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The men evading Tajikistan’s de-facto beard ban

Russia’s great moderniser Peter the Great was responsible for one of history’s strangest tariffs: the beard tax.

Now, more than 300 years later Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon is clamping down on facial hair with the same fervour, seemingly linked to the government’s ongoing campaign against the influence of Islam in Tajik society.

Reports that police in the former Soviet state have been forcibly shaving men with facial hair are widespread.

In April, Rustam Gulov claims the police took him into custody and shaved him against his will. “Judging by the hair in the room, I estimate they shaved the beards of approximately 200-250 people before me,” the well-known blogger later wrote.

Strongman Rahmon has cracked down heavily on religion in recent months. Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Earlier this month 23-year-old Umar Bobojonov died in hospital after being beaten by the police. His family said it was because he wore a beard.

Tajikistan’s interior ministry have denied claims that there are direct orders from the government to remove facial hair, instead reportedly blaming officers for “exceeding their remit”. The ministry added that police were allowed to approach bearded men to ensure “that they take care of themselves and observe personal hygiene”.

The bearded ban evaders

President Rahmon, 62, was a collective farm boss before he came to power in the in 1992. Five years later he agreed to a deal that gave Islamists 30% control in government, in a country where a majority of the population observe Islam. But the authoritarian president has since pushed them out of power, establishing firm control over the country.

A crackdown on religion, and everything connected with it, has followed: in addition to the de-facto beard ban, restrictions on imports of hijabs and a drive to eliminate names considered to be “too Arabic” have been initiated in the past year alone.

According to EurasiaNet, imams have been encouraged to promote the president, and Muslims are being routinely arrested “on trumped-up charges that conflate faith with terrorism”.

But there are signs the “beard ban” is being taken less seriously on the streets of the capital, Dushanbe.

Dzhavod Rabzhadov, a DJ, says he is rarely stopped by the police, but when he is it is usually because of his general look: “An earring, long hair, my style of clothes,” he told Asia Plus, one of Tajikistan’s few independent news outlets.

If Rabzhadov is stopped by the police it’s usually down to his general appearance, not his beard.

Photograph: Asia Plus

Romish Ibrohimov, a designer and photographer sporting a red-hued hipster beard, insists he “did not grow a beard for religious reasons or because I wanted to be vulgar, but because it is beautiful”.

Mikhail Petrushkov, a representative for central Asian countries at the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots, says he “has worn a beard for more than 20 years. There have never been any problems with it.”

Rabzhadov says he has also been also been sporting a beard “for a long time” and feels “comfortable” with his look. “In the streets people respond to my appearance differently: some like it, some don’t. I try to take care of my beard, and give it a nice shape,” he adds.

The great beard battle

Peter the Great’s historic beard tax was inspired by the clean-shaven cultures of western Europe, and he wanted Russians to follow suit.

Targeting what he regarded as a primitiveness inherent in the Russian beard, he ordered that all of his subjects, excluding the clergy and peasants, be clean shaven, and instructed police officials to shave those who refused to comply.

According to biographer Robert K Massie, when the tsar returned to Russia at the end of his European voyage in 1698, a reception – attended by the army, assorted aides and diplomats – was thrown in his honour.

But the crowd’s mood turned from elation to horror as Peter pulled out a massive barber’s razor and “after passing among his [friends] and embracing them… he began shaving off their beards”.

A version of this article first appeared on Global Voices

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