On women shaving all their hair

 Posted by on October 2, 2012
Oct 022012
An Hasidic woman shaving a married woman's head

How can you cartoon about shaving? You have to. Because without some humor to lighten the subject, it’s hard for me to go there. Shaving my head was one of my most humiliating and hurtful experiences I went through as a chasidic woman. Before I got married, in our cart at the hardware store of china dishes and cutlery and hooks and potpourri, we placed a Braun electric shaver for me. Every month I plugged the shaver into the socket near the mirror, flipped on the black switch, and beginning from my forehead over to the back of my neck, held the vibrating machine at my soft little hairs as it fell to the side, the floor, into the bowl, down my back. Where I had shaved, my scalp showed itself in pale white, dotted with dark roots. When I was done, I was bald. I collected all of my hair and tossed it into the toilet and flushed.

I did this every month for years.

It wasn’t always so hard. At first I didn’t think about it much. I have only a very vague recollection of the first time my hair was shaved – by my mother on the morning after my wedding at eighteen, and not much more comes to mind of the first year. The whole ordeal was insignificant at a time of such tremendous life change; of starting to live with a man I didn’t yet know. I’d also been a tomboy growing up, and I was glad to get rid of my frizzy responsibility on my head. Every married woman shaved, and it was a prerequisite to marriage, a price I was willing to pay. But as the years went by and I turned twenty, twenty one, became a mother, matured and grew into myself, I no longer thought marriage was contingent on this tradition. I no longer felt hair was simply a messy mane. I no longer wanted to rub Panteen on my shaven, itchy head every night. I was a woman, and I ached to put a comb through my hair, to watch it fall softly to my shoulders, to feel dignified and feminine. I wanted to make decisions about my own body.

But still, I shaved. Every month. In Kiryas Joel, it can be almost impossible to hide growing hair, and without the support of the husband, entirely impossible. A hair sticking out of the turban, a neighbor noticing, a mikvah lady asking questions, a husband tell-tailing. I tried to rebel. I didn’t just take it lying down. But when a few months passed and my hair began growing so long it no longer stood straight but tilted over as if to bow to my forehead, the start of blonde bangs, word got out. One day, out of the blue, the phone in my kitchen rang, a religious woman sent by the leadership on the other end of the line. It was the phone call I dreaded all this time.

“I was sent to go down to your house and check if your head is completely shaven” she said in Hungarian Yiddish “so we can know that your tzadikl, your son, can be in cheydar. We cannot accept your neshamala into cheydar until you’ve done what every holy Jewish woman should do, so I’d like to come to your house as soon as possible.” Then she told me about the many blessings that will come to me for this great mitzvah, and she reminded me of the illnesses and accidents that come from women like me who cannot resist their feminine yetzer horah. She talked about cancer and recent tragedies and said that I never know if God had not sent them because of my sins.

I hung up the phone and felt shaken, my knees pulsing. She wanted to come to my home. She wanted to check under my turban. She wanted to see my bald head.

I had to let her. What choice did I have? I believed in none of what she said and thought her premise ludicrous. But banning my son from their school was a sure-way of forcing me to comply. My toddler, moping around on the kitchen floor, pulling on my duster, blabbling in Yiddish, needed to go to school. I applied to a different small privately run school in the community, but they returned a message through a relative that they are unfortunately unable to accept my son, pursuant to instructions from community leaders. I had no choice. I wasn’t prepared to take radical action like fleeing the community without money, a job, a school for my child, a degree or even a drivers license (women are not allowed to drive). I knew much better than to be impulsive in my very volatile situation. I stood to lose custody of my child, for heavens sake, if I ignited the community’s wrath. I had no legal support, no emotional support, no people behind me, no alternative cheyder, no way to stick up for myself. I was just me, a Chasidish lady among my Chasidish peers. I was helpless.

So one night I took out the shaver again, flipped the switch, and held it under my new side-part. I watched myself in the mirror. I was no longer a child bride. I had become a woman with opinions, ideas, aspirations and self-respect. I did not want to shave, I abhorred the control others had over my body. But I had to do it.

As I shaved from end to end over my scalp, tears streaked from my eyes and nose. When I was done I looked at my bald face in the mirror. And then I yelled. It was a scream that tore itself out of me in protest for every ounce of my dignity that was gone, for every hair of self-respect I cut away. For the fight I had lost, to our own. My grandmother was bald like this, in the war, because of the Nazis. I have her recordings of these memories, and the horror and pain of forcing a woman to shave is shocking. Yet we do it, to our own children, ourselves, our women. We should, they should, someone should know BETTER!

But no, the ritual continues to be enforced. I know women who continue to shave their heads against their will because they are too powerless to make decisions about their bodies. I don’t refer to women who believe in the ritual. I refer to those who don’t believe there’s value to it and don’t want to be bald. What are they to do? You may assume they simply need to be assertive, but do you realize that everything they have stands in the balance? Do you realize how at mercy of their Hasidic husbands and rabbis they are?

For me, this episode made me more determined in the long journey to take back control over my life and my child, earn a degree, save money, get a drivers license, find a good school for my son. But it left a very deep impression on me — about how vulnerable mothers in the community are. I learned that women who become mothers at a young age are essentially powerless, because anything they try to do puts the children in the balance. To me, shaving embodies the enormous power the community has to make its rebellious women naked, humiliated, powerless and defenseless. I feel strongly that more needs to be done to help the women who want different things for themselves and their children.

I don’t shave anymore but it still hurts, a scar that refuses to heal.

Frieda Vizel

Frieda Vizel left the Hasidic community, the Modern Orthodox community and the Formerly Orthodox (OTD) community. She now lives in Pomona and is actively looking for a new community to leave. She deals with the perplexities of the communities she left by drawing cartoons about them, a habit that gets her into an excellent amount of trouble.

  40 Responses to “On women shaving all their hair”

  1. Shaving is the fugliest thing a women can do, a total turn off. Interesting to note that
    In some communities (sephardic), women are not allowed
    to shave.
    What about that women started to laser their hair line. Turnoff #2

  2. Well said. Very well said. My hair had always been my most prized feature that i identified with. I spent countless hours grooming my hair as a girl. To appease friends and family I duly allowed my mother to shave it all off the day after my wedding at the sadly familiar age of eighteen, and attempted handling it with humor, walking around the house clad in my husbands kappel. But I grew right back. I couldn’t handle it. As you so aptly articulate, the thought of doing to myself what hitler did to my ancestors to dehumanize and humiliate them was repulsive, to say the least. I intermittently shaved after that for several years until I decided to stop completely – once I ceased caring what “everyone” will say, that is. Once again, awesome cartoon and well said – as usual. Keep em coming! You’re an inspiration!

  3. What a powerful and potent piece.

  4. “I did this every month for years.” Yes, you did. Yes, we did. What a shame. This is a tribute to the women who shaved their heads for a tradition that no one can trace its source, and to those who still do. Very poignant.

  5. Oh, the passion transmitted in the commentary! And it comes through painfuly beautiful.

    (Are there any published studies clarifying which illnesses are caused by women’s non shaved heads and which by their driving? I mean, why does the DMV have exclusive jurisdiction over the War on Ingrown Toenails?! )

  6. A yemeni girl married a hasidic guy whispered to me “These ashkenazim, they uh, shave the wrong place!”

  7. Heartbreaking that these women have to give up control over their own bodies.

  8. An amazing and powerful piece of writing. This should be in the Forward alongside Judy Braun’s series.

  9. i don’t have anything particular to comment as this is just so well expressed… and of course i can go on and ramble with anger on all this and that that is wrong in this community or any other religion of doing things that is a pile of old believes and coping mechanisms of our ignorant past…

    well it seems i already started rambling….

  10. >And then I yelled.

    Reminds me of another earth shattering cry that broke boundaries and catalysed change, the issue of Reva Mann in her book, The Rabbi’s Daughter over another haircut, over her son’s upsherin from with the women’s section at her Rebbe’s court.

    A harrowing metamorphosis yours is, of a passive woman who moved with the ebb and flow of life that is Hasdism to one of independence and resentment to mindless dictates. Too many of us are acquainted with the henchmen lurking in the ether of you sorry tale.

  11. how very sad. kul hakavod for fighting back. ken yirbu.

  12. OUCH. It hurts deeply.

  13. Why would you flush your hair down the toilet? You want clogged plumbing? Throw it in the garbage, instead.

  14. Not sure where you grew up but it seems pretty oppressive. I decided to let my hair grow back a couple of years after I married and no one seemed to care. I didn’t really mind shaving as much as you did though. I kept my head covered most of the time and put a beautiful wig on when I went outdoors. (I guess I would have felt a bit differently if I would’ve had to put one of those awful head gears on my head, e.g. shpitzel, frizet, etc.) Honestly, I don’t have gorgeous hair and so I didn’t have as strong a desire as you to let it grow back. I must admit that I do enjoy having some hair on my head.
    It seems to me that you have a lot of resentment and anger towards your chassidic upbringing. I can’t empathize with you because I didn’t grow up the way you did. I feel obligated to comment that although it does have many faults, Yiddishkeit and chassidishkeit have many beautiful parts to it. Maybe you should include those in you cartoons as well?

  15. Religion is a poison. Period. This is just disgusting and sickening.

  16. How are you managing in grad school if you did not get a traditional four year bachelors degree?

  17. Oy! And to think I suffer from having to wear a sheitle! It’s all relative. You are quite strong to lift that rock and crawl out from under it. I have so much respect for you.

  18. Chasidishe men should be rebelling against this ancient misguided tradition as well. Maybe they wouldn’t go out secretly searching for “fun” if they had it at home.

  19. This practice is totally unrelated to Judaism or any religion for that matter. It’s a cult ritual enforced by socitial pressures.

  20. Well said, I’m not a women, but from what I see, hear, and understand its very hard, and even my sister’s, who grew up against any kind of hair looking covers for married women, and even a shpitzel who looks like a picture of a picture of hair (?????????( is enough to end a shidduch, but with all that, they keep on saying how hard it is for them.

    What I would Like to say here, is a point that most women, and even men don’t know about it, and those who know don’t talk about it, that is, that till about 800 years ago, it was not allowed for women to shave their hair, it was a part of ?? ????! (Covered is older then that, but not shaving) .

    If someone is interest in more details about it, lat he know, I hope one day to write a long article about that on my blog.

  21. This article is a lot more than just about women shaving their hair when they don’t want to.. Its about the general idea that women are being forced to do things they don’t want to, with ultimatums, threats etc.

  22. “My grandmother was bald like this, in the war, because of the Nazis”
    Today’s Nazis are dressed in flat-wide-white-black hats.

    Just adding a penny:
    According to Jewish law, the idea that married women cover their hair, is to keep their beauty private, for the sake of their husbands. So others won’t see it.
    since hasidic women are told to shave, why do they cover their head? they should leave it open, so they will be highly protected, no one will glance to their side even for a split second.
    Oh, and of-course, no cancer case will ever be reported anymore.

  23. 95% of orthodox Jewish woman don’t shave their hair!!!

  24. Whole lot of good that does to those who are compelled to.

  25. litvish, lubavits, ger, modern, and yerushalmi,and most chassidim dont cut… the only ones left are a minority of chassidim. the Zohar writes its forbidden to cut because its a turn off. the Talmud writes Reb Hillel used to braid his wife’s hair, and many more in the Talmud…

  26. Listen SE, the fact that 95% of frum people don’t shave doesn’t diminish the pain of the women that are forced to shave against their will. If you are so compelled, and you believe that the Zohar writes that it’s forbidden, you can nicely go tell the Rabbis. BTW, I was always told that we shave because of something that says in the Zohar

  27. Diminish? If anything it makes it worse. How isolating it must be to be stuck with something so stupid, and to know that “95%” of the other frum women don’t have to do it.

  28. You articulate the result of ancient problem. The absorption into Judaism of practices which are the antithesis of Torah Judaism.

  29. You articulate the result of ancient problem. The absorption into Judaism of practices which are the antithesis of Torah Judaism.

  30. This one goes straight for the heart.

  31. I was particularly struck by the fact that it was a woman who was enforcing adherence to the practice of a married woman shaving her head. It seems that throughout the world in societies that oppress women, brainwashed older women do the day-to-day oppressing. I read a book a few years ago that referenced female genital mutilation in Africa, and there too women were the ones making sure women were being “properly circumcised” aka having their clitoris’s brutally cut out.

  32. Having grown up in a black lapsed jewish home in the sixties, the females were allowed to let their hair grow. However, it was always to be heavily permed, using dangerous chemicals: to go outside “natural” was a shonda. Also, they still had to cover their head; many wore wigs from age eighteen onward. Circa 1970 or so, when the ‘afro’ (and subsequently the ‘isro’ ) became popular, a tremendous burden was lifted off of the head and shoulders of black jewish women! As a man reading this, I wonder about the pressure not to shave our faces. Why must we be forced to sport a beard, even when you have bald spots in it as I do? In any case, not having control of your body is humiliating. Thank you for reading!

  33. I am a Chasidishe woman in England and have been asked to write down my view to be put onto the internet which I do not use, so here goes: I have NEVER come across any woman ever being forced to shave their head, for any reason. What is under our sheitels or tichels is entirely private between husband and wife. Some women say shaving works wonders to keep the sheitel on – like velcro! Some say it’s cooler and more comfortable under the double covering which some Chasidim wear. Many, many have not shaved at all and have short or long hair as THEY decide WITH their husband. There is no need to let your hair show at all, it’s just very basic tznius after all, there are enough gels, sprays clips etc in the shops to sink a battleship.

  34. @Rivka,
    I don’t know in which culture (or cult) you grew up in, but I definitely came across a few women who are forced to shave there heads.
    And one of them I’m very close with, and that’s my wife, no, her mother didn’t hold a gun against her head forcing her to get shaved to day after the wedding, but it was against her feelings, back then we where both fully ultra orthodox (and yes, closed minded) chasidic teenagers, who grew up to agree to what ever the community asks to do, no matter if you like or not.
    Back then, I didn’t really care, and I even wanted she should shave because there is an unpure spirit on a married women hair… but she was literary crying after thar.
    More then a year ago, I lost my faith, and stopped observing anything, and slowly slowly is my wife following me, about six months ago my dear wife decided to stop shaving, she didn’t made an announcement about it, she just didn’t shaved for 3 month’s, after 3 months it start sneaking out hair, then, it was one shabbos afternoon in front of her sister’s her mother start screaming on her: “what’s going on with your heir, you are crazy? How do you want to raise children with such her

  35. I’m not Jewish. I had waist-length, beautiful blond hair. Then I got cancer. I had it cut off before what was left fell out from the chemotherapy. What I felt was a loss so keen, I mourned as if someone I loved had died. The pain of losing a part of myself, my identity, my self-esteem, my confidence was almost overwhelming.

    That anyone could force a woman to do this to herself, that any community, any religion, could force a perfectly healthy woman to shave her head makes me so incredibly angry. I’m bald because I’m fighting for my life right now – to see someone else forced to do it to themselves for no good reason is an abomination. Good for you for rebelling. I hope your son knows what a force for good his mother is, what an incredible woman it takes to push back against almost overwhelming opposition and learns both common sense and compassion for all women.

  36. […] I happened upon this older article by Frieda Vizel called, On women shaving all their hair. In her article, Vizel recalls a poignant memory of being forced to shave off her hair as a young […]

  37. This was an interesting article. I am a married mostly non-observant secular humanist and Conservative/Reform Jewish woman but have practically no knowledge of Yiddish though my grandparents spoke it. I would appreciate a translation of the Yiddish words. Also, it was a well-written piece. So all over the world, in secluded enclaves of communities to the general secular world, the right of a person to have CHOICE over one’s body is a hotly debated topic.

  38. Being forced to shave is atrocious, and particularly absurd given that a lot of gedolim are not so fond of the idea.

    That said, during particularly horrible heat, I’ve threatened to shave my head.

  39. They force their women to shave and then wear a wig! Why not let them sport a bald?
    If they still have to sport hair, why not let the natural hair flow from their mane?
    Beauty they say, is to be private, then why shave your women of her rightful beauty?

  40. was in chsidic bungelow impress idid it my seif i was never happiar it showes passion for yor belief nothing to be ashamed the way the street looks ismostly shamefull

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