Too hairy for high school

Manchester Academy to 14-year-old boy: Shave the mustache or stay home

Published July 2, 2009 3:03PM (EDT)

Is there anything more humiliating than having your burgeoning secondary sex characteristics pointed out to your entire high school? Well, how about being punished for them? That's exactly what happened to 14-year-old Akaash Iqbal, a secondary school student at England's Manchester Academy. As a photo accompanying the Manchester Evening News story shows, the boy recently sprouted the first shadowy hint of a mustache. And for that, a faculty member sent him home. "They've embarrassed me and they've embarrassed my family," Iqbal told the newspaper. "I was walking down the corridor to registration and one of the teachers took me into a room. I was made to stay there for an hour." He was told to shave before returning to school -- but since Iqbal (with the support of his father, Asif Mahmood) refused, the academy has declined to readmit him.

At first glance, the story sounds silly: Many schools have dress codes prohibiting facial hair, and while we may not agree with them, isn't it simpler to comply than to cause trouble? Besides, as its name implies, Manchester Academy is a private school and has more freedom to set rules than a public institution.

But something about this story has me rethinking my initial "So what?" reaction. Perhaps it was Mahmood's point that "he's only 14 and if he starts now he'll have to do it for the rest of his life." Later in the piece, Iqbal corroborates his father's assertion: "I'm not shaving it at my age. It will ruin my face." Their argument made me consider the reaction I might have to a school, say, forcing a 14-year-old girl to shave her legs or armpits. Wouldn't there be outrage if a teacher sent home a junior-high girl and told her not to come back until she went bra shopping?

Mahmood also raises a particularly relevant question about the academy's regulations: "What about Sikh children whose religion tells them not to shave? Are they not allowed to go there?" It turns out that the controversy over facial hair has more than a little bit in common with the burqa battles raging in France. But absent a debate about whether a certain regulation is oppressive or demeaning, the answer seems even more clear: Citizens (including minors) should be allowed to live in accordance with their religion, as long as their practices aren't hurting others.

Still, for most teenage boys, facial hair isn't a matter of religion but one of free expression and learning to come to terms with an increasingly adult body. Puberty is an intensely personal -- and often embarrassing -- experience made public, whether it involves boobs, beards or boners. Shouldn't schools step aside and let students and their families deal with it in peace?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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