Some time after the Francoists conquered the Levante in 1938, a group of men broke into the house of Mariana Torres Esquer of Sagunto and shaved her head in the presence of her 14-year-old son. They then marched her through the streets to the town hall, where she was put on display for several hours. A widow, Mariana’s “crime” was to have had one son in the Republican army and another in prison in Burgos. The child who witnessed the assault kept his mother’s locks and passed them on to his own children. This photo, taken in 2017, shows one of those grandchildren holding his grandmother’s braided hair.
Women in the rearguard were subjected to the same kinds of repression from the Francoists as were men but only they had to endure gendered punishments such as rape and, like Mariana Torres Esquer, having their heads shaved. There were also cases of gendered repression of Francoist women in the Republican rearguard.
The shaving of women’s heads was widespread in the rebel zone. It began almost immediately after the military revolt of 18 July, took place throughout the war, and continued after it ended. It was carried out by Falangist militias as well as Civil Guards and other police forces. It was not a punishment imposed by military tribunals, although military authorities did attempt to regulate it. There are no overall statistics, but oral histories collected by projects like Nomes e Voces in Galicia are making it possible to get some sense of its vast scale.
Women were punished for many different things. Some were things they did, such as engaging in politics, in even small ways. One Galician woman had her head shaved for having carried the Republican flag in a May day parade; another because “she wore her hair short like other women with extremist ideas.” Others, like Mariana Torres Esquer, were punished for things done by the men close to them, or for supporting those men. In the case of Amelia Canelas from Alcabre (Pontevedra) it was because the local union met in a space owned by her father.
Women’s heads were shaved in their homes and other enclosed spaces, such as Civil Guard barracks and Falange headquarters, but this was often done publicly as part of a larger ritual. The victims were frequently humiliated by being paraded through the streets, sometimes partially undressed or carrying a sign announcing their supposed crime. Afterwards, many were made to imbibe castor oil and suffer the embarrassment of soiling themselves as they returned home. This was also a way of punishing the women’s husbands and sons, fathers and brothers. And while victims’ hair would grow back, the memory of their punishment would linger, especially in smaller communities.