Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You are a terrorist if you have a beard

Not exactly but it goes like this - You are a terrorist if you have an unkempt beard and I don't know you. This is not my opinion but that of lot of people whom we met on the roads during the recently concluded Freedom Walk campaign. I will probably have to put more context here. Freedom Walk was a campaign around the Gandhian message - 'be the change you wish to see in the world' - focusing on the social and technical aspects of this change. For this a team of people, including myself, walked from the northern district of Kerala to the southern district of Kerala, passing through all 14 district headquarters in Kerala, and talked at educational institutions, government organizations and NGOs.

The walk took us 44 days to complete and we walked more than 1200 kilometers for this. At the places of stay which were almost all public places, we barely had enough time and convenience to rest and to recuperate from that days walk of around 30 kilometers. We ignored our beards which had started to look scraggly by the second week of our walk.

Around the fourth week of our walk a bunch of SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) extremists were captured from Kerala. Popular media created such a hype around this issue that the CM had to request the media to act more responsibly.

But it looked like the damage was already done. People used to watch us curiously before this hype about terrorism was created. Now where ever we walked we had to bear the taunts of people who did not have the courage to ask us straight about us and our irregular appearances. Statements ranged from - "Looks like terrorists" to "Do you have bombs in those backpacks" were common. It is not that everybody behaved like this.

There were still people who used to stop us and get the complete story behind our walk. In the initial part of our journey these interactions started with the curiosity of the people but in the latter this curiosity was replaced with an aggression coming out of fear. Even when there was aggression, the air would be cleared of it in 5-10 minutes of interaction with us. And interactions usually made the situations bearable for us. There were even extreme cases where the local police was called under suspicion that we were terrorists.

I am not sad about the taunts and the aggressive interactions but rather about the stereotype that has percolated the minds of the population and that too a stereotype based on looks. I think the natural progression of thought must have been like this :- If you have a beard, you are probably a Muslim; if you are young, have a beard, and if the beard looks ragged and nobody around me knows you, you are probably a Muslim extremist or even a terrorist.

There are two problems with this stereotyping. Not just this but any stereotyping based on looks is utter nonsense. Lot of Muslims grow beards but that does not mean that most people who grow beards are Muslims. A lot of extremists have scraggly beards but that does not mean that a lot of people with scraggly beards are extremists. Simple logic isn't it. Funny that lot of people, and even educated ones, fall for this stereotyping.

The second problem is that such stereotyping could easily fuel segregation which could further worsen problems like terrorism that first started this stereotyping and this would strengthen the stereotyping - a classic vicious cycle. Any one with a little common sense should really understand the problems associated with this and try to break the above cycle.

One practical way of fighting the above stereotyping and any other stereotyping based on looks is to embrace the visual aspect that is being stereotyped. For example if it is a stereotype based on beards, let us (those who want to break such stereotyping) all grow beards. If it is a stereotyping based on kaavi (orange color) let us wear kaavi. If it is a stereotyping based on long hair let us grow long hair. Hope you got the point.

In any case I have decided to keep my scraggly beard for some more time, i. e. until most of the people who know me knows about my beard. That is my small contribution towards breaking the specific stereotype mentioned above. I have been told by almost everyone who saw my beard that it does not look good with the heavy uneven growth. Although looks does not really matter, it helps in business where I have to deal with people who does not know that looks does not matter. I will therefore have to conform, but till then I will protest peacefully with my ugly beard.

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