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Kerala: Meet the Indian woman who flaunts her moustache

An Indian woman who sports a moustache has received both appreciation and derision from people online. But she says she is unfazed by all the interest around her facial hair.”I love my moustache,” Shyja, 35, declares in her WhatsApp status section, below a photo of herself.She is often asked – by people who see her photos on Facebook or meet her in person – why she sports a moustache.

“All I can say is that I just like it. A lot,” she says.Shyja, who uses only one name, lives in Kannur district in the southern state of Kerala. Like many women, she had wisps of facial hair above her lip for years.While she would regularly get her eyebrows threaded, Shyja says she never felt the need to remove the hair above her upper lip.Around five years ago, it began to thicken into a visible moustache and a delighted Shyja decided to keep it.”I can’t imagine living without it now. When the Covid pandemic started, I disliked wearing a mask all the time because it covered my face,” she says.

Many people who saw her urged her to get rid of her moustache but Shyja refused.”I’ve never felt that I’m not beautiful because I have this or that it’s something I shouldn’t have.”Women are often told that facial hair is undesirable and that they should pay to have it removed – or tweaked into shape – regularly. Hair removal products are a multi-billion dollar industry with creams, wax strips, razors and epilators aimed at women who can afford to pay for them.

But in recent years, many women have been choosing to go against the norm by accepting and even taking pride in their facial hair.In 2016, body positivity campaigner Harnaam Kaur became the youngest woman in the world to have a full beard, according to the Guinness World Records. In interviews, she has often spoken about how accepting her facial hair has been an important part of learning to love herself in the face of bullying.

British activist Harnaam Kaur has been campaigning against rigid beauty standards for yearsFor Shyja, sporting a moustache isn’t about making a statement, it’s just part of who she is.”I just do what I like. If I had two lives, maybe I’d live one for others,” she says.Some of this attitude comes from having battled health problems for years. Shyja has gone through six surgeries over a decade – one was to remove a lump in her breast, another was to remove cysts in her ovary. Her last surgery was a hysterectomy five years ago.

“Each time I came out of surgery, I would hope that I never had to go back into an operation theatre again,” she says.Overcoming multiple health crises only strengthened Shyja’s belief that she should live her life in a way that makes her happy.Shyja says she was a shy child while growing up. Women in her village would barely be seen outside the house after 6pm in the evening.

Though Kerala is one of India’s most progressive states, with high development indicators, patriarchal attitudes persist in most areas, and women are often discouraged from travelling or living alone.When she got married and moved to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, Shyja says she enjoyed discovering a new kind of freedom.

“My husband would go to work and return late. So I would sit outside the house in the evening, sometimes I’d walk to the store alone at night if I needed something. No one cared. As I learnt to do things on my own, it built my confidence,” she says, adding that she is trying to pass on this attitude to her teenage daughter.

Shyja says she disliked wearing masks during the Covid pandemic because they hid her moustacheShyja’s family and friends have been supportive of her moustache. Her daughter often tells her it looks good on her.But Shyja says she’s heard all kinds of remarks from people who see her on the streets.

“People make fun of me saying, ‘it’s men who have moustaches, why would a woman have one?'” she says.Over the years, she has been featured in local media reports several times. Recently, she says, she saw several mocking comments on an article on her shared by a local news outlet on Facebook.One person asked why she couldn’t take a blade to her moustache when it was clear that her eyebrows had been threaded.”But isn’t that about what I like – what to keep and what not to?” she asks.Shyja’s friends often furiously reply to these comments on Facebook, but she says it doesn’t bother her at all.”In fact, sometimes I look them up to laugh at them.”