Thank-you for your interesting question.
Throughout the Islamic world, hair removal is considered in the
context of religious law. For the fathful, there is detailed
discussion of exactly how this must be aproached. In India, head
shaving is practised by many Hindus and seems to have more ritual
significance than any other kind of hair removal, about which there is
little comment, in English at least. I have also pulled out some
information on the Far East, although this was the hardest part of the
question to research.
Before I start to describe actual customs, I'd like to describe the
two Middle Eastern/Asian techniques with which a Westerner is least
likely to be familiar: threading and sugaring.
Also known as KHITE (Arabic) or FATLAH (Egyptian).
This seems to be used across the whole of Asia and the Middle East,
though recently it's been introduced to the West. It's a kind of
multiple plucking of several hairs in a row, supposedly less painful
than individual removal, and useful in creating an elegant line at
eyebrow or hairline. It involves twists of thread, sometimes described
as thread 'rolling' across the hairs.
"The practitioner holds one end of the cotton thread in his or her
teeth and the other in the left hand. The middle is looped through the
index and middle fingers of the right hand. The practitioner then uses
the loop to trap a series of unwanted hairs and pull them from the
skin. There are also devices made that can hold the thread during the
I found varying claims for the origin of threading:
"The history of threading is not clear, with some claiming it began in
Turkey. threading hair is so basic to women in the Middle East and
India that it can be compared to girls learning to braid each other's
hair as children. Traditionally, threading is used on the entire face,
including upper lip, chin, eyebrows, sideburns and cheeks." 
"Threading is an ancient form of hair removal from India and the
Middle East that's being rediscovered today" 
"The traditional methods of threading comes from China" 
This is occasionally described as waxing because, like waxing, it uses
something sticky to pull the hair away. Sugaring is particularly
associated with Arabic countries and was a method used by the Ancient
"Such kurat al milh or caramel "balls" were highly desired by
Mediterranean Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women and were used not
for chewing -- but as depilatory or hair-removing products. Even today
in 1998 Mediterranean women boil down sugar and lemon solutions into a
resulting sticky, workable mass that is used to remove unwanted body
hair. Such depilatory products, in fact, are known widely throughout
various Mediterranean societies by the Arabic name -- halawa -- which
translates as "sweet."
"Sugar", by Louis E. Grivetti (Department of Nutrition, University of
"This alternative to waxing hair removal came from ancient Egypt and
is popular in Arab countries. A mixture of sugar, lemon juice, and
water is heated to forms a syrup. The syrup is formed into a ball,
flattened onto the skin, then quickly striped away. The hair is
removed at the root." 
ISLAM AND HAIR REMOVAL
Amongst Muslims, hair removal is part of an impulse towards general
purity and cleanliness:
"Cleanliness In Islam Is Of Three Kinds:
1. Purification from impurity (i.e. to attain purity or
cleanliness, by taking a bath (ghusl) or performing ablution (wudoo)
in states in which a bath or ablution is necessary or desirable
according to Islamic Law).
2. To cleanse one's body, dress or place from an impurity of filth.
3. To remove the dirt or grime that collects in various parts of
the body, such as cleaning the teeth and nostrils, the trimming of
nails and the removing of armpit and pubic hair."
There is some debate about the finer points of Islamic law but, as an
outsider reading through a few different sites, I found these are the
Both men and women should remove armpit and pubic hair at least every
For men a beard is desirable.
Women can remove 'unnatural' facial hair but should not reshape
eyebrows for reasons of vanity.
Detailed advice for women on hair removal.
The recommendations and practices of the most religious are obviously
not the whole story, as I found in this newsgroup:
Newsgroup discussing how some Egyptians do not stick closely to
"Just because everyone does something doesn't mean it is Islamically
News story about a doctor who was nearly beaten up for his views on
the historical truth about the prophet and hair removal.
There is a great deal more to be found on the net about Islamic
approaches to hair removal and I will list more links towards the end.
HINDUISM AND INDIA
Hindu boys and girls have their heads shaved as a ritual at about four
"Chudakarana Samskara: Head Shaving
This ceremony is performed in the temple for both boys and girls
before the age of four. Hair is seen as an adornment. By shaving the
head, the child confronts his or her bare ego. It teaches humbleness
and devotion. Children with shaved heads are seen as innocent and holy
and are treated with great respect. "
Shaving the head can also be seen as an act of humility for adults,
though this is debated at hindu.net:
It is an act of humility for pilgrims at the Kumbha Mela:
"The first ritual observed by most pilgrims when arriving at the
kumbha mela is the mundana ceremony, shaving the head. Hair is
considered the symbol of vanity, and in order to receive the full
benefits of a pilgrimage to a holy place, one must first give up
vanity. Thus, the pilgrims believe that the hair should be shaven from
the head in a gesture of surrender and humility. "
There seem to be mixed feelings about shaven heads amongst Hindus. I
"Shaven headed men, let alone women, are inauspicious to Hindu
It is a well known fact that a sight of shaven headed is inauspicious
to a Hindu since long back, because of hatred against Buddhists. There
are references to this not only in religious texts, but also in
Sanskrit Dramas like 'Mrichacha Katika'
Hindu men have their heads shaven only when somebody elderly dies in
the house and women were shaven headed only when they are widows and
not otherwise. It is also well-known that sight of shaven headed widow
is inauspicious to a Hindu. A glaring example of this was demonstrated
by Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, when they arranged a reception of a
dignitary by shaven headed widows on a New Moon day just to press home
their point of view that neither the shaven headed widow nor the New
Moon day was inauspicious. "
Thanks to Vinods for his comments above on some Indian head shaving
Indian depilatory techniques have found an outlet in the USA:
"Indian beauticians remove unwanted body hair by an ancient method
involving twisted cotton thread. Their clients are Latino. Neither
have adopted the All-American practice of removing hair with metal
tweezers or hot wax. They have adopted a middle ground: a place where
Indian practices are performed to the accompaniment of salsa music."
Sikhs seem to have reacted against shaving and depilation, possibly
because of its association with the Hindu caste system. This has led
to what one writer calls an "anti-depilatory taboo" as a reaction "to
certain rites of renunciation or sannyasa that were prevalent
throughout the Punjab (and indeed the rest of India) [at that] time.
In the initiation rites undertaken by the Hindu sannyasi, he would --
having found a Guru or spiritual teacher -- have his beard, moustache,
and head entirely shaved. "
Five Symbols of the Sikh Faith
"The Sikh religion forbids cutting or shaving any bodily hair.
Orthodox Sikhs always carry a dagger with them, lest someone try to
force them to do something against their religion - as Susan had. The
dagger is considered one of the five "outer badges." The others are
wearing hair and beard unshorn; wearing a turban; wearing knee-length
pants; and wearing a steel bracelet on the right wrist."
Anecdote about a Sikh in an American hospital
There is a head shaving ritual for boys in Burma, somewhat like the
Thai Buddhists have a head shaving ritual for purification of the
Head shaving is part of the process of becoming a Buddhist monk:
"The Head Shaving Ceremony is about renunciation. Renunciation from
what? Renunciation from common mundane life and all its illusory
pleasures. By renouncing not only one's old "sense desire based"
lifestyle but also all attachments, one enters into a monastic
lifestyle aimed at the attainment of Buddhahood. The Buddha also
renounced his home-life at a young age by leaving his palace and
cutting off his long hair."
THE FAR EAST
It has been hard to find much on the net about the cultural or
religious context (apart from Buddhism) of shaving and depilation in
Far Eastern countries. There is no doubt that removal of body hair is
very common. In Japan, of course, there is a long tradition of
fastidiousness in matters of personal hygiene. There have been several
Japanese studies of laser depilation and the technique seems
widespread. The main difference between Japanese and Western practice
is that waxing is less commonly used and 'sandpaper' friction strips
are particularly popular. (Sources below)
Because of the reference to threading originating in China, mention of
a 'depilatory string' being used in pre-revolutionary China and the
technique being currently available in Korea, hair removal is clearly
not a custom imported from the West. In fact, I wonder if Europeans
have been the ones out of step with the rest of the world until
relatively recently. Both the crusaders and nineteenth century
travelers to Turkey seem to have been struck by the practice of body
hair removal. (See next section.)
"In the short story "No Name woman" by Maxine Hong Kington, we find
pre-Revolutionary China performing a similar practice only they would
catch the small hairs of the forehead with a "depilatory string", in
hopes to produce a smooth even hairline. These practices and others
like it were for many years reserved for those with much power and
Chinese men currently using hair removal products
HISTORICAL COMPARISON WITH EUROPE
"Europeans have been generally accepting of body hair, except for a
short period in the Middle Ages when returning Crusaders made the
Arabic idea of total body depilation for women fashionable. "
"Sources reveal that what fascinated the Europeans the most about the
hamams in the Ottoman period was the "removal of body hair." Much
fiction and research penned by Europeans give detailed accounts of
"The Hanafi branch of Islam, which includes the Sunni Turks, demands
that every part of the body - every part! - be free from hair.
Therefore, at each hamam visit, women waxed their body with waxes made
of sugar and various herbs. Men preferred razor blades and
hair-removing ointments (the most popular ointment is called "rusma"
in books. The instructions carried special warnings as it included
arsenic). During the Ottoman period, removing body hair was more
important to Moslem men and women than it is in the modern world.
Hair-removal and massage for women was done by a female concubine. "
Some Fascinating Historical Facts About Turkish Baths
MORE ISLAMIC SOURCES:
advice for women
shave head or cut hair short during hajj
The Islamic Ruling on Shaving the Beard
Keeping The Fitrah
Health and Hygiene
exploring all varieties of opinion in Islam on hair removal
"Another speciality that one can find in Cantik Spa is the Arabic
style of hair removal service. The wax used is home made from lemon
and sugar, prepared by the salon's specialist, Paz. 'Halawa' is used
for painless hair removal in the face, arms, legs and bikini area.
Besides exotic traditional treatments that Cantik offers, Farah
Abdullah, the owner, has also invested in the latest Ultra Sonic
Machine from Japan."
book referring to facial depilation amongst the Egyptian Fellahin
The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, Winifred S Blackman, Cairo: AUC Press,
discussion of pubic hair
more on male body hair
methods of hair removal
FAR EAST: SOURCES
The traditional methods of threading comes from China but there
arent many people who know how to do it. Bharti, who has her own
beauty salon in London, learned the threading procedure in China. It
took her two years to perfect her skill. She says threading originated
because Chinese men without full beards used the system to remove
unwanted hair from their chins. The beauty technique spread to India
and Pakistan where it is still extremely popular.
Korea - strings being used
hair removal study Japan
hair removal emery strips popular in Japan
Hair removal products are available, but waxing kits are hard to find.
Advice for women traveling to Japan
"The mania for hair removal in Japan currently exceeds anything youll
see on a box of Calvin Klein underwear, for example. Magazines are
full of advertisements for creams, gels, home electrolysis kits and
state of the art razors which promise a buffness unimpeded by the
hirsute vagaries of nature."
Studies in Japan
Since these pages turned up in my searches, I've included them.
"Ancient Egypt, 4000-3000 BC
Hieroglyphics depict shaving tools and practices. Men and women of the
upper classes shaved their bodies, heads, and faces because they felt
hair was shameful and uncivilized. Unshaven societies became known as
barbarians--literally, "the unbarbered." Women removed hair with
homemade depilatory creams that contained combinations of such
ingredients as arsenic, quicklime, and starch.
India, 400 BC
The style for men in India was a neatly trimmed beard; they shaved off
all the hair from their chest and pubic area, however. Women removed
hair from their legs with razors or tweezers."
"The Middle East
Among the ancient Egyptians, a clean-shaven face was a symbol of
status. According to Herodotus, 'Egyptians are shaven at other times,
but after a death they let their hair and beard grow.' They used
depilatory creams, razors and pumice stones for this purpose. Both
sexes shaved themselves bald and wore elaborate wigs. The practice of
removing hair was not limited to the face and head. Egyptian women
beeswaxed their legs. They also used depilatories made of starch,
arsenic and quicklime.
This obsession with hairlessness probably had as much to do with
hygiene as with ideals of beauty and fashion. The hot Middle Eastern
climate encouraged germs and diseases to breed, and the removal of all
body hair was a preventive measure against infection.
No doubt Middle Easterners used a hair removal process called body
sugaring, involving the application of a natural, sugar-based paste
(usually sugar, lemon and other natural ingredients cooked to the
consistency of soft taffy) that was either rubbed or pulled off in the
opposite direction of hair growth. The high sugar content inhibited
bacterial growth in the region's hot environs. The method reputedly
was born out of a Middle Eastern bridal ritual. The night before a
wedding, Lebanese, Palestinian, Turkish and Egyptian brides had all
body hair, except eyebrows and the hair on their heads, removed by the
bridal party. According to lore, the bride maintained her hairless
body throughout her marriage as a symbol of cleanliness and respect
for her husband.
Not all eyebrows were left intact. Art and artifacts indicate that the
Mesopotamians trimmed superfluous hair from their brows with tweezers.
During the excavation of Ur, capital city of the Chaldeans, tweezers
were found in a tomb dating back to about 3500 BC.
The hair removal process we call threading, comes from Arabia, where
women laced cotton string through their fingers and ran it briskly
over their legs to encircle and pull out the hair.
The Near East
In the Indus River Valley of Pakistan, hygiene was a religious
imperative for the ancient Hindus. In ancient India, chest and pubic
hair was shaved, and the chin and upper lip hair was shaved every
History of depilation
more on sugaring
Threading is an ancient form of hair removal from India and the
Middle East that's being rediscovered today. The threader loops a
cotton thread around the hair to be removed, twists it, then pulls the
hair from the follicle. The procedure is commonly used on facial hair.
The amount of pain experienced is similar to that of tweezing.
"Threading is an ancient form of hair removal. It involves 100 percent
cotton thread, which is twisted and pulled along a row (as opposed to
a single strand) of unwanted hair. Called "khite" in Arabic and
"fatlah" in Egyptian, threading hair is so basic to women in the
Middle East and India that it can be compared to girls learning to
braid each other's hair as children. Traditionally, threading is used
on the entire face, including upper lip, chin, eyebrows, sideburns and
cheeks. The emphasis in eyebrow shaping came as a response to the
needs of American customers. Like tweezing, threading lifts out hair
directly from the follicle and it requires two or three swipes per
brow. As far as pain goes, the sensation is similar to tweezing, but
skin is not as irritated afterward. Results last two to eight weeks
(about the same as waxing).
The Turks still use a paste made from an ancient formula of sugar,
lemon and water. In India, they 'lasso' the hair with a process called
'threading'. The Egyptians shaved and waxed. Muslim women have been
known to tweeze their entire bodies."
American-Iranian woman's experience
middle-eastern sugar 'wax' sold on an accessories page on Islamic
"Sugaring is an ancient art of hair removal using a pliable paste made
from pure sugar and natural ingredients. The technique has been handed
down by middle-eastern women who still practice this method of hair
removal today. The earliest references to the treatment can be found
in ancient Egyptian writings called Hieroglyphics, describing how
women who served the Pharaohs needed to be hairless, clean and smooth
Thank-you for setting me off on a very interesting piece of research.
I hope it will be useful to you. Please feel free to ask for
clarification if there is some way I can help you further, or if any
links give trouble.
Regards - Leli
search terms used:
"Middle Eastern" "Middle East" India Pakistan Egypt Arab Arabic Hindu
Sikh Buddhist Asia Asian China Japan "Far East" Islam Muslim
custom tradition religion attitude study
hair removal removing depilation depilatory shaving "body hair"