In the Middle East, the length and style of a man’s facial hair can tell observers a lot about that chap. A full, bushy beard with a shaven lip might indicate that the fellow was very religious, wearing his facial hair the way the Prophet Mohammed apparently did. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in charge, moustaches were big in Iraq, at first, a symbol of secular masculinity. And in the north of the country, in Iraqi Kurdistan, there was a time when having a full beard meant that you had been off fighting for Kurdish independence in the hills.
But recently fashion in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has meant that things are a little more confused, and potentially conflicted.
Rasan Kamal, a 23-year-old local of Sulaymaniyah, has a full beard. And he loves it. He doesn’t care what people assume about him because of it, he says, and he grooms it because “it is attractive and people admire it”.
In fact, when NIQASH asked to take pictures of his beard from every angle, Kamel was more than happy to oblige. Kamal’s beard is a fashion statement but he also says he thinks some young men in the region are forgoing a clean-shaven look now as a kind of protest at the current financial and political conditions in the region. Proceedings in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament stopped months ago due to a scrap about who should be president of the region and cashflow in the region has been tight, due to arguments with Baghdad over the federal budget and oil.
When I see men growing their beards I get angry because they are distorting religious looks, for the sake of fashion.
During the 1980s, when the Kurdish men of Iraq took part in an insurgency against Saddam Hussein, many of the fighters would hide in the mountains of what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. Often these men would grow beards – one assumes, because of a lack of shaving gear up in the hills - and during the 1980s, having a beard could mean that the owner was a member of the Kurdish, anti-Hussein militias.
In fact, the beard became such a symbol that the Iraqi government tried to ban beards in Iraqi Kurdish cities.
After the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan began to be formed in 1991, when the Iraqi army left the region, the beard lost its potency as a symbol of Kurdish rebellion. Once again, the beard was claimed by the religious in Iraqi Kurdistan while the military men tended toward elaborate and historic moustaches.
Then once the Islamic political parties of Kurdistan announced that they planned to take a more moderate political path, the religious beard also began to evolve. It started to look more like heavy stubble than a full flow and that trend has continued until today with only the very religious wearing their beards in an extremely bushy way, with a shaven lip.
Local man Karawan, 21, has a beard like that – and yes, it is because he is a Salafist, he says – that is, a man practicing a more extreme version of Islam. And it troubles him that some of his neighbours are growing their beards for the sake of fashion and good looks.
“When I see men growing their beards without shaving their moustaches I get angry because they are distorting religious looks, for the sake of fashion,” says Karawan, who didn’t want to give his full name because of the controversial nature of his opinion. Still, Karawan adds, even though he doesn’t agree with these kinds of beards, he respects an individual’s personal freedom to dress as they like.
Today, beards in Iraqi Kurdistan are, in general, more of a statement of personal style than of political inclination, say the region’s sociologists.
“Today’s beards have nothing to do with political ideology,” says Hawzhin Mala Amin, a lecturer in Islamic philosophy at the University of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Young men grow beards to express their own personalities.”
“Religion made beards important,” Amin continues. “But now growing a beard has become a personal issue and when you see a man with a beard, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”