Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour on the unfair beauty standards Arab women face
From a young age, Arab women are taught that hair matters, and, often, that they were born with the wrong kind. In their formative years, when they are still calibrating their sense of self worth, young girls are instructed by their aunts and mothers to rid themselves of their curls—to get keratin treatments to straighten it all away permanently. Girls are told they are told that only straight hair is beautiful, and to be beautiful, they will have to change.
It’s no wonder, then, that when Netflix was looking for a director for its film Nappily Ever After, based on the bestselling book about the hair struggles of a black woman in America, the producers behind the project approached the groundbreaking Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al Mansour.
“When they sent it to me, I fell in love with the story. I love that it is very entertaining, it is a romantic comedy—a genre that, as women, we’re very nostalgic for, as we haven’t seen it for a while. But it has a strong message about race and social commentary at the heart of it that is done in such a sweet way and an empowering way. Right after I read the script I decided to make it,” Mansour tells me.
In the film, a woman named Violet (Sanaa Lathan), frustrated that she spends her life trying to fit other people’s ideas of who she should be, shaves her head in an act of defiance, embracing her natural hairstyle for the first time in her life—with transformative results.
Mansour found it easy to identify with Violet’s journey.
“My hair is curly, but it is a different kind of curly. Still, I understood what it means for women to always have to have a perfect look. You always need to straighten your hair, you always need to fill an image. All Arab girls do with their hair. We don’t always have Bollywood hair, we all go and straighten it—every day maybe. I understood what it means to not be satisfied with who you are and want to fit a different image,” Mansour says.
Growing up, Mansour did not have the same pressure that Violet in Nappily Ever After does from her own mother, but she still felt the need to conform.
“My mom was very relaxed. She didn’t ask me to do my hair. I come from a really fun family. At school, I didn’t want to go with my hair all frizzy, no way! It’s not the culture. I wanted to look nice. Especially in middle school—that’s where it starts. I didn’t have a lot of pressure at home, but from the bigger society, it’s a different story,” says Mansour.
Mansour hopes that young women in the Middle East can break out of the cycle, spend less time feeling that they have to change themselves to be beautiful.
“I think it is very important for women to be who they are. Also, for young girls, they need to invest their energy in something that builds their character. When I was 10 years old, I was really professional at using the blow-dryer. I used to blow-dry my hair and so was everyone else around the house. Why was I so skilled in that? Why? I was so proud of myself that I could do it. I was young, and I could do it really well! But why? I felt like I should have invested all my energy in playing basketball—something that develops me as a person rather than a skill like that,” says Mansour.
“I think young girls in the Middle East need to be given the opportunity to grow in a healthier way, where they can go play and they don’t care about their hair, or their dresses, or their image, and how people will view them. “
Mansour was struck by the ability of Sanaa Lathan, famous for films such as The Best Man and Love & Basketball, to show the complicated layers of emotions her character needed to portray in the film’s most pivotal scene—when she finally sheds her straightened hair.
“She’s such an amazing actress; she has such amazing muscles when it comes to acting. The scene where she cut her hair, we had three cameras mounted. We knew we could only do it once, and we trained and everything. You feel removed as a director because you cannot call cut. You can’t go adjust the lights, get a different angle,” says Mansour.
“Once it starts, it starts, and you lose your power at that moment—you’re just there to witness it and hope for the best. It was a nerve-racking moment, but she was amazing. She gave me so much feeling, and everything that I wanted from that scene—joy, conflict, emotions, sadness, a person who is shedding everything that has been installed in her head. It was amazing to witness.”
Currently, Mansour is nearing production of her next film The Perfect Candidate, which will mark her return to Saudi Arabia after two major features in the West.
“We’re gearing to go. We’ve got finance and we’re ready. I’m very excited about that project, and I’m really excited about going back to Saudi Arabia to shoot. Especially as Saudi Arabia is now open for cinema, it is such a wonderful time. I can’t wait to be there.”
- Nappily Ever After is now streaming on Netflix -