When some of us think of facial hair, some images that come to mind may include a big bad biker, a mountain man, or these guys.
For many in the Middle East the beard can signify much more than having a knack for chopping down trees. For some it is a sign of their religion. The growth of facial hair can be associated to the hadith, or the sayings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad such as this one, “Whoever does not remove any of his moustache is not one of us”, which refers to a well groomed beard minus the mustache. To devote followers this is a big deal. Some groups such as the Salafists, conservative followers of early Muslim leaders, leave the beard unkempt, much as the way Muhammad would have, and sometimes even dye their beards.
Shia Muslims wear close- cropped beards. Other extreme groups, such as the Taliban, make it mandatory that their members sport bears. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members include Morsi of Egypt, tends to wear well groomed beards. And it is not just an Islamic tradition; many other religions place heavy influence on the beard. Christains and Jewish groups for instance also associate with beards. It is a sign of religious devotion, and for many a pride in their religious identity.
In addition, facial hair is seen as a symbol of power and manhood. Specifically, facial hair is seen as a representation of political power, which demands respect. Let’s take a look at Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for a little more than thirty years, always wore a strong mustache. In 2011 during the Yemen uprising, he was injured from an RPG attack on his compound and went to Saudi Arabia to be treated. He returned scarred and mustache-less. “Many took the absence of the former president’s trademark facial hair as a sign of his tenuous grasp on the seat of power”. His ultimate successor, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has no facial hair, and has been the butt of a few jokes because of it. Many also see him to be a weak leader.
Ultimately facial hair is a symbol for the people of the region. A symbol that has different meaning for many. Some it means power, some religion, others it raises concerns of extremism or terrorism or even a totally Islamic state. Egypt was one among many who had concerns of the latter. During the Mubarak years, facial hair was frowned upon. Mubarak was really harsh on the expression of Islamic Fundamentalists, those seeking return to the fundamentals of Islam through the Quran and the path of Muhammad. He viewed them as a threat to his power so he built up a lot of security measures against them. One such thing was a “beard ban”. Under Mubarak, a lot of government agencies denied employees from growing facial hair, specifically beards. This is due to the fact that many Islamic Fundamentalists have beards, Mubarak thought of the beard as a dangerous symbol. His ruling did more than just tarnish the beard; it tarnished some people’s views of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. His policies in addition to the beard ban, portrayed them all to be extremists with bad intentions, which is obviously not always the case. Mubarak was simply scared of losing his throne.
When his time did come to give up his spot, Mubarak was replaced by just who he was trying to keep his seat from. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic Fundamentalist group, Mohammad Morsi, was to take over.
This was huge not only for Egypt politically, socially and economically, it was also huge for the beard. Morsi would become the first bearded President of Egypt (some had mustaches, but no beards). People in government agencies began growing their beards, only to find out that the beard ban still stands in Egypt. Police officers are being suspended without pay. Even flight attendants are being restricted from wearing beards. With an Islamist influence in the political field, the beard may be coming back, and people are hopefull it does. For many not considered to be Islamist, it has a similar, but slightly different meaning. It is more about a freedom of expression, not solely religious statement or social indicator. “Wearing a beard in Egypt has become an issue of civil rights and freedom of expression”. The beard could be a step in the direction towards more freedom for the Egyptian people as more and more people push the limits and grow out their beards. This freedom, in an idealists mind, could lead to even more personal freedoms, when people see that the beard is not so bad. The people just want to express themselves, and not be judged for it. Maybe an acceptance of beards will lead to more acceptance of things such as women’s rights, not just in Egypt but in the region.
Religion, power, freedoms, politics, all contained in a simply physical feature. Facial hair, is more than just a style, it is a symbol. A symbol of religious views, political views, social standing, and ultimately a symbol of one’s self. Whether it is because of one’s religious views or the fact that they want to rock a sweet beard, the push for beards is a push for self-expression and freedom, a push that will hopefully lead to greater things for not just Egypt, but the Middle East as a whole.