Ziauddin Sardar justifies his radical haircut

"These awful dreadlocks are a sure give-away," the girl said. That was it. The next morning I went t

Some of my most ardent followers are upset. To be precise, they are shocked by the photograph that accompanies this column. "I am appalled," reads one e-mail, "at the total absence of facial furniture: why have you shaved your moustache?" Another laments the disappearance of my "long, trademark dreadlocks".

I suspect that these critics are making a cultural point. Religiously, Muslim men are required to have a beard. Ethnically, Pakistani men are supposed to have a moustache. It expresses their macho masculinity. Dissidents, in most cultures, express their nonconformism with long hair. By dispensing with the little that I had, I may have unwittingly signalled a cultural transformation. As one of my close friends sarcastically put it: "You have finally joined western society."

Western society, it is generally assumed, is obsessed with hair: hair we have, hair we don't have, and hair we don't want. Generations of young people, from Teddy boys and punks to Beckham-obsessed wannabes, have tried to define themselves through particular hairstyles. As the subtitle of Grant McCracken's Big Hair (1995) suggests, a visit to the hairdresser is actually "a journey into the transformation of the self".

A great deal has been written about the hair of black people, particularly black women, and the cultural messages their hairstyles communicate. What is not widely appreciated is that, in many non-western societies, cultural battles are not limited to hairstyle and identity. It extends to what can be cut, what constitutes a cut, and who does the cutting.

In Malaysia, for example, Malays would have nothing to do with cutting hair: all hairdressers are Chinese. In Saudi Arabia, all barbers are Pakistani or Lebanese. In Indonesia, Muslim women hairdressers are fighting to reclaim the salon and cut men's hair - both territories being forbidden to them by conservative mullahs. In some Muslim societies, barbers cut not only hair, but also the unnecessary foreskin of the male member.

What constitutes a haircut is problematic, too. In Shanghai, there is a pitched battle going on between Chinese and Japanese salons to define the terrain. Does it, or does it not, include what is regionally known as a "cream bath"? This, I would argue, is the best thing in a haircut. During my sojourn in Kuala Lumpur, I used to treat myself to a cream bath every Christmas. At The Cut Above in Yohan Plaza, I would sit back comfortably with my eyes closed. Lilly Wong, my petite hairdresser, distinguished by a flat chest but padded shoulders, would pour shampoo on my dry hair. Then she would work it into a thick lather and massage the scalp for well over an hour. An actual haircut seemed quite irrelevant after all that.

The battle over what can be cut is well illustrated by the barbers of Bisham, Pakistan. The local Islamic government has forbidden them from shaving or removing any existing beards or stubble. "Western-style" haircuts are also banned. Violators can be fined up to £200 - which is a small fortune for most barbers. As a result, the city is suffering an epidemic of clean-shaven men who find it difficult to maintain a stubble-free appearance. To overcome the loss of business, some barbers are now shaving armpits. Still others are threatening to move on to the nether regions. Most are on strike.

But the loss of my moustache and long hair has nothing to do with cultural transformation or my browbeaten self. Its origins are buried in the film I made for the BBC: Battle for Islam. A man with three colours on his face - black hair, white moustache and deep-set brown eyes - proved too much for our cameraman. I shaved the moustache to reduce his burden.

Towards the end of the film, there is a sequence where I try to get on a donkey. It is supposed to be a sophisticated critique of the west: it suggests that the west treats societies where tradition is dominant as if they were donkeys and asks irrelevant questions about them. The day after the film was broadcast on BBC2, I was spotted by two black girls on the Tube. They looked at me and started laughing. Then one of them came and sat next to me, nudging me with her elbow.

"Oi," she said, "are you the geezer who was trying to fuck a donkey on the telly last night?"

You will understand if I say that it took me some time to regain my composure. "How do you know?" I eventually managed to ask.

"These awful dreadlocks," she replied, pulling my hair, "a sure give-away." Well, that was it. The next morning I went straight to my Japanese hairdresser. Shigeo, who has a flat chest but no padded shoulders, believes that a cream bath is an essential component of a haircut. What's more, he regards a neck and back massage after the trim as equally important. It's Christmas every month.

Anyway, the woman I love says I look great with a short back and sides. So there!

Battle for Islam will be rebroadcast four times on BBC World during the weekend of 25-26 February