Prologue: When a guy considers himself a feminist, he faces a lot of challenges no matter what culture he is in. I’d say there are even more challenges for straight guys in this situation. From the men’s side, his sexuality and manliness may be questioned. From the women’s side, their may be distrust about his intentions. I found the challenges amplified when I stepped into the rural South African culture that I served in. As I talked about last month, even innocently talking to a young woman or teenage girl was sometimes dangerous as they might see it as an invitation to spend the night. In my next few posts, I will explore some strategies to be an effective ally for women’s empowerment abroad based on my personal experiences. A lot will be specific to the culture I served in, but I hope you, the readers, will comment with your own experiences and thoughts about how guys living or working abroad can help challenge gender norms. I’ll kick it off with one of the most surprising tools I developed to bridge the gender gap: the beard.
The Kalahari sun blazes down at a healthy 40 C. Having wrapped up my work for the day at my schools, I sit back in my room, sucking on an “ice juice”. Two year old Kitso is passed out on my bed, but somehow his 6 year old sister, Gomolemo manages to find energy despite the heat. As a bit of pink juice dribbles down my lip, it’s absorbed the forest of my beard. Sparing my nice white shirt. I smile in appreciation of my facial hair. Gomolemo is not so impressed.
- Is it a beard or a bib?
“KB, why don’t you shave you cut off your beard when you cut your hair?” “I like my beard.” She makes a face of incomprehension. “But you’re ugly!” “No, you’re ugly!” “You’re nose is big!” She says trying to grab my nose. “You don’t have a nose!” I retort. “You’re ugly!” “You’re ugly!” And so on… When I joined the Peace Corps, I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to try and experiment with the full potential of my facial hair. I had no job interviews. I wasn’t trying to impress any girls. And if people thought I was strange, they’d just chalk it up to me being a crazy American. Beards serve varied purposes across cultures. In some places, you aren’t considered a real man and women won’t respect you unless you have a healthy beard. When I got my invite to South Africa, I met a guy that had just been invited to Jordan. He was already getting a start on his beard so that he’d be able to fit in as quickly as possible. In places like the U.S., beards are really a matter of personal preference. In some cultures though, a beard is something of an abomination. As luck would have it, I ended up in one of these. Tswana culture tolerates a bit of scruff, but a long beard is out of the question. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As I discussed last month, in my first month or so at site, I was taken aback by the come-ons I received from the local girls. So this month, I propose a solution to male unwanted attention in some cultures, the beard. When I arrived at my site, I did have a little scruff, but at the time this was outweighed by the fact that I was new, American, and potentially an ATM. As the beard grew longer and time passed, the appeal diminished. As I walked home from school, I eventually could make it the whole way without any awkward propositions. The beard had become an advantage. People thought I was in my thirties and afforded me more respect than they would have to someone in their early twenties. With the women and girls I interacted with in the schools and community, my beard made me ugly enough so that the premise of seducing me became unpalatable. In fact, I believe the relationship goes something like this: P _ N/U Where: P = rate of propositions N = perceived novelty U = perceived ugliness Getting this ratio low enough made it possible to develop friendships and respect without having to be as careful about sending the wrong message. It was definitely a balance though where I didn’t want to get TOO ugly. On my way back from town, our taxi was stopped at a police checkpoint. Sitting by the window, I was able to see my friend Charles, one of the local officers. I greeted him and he came over to chat. It must have been several months since we’d seen each other. “Hey KB! You’re looking like Saddam Hussein. Or is it Osama?” Perhaps I had gone too far…
After over 9 months of beardage, I felt it had served its purpose and I could return to civilized norms. For about a week, I got a spike of propositions and often heard, “O montle jang?” which is, “How are you so good looking?” This died off quickly though as people already knew who I was and what I was about. Perhaps no one was quite as shocked though as little Gomolemo. When I emerged from my room clean shaven, she stared at me, eyes wide and mouth gaping, finally explaiming, “KB! You SHAVED!” “This is gone!” She says running a finger across her chin. “And this is gone!” She adds pointing above her lips. I nod in agreement trying not to laugh too hard. “But this is still there!” She says while pointing squarely at her nose. I guess you can’t win them all.