many Middle Eastern holidays and traditions are very elaborate, and dressing and decorating one’s hair and body with extravagant clothes and hairstyles is customary. For a wedding ceremony, many women have their hair braided and laced with ribbons or jewels. Starting in the fourteenth century, men in high positions of religious leadership typically wore turbans; during the mid-Ottoman Empire, many wore fezzes to symbolize stature.
While some Middle Eastern countries strive to be secular, many still celebrate Islamic holidays and continue the tradition of weeklong wedding celebrations. That’s why it is customary for both men and women to maintain traditional long hair.
References and ResourcesMiddle Eastern Wedding Traditions
Women, Islam and Hijab
Heritage of the Turban: SikhNet
Hairstyles Through The Ages
Iran presents 'Islamic haircut catalogue': YNet