It was a Thursday afternoon in October and Habba Khatoon’s Roshay was reverberating within the walls of our rented apartment in Delhi as usual. The doorbell rang and I expected it to be Bilal Baya (brother), my flatmate who had gone home a month ago. As soon as I opened the door, and we caught a glimpse of one another, he was taken aback when he saw me with long hair. His reaction was understandable because Kashmiri men are forbidden from keeping long hair because of the way such men are perceived in Kashmir. However, he had a bigger surprise to reveal.
“Don’t close the door. I have someone with me,” he said.
I peeped out of the door past Bilal Baya and I saw my dear father smiling right at me. At first, I could not believe it was him. I welcomed him inside. We stared at each other with surprise— I was surprised by his unscheduled visit and he was surprised by my long hair.
“Long hair— what is this? Don’t you know this will get you in trouble,” he said, disapprovingly.
I replied with a timid smile that I was going to cut it and that he should not worry.
We left for Kashmir two days later to attend a marriage, and I was certain that quite a few people were going to comment on my hair. My father was somewhat scared because he felt my hair would make me more vulnerable to public opinion and suspicion. I knew the weight of such complaints would be most openly felt on my head through my dear mother’s dismissive questions and apprehensive commentary. “What have you done to yourself? Are you going to handover yourself to the forces?!” she asked with an astonished expression and a tremble in her voice. When I met both my siblings, the younger one said “you look like a militant. You should not have kept this look.” But I was prepared for this look, and the heavy criticism and disapproval it brought along with it.
Unlike other parts of the world where long hair for men is considered a common hairstyle, the situation is different in Kashmir. This is because militants often like to keep their hair long because it is Sunnah (the way of Prophet). If you are a Kashmiri man with long hair, this can attract suspicion and doubt.
Should your physical appearance be enough to make you vulnerable to police surveillance and inquiry?
Is profiling based on physical appearance enough for the police to put you behind bars?
Why should the police ask you why your hair and beard are long? And why should they ask why you are wearing a Pheran (winter cloak)?
Almost everyone judges men with long hair with a predetermined set of prejudices in Kashmir. People often look at a man with long hair with doubt and wariness as though he is carrying a rifle or a couple of grenades under his cloak. For his family, he automatically becomes a person who is going to land them in trouble. For locals, he is a person who must have links with militant groups or is aspiring to join them. For the security forces, however, he is an instrumental resource.
Almost all my neighbors suggested that I cut my hair owing to fear that it might attract police scrutiny and surveillance. Even my 9-year-old cousin once whispered to me “Shahid baya xe chukh banyaamut Sameer Tiger” (Shahid bhai, you look like Sameer Tiger). Sameer was a militant who is no more. I was shocked because a 9-year-old who could not even spell specific words properly, remembered the name of a militant and compared me with him.
The sense of trepidation one feels while sporting long hair in Kashmir grows faster, much faster, than the hair itself. As such, it was not too far off that I became concerned about any interactions with police officers were I ever to run into them on the streets of Kashmir, an occurrence more likely than snowfall in a Himalayan winter. When I left for Kupwara along with my cousin, I came across a policeman along the way. Before leaving us, he argued with me about my Pheran because he was scared that we would be questioned by the Special Task Force (STF). However, I assured him that nothing was going to happen with us.
We got into the taxi and sat in the back seats. After covering half a kilometer, we were stopped by the armed forces. Our vehicle was second in the queue. After a couple of minutes, it was our turn to be checked. A young policeman opened the front window and scanned everyone in the cab with routine boredom and habit. As soon as he spotted me, his facial expression changed immediately.
“Ho! Neeche utro,” (Aye, get down from the vehicle), he said, in a rowdy manner.
I remained seated. He approached me and opened the back window. Out of all the passengers, he only asked me to show my identification card. And then he asked me about my long hair.
“It suits me,” I replied.
“Ok, Ok. Go,” he said.
We drove away. All passengers started buzzing with smiles.
“Don’t worry. Inke yehi nakhre hai,” (this is their usual drama), the taxi driver remarked.
We finally reached Kupwara. We finished our work and decided to head back home. One our way back, however, we were stopped by the armed forces at the same place. And again, we were sitting in the backseat. The policeman was gentle and had a human temperament this time around. Yet, it was obvious that he was going to question me among all the passengers.
“Show me your ID card,” he said. “Brother, where are you from?”
I replied gently. After that, he asked me to turn over the lower part of my Pheran. There were no grenades. We left and entered the town. As soon as we stepped out of the cab, my cousin looked at me with indignation and affirmed, “I am not going anywhere with you until you cut your hair.”
I had a flight to Delhi the next day, and I thought it was the perfect time to cut my hair. We got it cut. I say “we” because I had to be chaperoned so that it would actually happen and I wouldn’t leave it for another day. The urgency of something so plain and simple was felt as if it were a matter of survival, not only in my home but all across my neighborhood, by those who knew me well. When we entered our village, people said “Now you don’t have to worry. You are safe now.” Now it felt like I was a regular person for everyone. I didn’t get suspicious stares from people anymore. Almost everyone forbade me from keeping long hair again.