At an early age, Lina Noureldin, 21, hated her coiled, curly afro-textured 4A hair. Being among the few black students in her middle school batch, she was always asked why her hair looked “nappy” and “different,” which pushed her to straighten it and keep it in a ban for most of middle school and high school.
“I wasn’t comfortable wearing my natural hair until 2018, and even now, I still receive a lot of uncomfortable microaggressions,” said Noureldin, a Sudanese senior at Georgetown University in Qatar. “But when the natural hair movement went mainstream around 2018, I went on a natural hair journey and stopped straightening my hair for a while.”
Although the first wave of the natural hair movement came about around the 1960s, it was the rise of social media and famous films like “Nappily Ever After” that inspired the second wave of the natural hair movement, which serves to encourage black people to abandon the use of relaxers and take pride in their natural hair. This movement decreased sales on perm relaxers that fell 30.8 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to the global research firm Mintel.
Despite global anti-black hair sentiments and racism, Lina is among millions of black women around the world who are currently on a journey to embrace the beauty in their natural hair and reject homogeneous Western beauty standards. In Qatar, this movement is facilitated by the increasing number of female expats from Sub-Saharan Africa, who can now provide freelance afro-textured hairdressing services.
According to the 2019 demographic data report, Sudanese people now makeup 1.9 percent of Qatar’s 2,839,386 population, Ethiopians are 0.8 %, Nigeria are 0.35%, and new nationalities like Zimbabwe, Gambia, and Liberia are also being represented. Women from these countries who come to work in other sectors bring expertise to do Afro-textured hair, which has increased both demand and accessibility.
“When I came here eight years ago, I was among the few Africans who could braid African hair,” said Stella Wanjiku, a Kenyan independent hairdresser. “Now as a freelancer, I am competing with women from countries like Cameroon and Uganda, and this market is expanding.”
With the increase of black African students in Education city and around Doha, freelancers like Stella are able to earn extra money by braiding African hair which has reduced some of the challenges faced by black women when maintaining their natural hair in this country.
“Instead of getting box braids for 700 QR in one of the few African hair salons, I can just call someone to do my hair for 150 QR, which is considerably cheaper,” said Noureldin.
Although it is much easier now to access afro-textured hair services, black women in Qatar still have to deal with daily microaggressions and passive racism about their hair, which creates feelings of alienation and discomfort.
“Some people ask me why I don’t just put hair chemicals like Keratin to relax my hair, and I am always expected to explain the politics of black hair and why I don’t like my hair to be touched, and it gets frustrating,” said Noureldin.
More so, black women who are not necessarily part of the natural hair movement, or in other words, those who chose to still relax their hair on a daily basis experience the same implicit biases and microaggressions.
“When black people have their hair straight, people still think it is a wig because black people can’t have good hair. And when you have it curly or kinky, they still have questions,” said Victoria Ng’eno, library associate at Northwestern University in Qatar.
The normalization of Western standards of beauty has also caused internalized anti-black hair sentiments within black people. According to a 2015 research by Alliant International University, African-American women’s decision to straighten their hair connects to generational internalized racism, which has been facilitated by homogenous beauty standards showcased in mainstream western media.
Despite the fact that the natural hair movement has been advocating for mainstream integration of afro-textured hair, there is a long way to go, considering that some of the hate for black hair is enforced by black people themselves.
“Most Sudanese girls I know outside Education City still straighten their hair, and my own family members didn’t approve of it when I went natural,” said Noureldin. “It’s a good thing that we now have access to hairdressing services, but the real challenge is still embedded in how we see ourselves.”