Words by: Ephemeral Roshdy
Design by Lina A.
This article is part of the “My Hair My Hair” issue
There is a perception that my beard marks me as dangerous.
It has been four years since I last shaved my beard. I keep it untrimmed and unstyled, the definition of ungovernable. I aspire to be more like it.
My mother doesn’t approve of my beard because she thinks that it makes me look like a regressive man and that it doesn’t reflect the truth of who I am. She is also afraid it will get me killed because I will be seen as a terrorist, especially in the United States, the country of my birth, despite the fact that I am actually an Egyptian-American trans woman raised with deep regard for my home and homeland.
As many of us know, the perception of marginalized people as dangerous is considered “just cause” for their subjection to violent realities. Growing up in the wake of 9/11, I learned that brown, male-presenting people with beards were symbols of the enemy of “the free world.” Some of my earliest memories are of threats and harassment leveled against me, my family, and our loved ones. I remember the woman who screamed at me in a grocery store when I was four because I reminded my mother to buy milk in Arabic. It felt like being Arab was a crime that literally any person on the street might punish us for. It was terrifying. In reality, it wasn’t just Arabs and Muslims who woke up to the threatening scrutiny of White America; anyone whose appearance could be reinterpreted as too foreign was in danger. For example, Valarie Kaur’s autobiography, See No Stranger (2020), brilliantly illustrates the violent targeting that Sikh communities in the US also faced following 9/11.
Still protecting me decades later, my mother wishes I would shave or, at the very least, trim my beard. But, I am stubborn and refuse to buy into the old logic of assimilation and respectability that every member of a minority group must contend with their whole life. We are subject to unfair stereotypes when we are seen as a threat, and we are told that the only way to secure your safety and potential success in a hostile system is to downplay that which makes you seem “foreign” or “threatening”. The aim is to be seen as “one of the good ones” by our dominant culture neighbors, co-workers, lovers, and friends.
But that logic doesn’t work for a number of reasons.
First, shaving my beard doesn’t save me from being perceived as threatening. Rather than being assaulted with slurs of being backward, camel-riding, I am reinterpreted as Mexican and insulted about being an illegal immigrant. The reason I am harassed is not about my Arabness but my brownness, situating me closer to the “ultimate other” of the white gaze – blackness.
Second, by altering my appearance to save myself from race-based violence, I’d be tacitly agreeing with the racist norms that perpetuate this standard. I would be showing people that their violent notions of who it is acceptable to exclude or hurt are warranted; the “target” just shifts from me to someone who won’t or can’t conform. My safety would shift from being a fundamental right to a conditional luxury. I refuse to allow my safety to be dependent on the whims of the increasingly impossible standards of the privileged.
That method of assimilation requires you to both suppress and forget large parts of your identity. For me, shaving would be like erasing my face as I’ve known it for many years. It would be an act of violence against myself, one I have no interest in committing.
I have recently had to reconsider my relationship with my beard as I have been exploring my (trans) womanhood.
There is this misconception that, if I want to publicly claim my womanhood, I must give up anything that is perceived as masculine. Just as I’m breaking out of one rigid social construct, I’m being asked to contort myself to fit another.
The first question that most people ask when they learn I am an extremely queer woman is, “then what’s with the beard?” Most people do not have a framework to understand that I am trying to highlight truths about who I already am, rather than aspiring to be someone else. They have been conditioned to think of gender in an absolute manner that probably doesn’t even reflect their own lived experiences.
In reality, no individual perfectly matches Western gender ideals; there is a diversity of categories within and between “man” or “woman” rather than a pure form. A myriad of products target the body dysphoria of cis people, whether it’s the hair they do or don’t have, the way their body carries weight, or their smell – people are constantly reminded that they don’t naturally align with gender expectations.
Furthermore, cultural variations in gender definitions challenge the claim of universal gender ideals. Growing up, I often wore masculine jalabiyas that my grandparents would bring when they returned from Cairo, but I would get mocked for wearing a dress or “women’s clothing” when I wore them in the U.S. If gender is universal how could one piece of fabric be masculine to Arab eyes, and yet feminine within the white gaze?
The world is more complex than we are taught to accept, even for the most stereotypical cis heterosexual person.
In exploring my gender, I’m not overly concerned with being “feminine enough” but being what feels authentic or good to me.
I enjoy my beard, perhaps because, on some level, I associate it with the concept of adulthood. Growing up a queer, brown kid in the U.S. I was often unsure if I would make it to my 20s. The fact I can grow a beard is a testament that my life goes on. Its curly tangles remind me of all the enmeshed networks of community and love that have cared for me through every iteration of my existence. I am not currently interested in cutting that short.
Perhaps in the future, my views on my beard will change. I would welcome that! For now, I am finding deep joy in who I am at this very moment. I am a bearded woman, visibly Arab and queer!
We, as people with complex and intersecting identities, deserve the right to live authentically in each moment of our lives without being whittled down by the cutting gaze of white cis-normative hegemony. We deserve to live unburned by the fear others would place upon us.