As soon as I left college, I decided to keep long hair. Having studied in Cantonment School and College, I never had the leeway to do this thus far. Whenever my hair grew an inch, it attracted the immediate attention of my teachers. Quite the recreant, I never mustered up the courage to go to school without a haircut.
I have always believed that my hair is and should be a matter of concern to me and me alone. Society does not hold the moral authority to intervene directly or indirectly (i.e. through social conditioning) with my hair. However, I would soon learn otherwise.
As the length of my hair kept increasing, men around me did not give up the chance to raise their eyebrows in skepticism. My family members were hankering after me for a haircut, to which I paid no heed at all. As the tips of my hair began to touch my shoulders, even my friends started to get uneasy. Most of my friend circle started to label it as "effeminate", "egregious" and even "disgusting".
I had never imagined that my long hair would vex society so. People on the street would look at me like I was from outer space. I felt increasingly out-of-place. Men chuckled and called out to their friends to have a look for themselves. They treated me like a wild animal that had stumbled into human territory. I could sense that they were criticising me. Facial and body expressions often reveal a lot. Even kids ogled at me and had their share of laughter. Questions were raised about my gender: "Is he a man? And if he is, why does he keep long hair like a woman? He must be aware of how things work in the society!" It seemed as if my long hair systematically distanced me from society.
From early on, we are conditioned to look at things along the lines of the binary: male or female. Pink is a girl's favourite colour; boys are not supposed to like it. Girls play with dolls while boys are to engage themselves with cricket. Right from the moment we are born, it is decided what we will wear, what we will play with, and how we will lead our lives. Once you decide to disregard these constructed ideas, you will find that things are no longer looking so great. A bold attempt at rebellion will be looked down upon and the person will be forcefully excluded, labelled "unsocial". It then becomes almost impossible for the person to lead a life free of explicit interventions.
I have often been subjected to mockery along the streets at university or at the shopping mall. One fine day, while I was travelling in a rickshaw, two men from another rickshaw literally screamed, "Why does this lad have such long hair? Is he a man or a woman?" They cackled with laughter, but thankfully, my rickshaw soon overtook theirs.
On another instance, I had gone out to buy some medicine. It was night time and the lane was quite dark so I could barely see anything. At the end of the lane, a few men had gathered for a chat. They spotted me and the ridicule began. I remained voiceless.
However, it was the last incident that was exceptionally unnerving. I was at a food court, waiting for a friend. As I was seated in such a way that I had no sight of the people behind me, I was a bit puzzled at a sudden outburst of laughter. I tried to concentrate on my book, but the hubbub grew louder. I turned around and I saw a group of college lads—around 30 of them. Unfortunately, I was their topic of discussion. I could easily discern one of them saying, "Is he a guy or a girl? Go and go have a look! She might be hot." One of them actually came forward to inspect me and then returned to share his findings. Another round of merrymaking followed. One of them remarked, "He could have been a lady. Men do not keep long hair, do they? Waht a whore!" I was, yet again, trying to avoid my harasser. In the meantime, another of them took a seat across from mine, as someone from the same group loudly exclaimed, "HEY! Why did you go there? Are you gay? HAHAHA. Our nation does not accept the rainbows!" I got up and left the place immediately.
You may feel uneasy or disturbed after reading this. You must be thinking, "Does this guy lack the courage to stand up for himself?" And that's a pretty natural response. Yes, I have been unable to raise my voice, to put up a fight. But I would like to ask, if I had protested vociferously, would people have joined me in support? Definitely not. I would have had to face counter-harassment: "How can a young man be harassed? Is that even possible?"
Certainly! I am the victim of regular abuse. However, the most important message lies in the fact that we think of women as commodities in our society. Just look at how society is trying to label me as a female for having long hair and treating me for it. As if anyone bearing the slightest resemblance to a woman can be troubled in this way, as if in order to prove one's masculinity, one needs to make fun of the "opposite sex".
I often receive hate messages on Facebook. Many people are of the opinion that I should get a sex change or, alternatively, identify as a hijra. I am a disgrace to masculinity. Some ask me to get a haircut and tell me to be a "man". It seems as if the line between a man and a woman is drawn by the length of one's hair. Get a haircut and you automatically transform into a man!
"Short hair or long hair, it's your choice. My long hair is the symbol of my freedom. I feel free. Society always tries to bring you down. You don't have to give them an explanation. It's your thing. It's your freedom," I tell myself when I feel down. Someday or the other, we will definitely see a solution to the problem. Toleration and survival pay off, as goes the proverb, "One who endures, survives till the end."
Tanveer Anoy is an activist and writer.