Abuzar Madhu had a strange run-in with police in the Pakistani city of Lahore last week. He was waiting for a rickshaw at 3AM when a police van pulled up next to him.
“Will you come with us or do we take you forcibly?” a police officer said, the 28-year-old teacher and theatre artist told VICE World News.
Madhu went with them. The police left him with no choice and gave no reason, he said, but he knew why: It was because of his hair.
In Lahore, a city of 11 million considered one of the New York Times’ “52 Places to Love in 2021,” Madhu’s shoulder-length wavy mane is often an ice-breaker with strangers. But it has also led to him being profiled and subjected to frequent stop-and-frisk tactics by police.
“I get stopped on the streets, or checked by the cops, at least three times a day. I’m seen as a criminal,” he said. “But this was my first arrest.”
On June 5, Madhu was locked up overnight. He said the police couldn’t comprehend why he looked the way he did.
“My hair was in a bun, I was wearing a bangle,” Madhu said, adding that the police reprimanded him and said, “Have you seen your huliya (appearance)? How do you even teach kids with that hair?”
“I told them I’m an artist and showed all my documents. But they wanted me to learn a lesson from this.” Madhu said the police told him, “You will be disciplined for this.”
Lahore police didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
In Pakistan, awaragardi – Urdu for loitering – can be considered criminal behaviour. Loitering offences were introduced across South Asia in the 1800s, and today continue to be enforced with racist and classist implications. In Madhu’s province of Punjab – the second biggest province in Pakistan – being awara or a loiterer is a crime and can land you in jail.
“Laws around awaragardi go back to the British time when colonisers wanted to control us and restrict our movements,” said Madhu. “These colonial laws and hang ups are still in place.”
Culturally, beauty standards across South Asia adhere to narrow gender binaries.
Ahmer Naqvi, a cultural commentator from Karachi, told VICE World News that long hair often creates a moral panic among older urban Pakistanis. In the 1990s, the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif banned rock and pop music on TV, and criticised “long-haired young men” and the “jean-jacket culture” for replacing “Pakistani culture”.
“That ban was the most obvious way the state itself echoed this bias,” said Naqvi, who also had long hair until last year and was subjected to profiling by cops very frequently.
“There is a general unease about long hair as representing blurring of gender norms or embracing Western culture,” he said. “The police are likely to pull you up and check for drugs and alcohol if you’re a man with long hair.”
Madhu added the incident highlights Pakistan’s inequalities and classist mindset.
“I don’t drive a private car. I walk, I take public transport,” Madhu said. “I see men who drive their own cars keep their hair however they want. Nobody questions them.”
Naqvi, the cultural commentator, added that in the past long hair used to trigger security concerns in some parts of the country, because religious extremists like the Taliban often had long hair. “Although I don’t think that was the case here because those security concerns have receded over the last few years,” he said.
For now, though, Madhu plans to keep his hair the way it is as an act of resistance. “If I do cut my hair in the future, it will be because I want a change. Never out of fear,” Madhu said.
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