Rape of the lock: Case of women's hair mysteriously snipped

A woman’s hair is not just hair after all.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  5-minute read |   02-08-2017
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It’s no less than the "Rape of the Lock". And almost as dreadful as the unbinding of Draupadi’s hair in the Mahabharata.

Across TV channels, there are angry, anguished women - prostrate on charpai, face stiff with horror, eyes open wide but unseeing, tears streaming down unheeded. And a forlorn piece of braided hair lying below them, as limp as banana peels.

The mystery of the missing braid has gripped north India. Across villages in the cow-belt - Jodhpur to Mewat, Gurgaon to Morena - women are losing their braids, mysteriously. 

Hair is not just hair

You may not think much of it, but a woman’s hair is not just hair. "The Rape of the Lock" was written by Alexander Pope in 1714 to heal the rift between two families: a young man from one family had snipped off a shock of hair of a girl belonging to the other family. Her outrage had brought the two families to blows.

drau_080217024817.jpgAccording to scholars when Dushasana pulled apart Draupadi's triveni (triple braid) at the dice game, the Kauravas did not just defile her, they tore apart familial ties and the dharmic order. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Consider Draupadi’s hair and what happened after that. When Dushasana pulled apart her triveni (triple braid) at the dice game, the Kauravas did not just defile her, they tore apart familial ties and the dharmic order, say scholars. Hair-binding in Indian culture has been traditionally associated with femininity, her role in society, her duty and deference to her husband. For the next 13 years, she kept hers unbound, signifying that the Pandavas lost their marital rights to her. Neither Draupadi nor the world could be pure until dharma was restored. 

The village belle next-door may not have Draupadi consciousness, but the catatonic state they are going into shows how precious that long rope of hair down one’s back is to the Indian women. Especially in rural India. It’s what a woman grows up with, takes care of, considers her marker of beauty. No wonder, losing it suddenly is throwing them into such grief.   

Bizarre, weird, odd

What’s happening to them is actually bizarre. In the past one week, scores of women have started complaining: their braids are being snipped off. Who, how, why? They don’t really know. Most say that they had fainted or were asleep at that very moment (uncannily like Belinda in Alexander Pope’s "The Rape…). 

None has seen their perpetrators, although some claim that they came across cat-like apparitions that shape-shifted into a ghostly forms, or men clad in red-and-yellow outfits who vanished and appeared again, or burqa-clad, scissor-carrying figures. 

Some, apparently, got offensive odour before passing out. Believe it or not, all their doors were found locked from inside and none broken into.    

WhatsApp again 

Remember the Jharkhand lynchings, when a toxic WhatsApp message against “outsiders” and “child-lifters” did the rounds for weeks, turning villagers into killer mobs? 

In this case, too, WhatsApp messages have been doing the rounds. Since June, there have been posts about "outsiders" chopping off braids to practise black magic. However grotesque (or comical) the accompanying images might be, the messages are spreading disquiet. Panic-stricken villagers are hanging "nimbu-mirchi" strings to ward off evil spirits. Wary of strangers, they have taken to night vigils. And women have started shunning braids to tie-up their hair in unsnippable buns.

Mass hysteria?

Bizarre but not unusual for India. In 2001, a "monkey man" with glowing-red eyes, roaming the streets of Delhi at night, leaping from building to building and attacking people, had terrorised the capital. A team of forensic experts and psychiatrists, however, had found it to be a figment of imagination of "emotionally-weak" people. Most of the wounds were found to have been self-inflicted; most victims contradicted their statements. A clear case of "mass hysteria" or mass delusions, they had concluded. 

The outbreak of snipped-off braids bears all the hallmarks of mass hysteria: a condition in which a population with similar belief system spontaneously exhibits "symptoms" that perpetuate themselves, transcending the original cause. What leads to mass hysteria?

Fear, anxiety, severe psychological strain, false belief and the power of suggestion. The pent-up distress takes the form of psychosomatic symptoms in some. Before long those are picked up by dozens, the more suggestible ones (mass hysteria is typically exhibited by women and children). 

Throughout history, such delusions have been documented in all societies: in the middle ages, nuns at a convent in France had started meowing like cats together, which had spread to convents in Germany and Italy; in 1790, women in London were reportedly attacked by the “London Monster,” a mysterious man who slashed at their clothing with a dagger, spreading panic; in 1899, people in America were stung with suspected insect bites on their lips, although no such bug was ever detected; in 1962, an outbreak of laughter had turned into mass hysteria in Tanzania; in 2012, a strange flu-like symptom had struck schoolchildren across Sri Lanka, although no medical cause was found behind it. 

Unfortunately, when reason and fact become clouded by irrational fears, a simple trigger can push people over the edge. And, just as simply, those in the grip of mass hysteria can be manipulated by others. Remember the Jharkhand villagers who turned into killers? 

Also read: Jharkhand lynching: WhatsApp mobs are spilling blood of Indians  


Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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