HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Freedom of Facial Hair

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.



  1. drippykins says:

    I dream that beards may once again take their rightful place in American culture as well. Too long has it been since our President displayed a majestic beard. Too long has the beard been associated with the hipsters and scenesters, the drinking of PBR, and the listening to bands “you’ve probably never heard of.” Much like the culture of Egypt, I believe the beard is a symbol of power and manhood. It is a symbol of dominance and self-confidence that endures the prejudices of social norms. I say let Egypt have their beards, and let America regain it’s faith in the manly face fur too.

  2. John Girata says:

    This reminds me of a story from a few months ago. An Army judge ordered the Ft. Hood shooting suspect to shave his beard in compliance with military standards: The suspect grew the beard while in prison and argued that he could not shave it on religious grounds. The judge ruled that the need for him to be recognized by witnesses outweighed his religious rights.

  3. marymsherman says:

    This was a joy to read. I love a good facial hair blog. Its so interesting to see what different cultures view as a sign of wealth, power, and/or respect. Some African cultures praise the full-figured woman as a sign of good eating and therefore wealth, while in medieval Europe, pale skin was desired. I can see how it makes sense that beards would be a sign of religion, since beards have a tie to wisdom (just look at Gandalf, what a beautiful beard he had).

  4. mcharles6 says:

    This was so interesting! I love taking a different approach to current events in the Middle East. (And personally, I would give you an A+ just for referencing Duck Dynasty.) Facial hair, in many ways, has become synonymous with Islam to me. I think when the majority of Americans see pictures of men with long, well-kept beards, our minds immediately think “Muslim.” Although this could theoretically be racial stereotyping, I think that the beards are of such a cultural significance to Middle Easterners and it is a compliment to them and their devotion that we associate beards with a religion.

  5. This blog is so interesting and it evokes a question for me. When I was in high school in NY, a girl asks me why some Chinese do not shave their legs. I told her that there is an old teaching in China, namely Confucian, says that your whole body, including your hair, is from your parent, so they should be respect. This is the tradition that makes ancient Chinese keep their hair uncut. If you watch Chinese movie or show, you should notice it. The girl shoot me a disgust look and commented the tradition as “weird”. She thinks that Chinese who come to the U.S. should adopt the more advanced culture, in this case, shaving our legs. Obviously, China is a rapidly westernized country, and western culture is seem more advanced even by ourselves. But I think we still have the right to do what our tradition teach us to do. I hope it somedays will be an positive issue, like beards in Islam, appears in study.

    Shitian Liu

  6. jkipp3 says:

    Good read. It’s a shame that most American businesses expect their employees to shave. An unkempt beard has associations with laziness, somewhat understandably, but it doesn’t have to be so!

    I enjoy going on “shavvaticals” to save time, money, and body heat. It has no impact whatsoever on my work output, and in fact improves punctuality.

  7. tnatoli3 says:

    I did not expect to read a blog about beards, but I liked it. Interesting how the rulers with no facial hair were deemed weak. It shows how powerful the physical image of someone is when examining their power and personality.

  8. ojanus3 says:

    I think that it is interesting that Muslims correlate facial hair with religious devotion and power. It seems as if it is a very literal translation of devotion towards the Prophet and is interesting to learn their reasons behind growing it out.

  9. chai164 says:

    This was amazing! I grew up in India where men love to flaunt their facial hair. A foolproof way of guessing what religion a man is, is by his mustache or lack thereof. It very easy to identify muslim men by their henna dyed white beards and no mustache, while Hindu men usually had just a mustache and no beard. I had never really thought about the background or origin of this trend in facial hair and it was great finally finding out.

  10. nholdaway3 says:

    It’s kind of funny to look at facial hair throughout American history. 100 years ago a mustache was height of fashion, but as the world modernized shaving became easier. Now it takes 5 min to shave so having a beard is seen as lazy. I also remember reading a study which found most Americans trust beardless men to bearded ones, hence the reason most politicians and businessmen have a clean shaven faces.

    • kledbetter6 says:

      I’ve never read a study about the role of beards in our society (or really thought about it – I suppose as a female, the question “Will growing a beard make me look sketchy?” has never occurred to me), but as soon as I read your post, the validity was clear. I wonder what implications besides laziness cause people (in the US, at least) to view beards as less trustworthy? Is it because beards are more commonly worn by foreigners, and this distrust is an expression of latent xenophobia? Or perhaps because most businesses mandate that employees shave, we associate beards with unemployment? Now I’m interested to learn more about this topic.

  11. Very interesting article indeed. I believe that freedom of speech (or rather freedom to express) is a huge deal in the middle east. Changing dress code in a country that has strict laws will always be a sensitive issue. From what I’m aware of, Muslim women must cover most of their skin and all of their hair in public. If men get freedom to start growing beards in Egypt, I wonder what will happen with women? Will they want to have a change as well?

    • jbholleman says:

      I also liked this aspect of the post. Allowing men to grow beards seems like a relatively small thing compared to freedom of speech and other human rights, but it can easily be a foot in the door. If men are allowed to express themselves through facial hair, it could lead them to want more open ways to express themselves, as through dress or speech. Relating to women’s rights, from my understanding of the Middle East, I think it will still be a long and arduous path for women’s rights as we see them in the west.

  12. Jeffrey Lester says:

    I really liked the perspective of this blog post. It’s nice to focus on the lighter side of things. While the story of the beard in religion may not be as important as the people it certainly has its own spot in history. Before this I had never considered the importance of a beard for a leader. It’s funny how people place so much of their trust into whether or not they find a leader physically appealing. I can remember my uncle telling me that one of the U.S. attempts to take Castro from power in Cuba had to do with somehow removing his beard. This would make hime an infidel and be just about as effective as assassination.

  13. sstephenson3 says:

    I’m tempted to make a joke here about the proportion of ZZ Top fans that are Muslim, but I’ll refrain for the sake of some credibility. I think this is an interesting article about how middle eastern styles are not necessarily defined by simple things as aesthetics, but also power, security, and religious fervor. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to consider a person weak or unfit for power due to aesthetic reasons. However, I can also see how Mubarak’s ban on beards put his weakness on display for all to see. All in all, a very interesting article.

  14. nathenj65 says:

    This was a very interesting article in a subject i would have probably never thought about in the past. But once you think about it makes a lot more sense. In some situations in the past aesthetics have defenitely played a major part in determining social status of a person. I don’t think it would be too far of an outreach to realize that beards could be included in that list. This also being said that this is not a very good system of determining social status a difficult pattern to keep.

  15. Very interesting in how much power we give a very simple thing just like facial hair. Seems weird that humans can see a ruler as weak simply because he shaved.

  16. akranc3 says:

    This was perfect! Exactly what I wanted to read on a cold snowy day in Detroit’s airport. Just the thought of beards being a symbol is great, but as a possible instigator of women’s rights, unbelievable! I think it’s awesome that you found so many good articles, and would love to know how Morsi got in no trouble for having his beard.

  17. tdkohlbeck says:

    At first, the idea of beards having so much influence over how one is perceived seems somewhat strange, but they definitely have that effect here in the United States as well–especially the length of ones beard. A neat, closely trimmed beard seems acceptable enough for job interviews, but a long beard is definitely a statement. And I cannot even imagine a future president sporting facial hair.

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