Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Turkmenistan: Beard Ban Angers Students
The latest bizarre decree to be announced by Turkmenistan’s autocratic president appears designed to crack down on the individuality of the republic’s youngsters – but may already been doomed to failure.
President Saparmurat Niazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, or Leader of the Turkmen, recently declared that young men were no longer allowed to have long hair or facial hair of any description.
The decree initially gave rise to concerns that it was targeted at observant Muslims, but it appears to apply only to the young – especially students - with analysts saying it is aimed at stifling individualism.
Long hair appears to have come to equal non-conformism in Turkmenbashi’s thinking – and he seems to be calculating that a crackdown on individualism could prevent dissent from brewing among the young people of his increasingly autocratic republic.
The February 25 cabinet session was transmitted live on television, with a shocked public hearing the president tell Education Minister Mameddurdy Sarykhanov, “We should keep an eye on how [young people] dress and conduct themselves. The [ministry] should closely watch over [them] so that they don’t grow beards and long hair.”
The president, however, did not specify exactly how the decree was to be implemented, leaving education ministry employees - who now find themselves responsible for the appearance of Turkmenistan’s young men - guessing how to enforce the no-beards rule.
But one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “I believe that this decree will be as short-lived as many similar ones in the past – such as when students were banned from wearing jeans to lectures and were prevented from setting foot on campus without a suit and tie on.”
That decree, and another forcing students to wear the Turkmen national cap, were publicised for a couple of months before being forgotten as, without a coordinated decision on how to enforce them, bureaucrats had to make it up as they went along and gradually became discouraged, the official added.
The new decree has caused a similar amount of confusion, with civil servants pondering whether they are merely to advise young men to get rid of any trendy stubble, or forcibly shave any transgressors themselves.
However, in spite of this confusion, the authorities have accepted the decree as any other, and are currently imposing it as best they can.
Students, with their tendency to experiment with their appearances, are the main target.
One Turkmen state university student, whose shoulder-length black curly hair is slicked neatly back, told IWPR, “I consider myself to be a stylish young person. My hairstyle is part of that look, and to be honest, it takes a lot of effort on my part and that of my barber.
“I am not prepared to change how I look at this point in my life. I want to stay as I am!”
However, the dean of his faculty has threatened him with expulsion if he refuses to get a short back and sides – a threat which is becoming increasingly frequent on campuses across Turkmenistan.
All young men deemed to stand out from the crowd were given a week in which to “normalise” their appearances by getting rid of beards or moustaches, cutting their hair and dyeing it if it was an unnatural colour, and removing any earrings.
The rule is also being applied to young professionals, whether they are trendy or not.
One architect, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR that his fashionable appearance – bobbed and gelled hair and a goatee beard – had secured him many bookings as a part-time male model. But this lucrative sideline is now in jeopardy.
“My employer has told me to ‘get a haircut and look like a real man’, or I’ll be sacked,” he said.
Computer technician Timur, who works at one of the state banks in Ashgabat, never considered himself to be much of a non-conformist, but was called into his manager’s office and told to get his hair cut nonetheless.
“The issue of my appearance being inappropriate for a bank employee arose the morning after the president’s speech was broadcast on television. Since my hair is a bit longer than ‘normal’, it was made very clear to me that unless I changed its style, I would lose my job.”
Murad Ovezov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan.
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