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Going beyond Movember: Facial Hair and Foreign Affairs

14 November 2011 at 10:17 am
Staff Reporter
As moustaches sprout on men around Australia taking part in Movember, The Conversation contributor Brett Goodin takes a look at the deep political and cultural connotations attached to facial hair in other parts of the world.

Staff Reporter | 14 November 2011 at 10:17 am


Going beyond Movember: Facial Hair and Foreign Affairs
14 November 2011 at 10:17 am

This article is by Brett Goodin, Movember participant and PhD candidate in American history at Australian National University, and was first published by The Conversation.  It is republished here under CreativeCommons- Attribution/No derivatives.


You may notice more than a few of your friends and colleagues are a little more hirsute than normal this month. The annual charity event Movember encourages men to grow moustaches to raise money and awareness for men’s health issues, particularly prostate cancer and depression.

Flickr Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by princess red 

As far as philanthropic gimmicks go, Movember is one of the best in the business. For once it’s cool have a ‘mo. For the other the eleven months of the year moustachioed citizens are subjected to jibes about their facial garb.

But elsewhere in the world, facial hair has deep political and cultural connotations and has featured in international incidents.

Tradition and modernity

There’s nothing quite like the moustache to say you are serious in Middle Eastern culture.

There the moustache represents the bristly line between tradition and modernity. Pledging reform during the Arab Spring while clean-shaven was a symbolic gesture by Syrian President Assad. He intended to convince the West and his country’s youth that he was serious.

In Iraq, men literally swear by their moustache to seal a deal. Knowing that helps makes sense of an awkward moment in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War.

At an international meeting less than a month before the US-led invasion, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam’s key deputies, became infuriated at Kuwait’s decision to allow US troops to gather on its territory. He shouted at a member of a Kuwaiti delegation: “Curse be upon your moustache, you traitor!”

This was read as more than a simple threat. Western journalists assumed the subtext was that the Kuwaiti representative “wasn’t man enough to deserve the moustache he wore,” and by extension his country’s policy of appeasing the American military was cowardly and without honour.

The military ‘mo

This lesson on the significance of facial hair in Middle Eastern diplomacy was not lost on the American military. Ever-interested in winning hearts and minds, from 2001 to 2010, the US special ops soldiers in Afghanistan abandoned the Ken doll soldier look and cultivated bushy beards as a sign of respect for local culture.

Last year the top brass decided that despite aiding the mission, the look was “unprofessional” and the soldiers were ordered to shave. One Green Beret team leader told a US journalist that “Growing a beard dramatically helps us. Now,” he lamented, “we look no different than the Brits or Russians before us.”

The regular US military also trialled the beard in Iraq. In 2004, soldiers in Fallujah grew beards. But when violence in the area increased, some decided that facial hair diplomacy is outside of a soldier’s job description. According to Sergeant Cameron Lefter, “When you go to fight, it’s time to shoot – not to make friends with people.”

Australians in Afghanistan

The plight of the beardless soldier has spread to Australian forces in Afghanistan. Despite severe water shortages, soldiers are ordered to shave daily. In fact the commanding officer of Mentoring Task Force 3 in Uruzgan province was so concerned about maintaining shaving standards he insisted that his subordinates sign an order which read: “Be a professional soldier, not a pirate.” The signatories quickly made T-shirts mocking the order. But it’s unlikely our boys in Uruzgan will join Movember this year.

When the objective is to win respect rather than battles, the moustache has proven itself the most unlikely secret weapon in the US arsenal.

Animal attraction

More than 200 years ago, one of the few successful diplomats from America’s first conflict with a Muslim nation wrote of how his moustache was crucial in negotiations.

In 1795, poet and diplomat Joel Barlow was sent to Algiers to secure the freedom more than 150 American sailors who had been captured there.

He wrote the following letter to his wife as he returned to the US after a successful mission in August 1797:

“I am wearing large moustaches, long, beautiful, and black (a little grey however). Do you want me to cut them here, or do you want to see them and cut them yourself? Tell me, and I will obey you without the least resistance. I wager that you will tell me to cut them here, and I wager that you will be right.

“Is it necessary to tell you why I have left them? There is a proverb which is only too true, although very humiliating for humanity, who makes himself the lamb, the wolf eats. No part of this proverb is so useful as in Barbary. I was earnest in arriving there, and as I am a lamb at heart, it was necessary to hide this character under the exterior of another animal. And my moustaches give me fairly well the air of a tiger, [a] beast that the wolf does not eat. They have been very useful in my affairs. I attach no price to them except as the sole souvenir of the services which they have rendered me. I put them on your altar, pronounce on their fate…”

Protest power

Just as facial hair has been used as a tool to ingratiate oneself with another culture, it has also been used for international, cross-cultural political protest.

In 1953, in an attempt to defuse a political conflict, the British Governor of Uganda exiled the King of the Buganda region. The King’s male subjects vowed to grow their beards and hair until he was returned.

Some of them were employed in the Ugandan civil service, leading the Governor to complain that the rugged appearance was not befitting of Her Majesty’s civil servants. Nevertheless, the beards stayed.

Within two years this unconventional protest succeeded in ending the King’s exile, and the “band of bearded men” decided to meet at Entebbe Airport and collectively shave their beards as the King’s plane landed. Despite a cultural custom that the King could not touch another man’s hair clippings, the piles of shaven beards were scooped up from the airport floor and used as the stuffing of a cushion, which the King graciously accepted.

Adding identity

Before Christopher Columbus “discovered the Americas” in 1492 Westerners were the bearded ones, and the “exotic foreigners” were clean-shaven. Columbus’ biographer, Bartolomé de las Casas managed to summarise his journal, and revealed a bearded Columbus’ first meeting with the natives of the Bahamas:

“The Indians, who were frightened by [the Spaniard’s] beards, by their whiteness and by their clothing. They went to the bearded men, especially to the Admiral…and they reached out to their beards with their hands, wondering at them as they [the Indians] never have them, and viewing very attentively the whiteness of their hands and faces.”

Thus the beard became a crucial part of European identity, whereas in earlier, and again later centuries it would represent savage cultures. But for a time, the native civilisations stretching from South America to Canada would refer to Europeans as “the ugly bearded ones.”

The politics of facial hair turned violent in the late 1500s, when two Portuguese traders were captured after a battle with Tupinambá Indians in Brazil. The Tupinambá custom was to pluck their hair as soon as it sprouted from every part of their body. After they noticed the significance that the Portuguese attached to their beards, they decided to tear out their prisoners’ beards as a final humiliation before murdering them.

So throughout this Movember, keep in mind the luxuriant international history of facial hair; its embodiment of masculinity and culture, its role in diplomacy, and the shame that it has to end on November 30.

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