When students across Thailand returned to school in July, after weeks of coronavirus lockdown, there were reports on social media platforms that a student at a public school in Sisaket, in northeastern Thailand, who allegedly violated mandatory hairstyle rules prescribed by the government, was forced to undergo a haircut in public by school authorities in an act aimed at punishment and humiliation.
For decades, schools in Thailand that come under the purview of the Ministry of Education have enforced strict rules regarding hair length and styles for male and female students. Violations of these rules involve penalties, including humiliating haircuts in public, as witnessed in the case of the student in Sisaket.
Why does Thailand have a haircut rule for school students?
Observers believe that these rules regarding haircuts for school students are an extension of authoritarianism in the country and the militarised dictatorship that has run Thailand for decades. Conditioning and forcing citizens to conform to rules, they say, start from a young age and are implemented through the school system, using regulations like the one concerning hairstyles, for instance. The haircuts for men look similar to military crew cuts, while for girls, the hair length should reach only the earlobes.
The rule traces its origins to a school dress code law in 1972 under the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. Following the ouster of Kittikachorn in 1973, after the Thai popular uprising spearheaded by university students, some of these dress codes were relaxed in 1975. However, it was not immediately clear whether the uprising directly contributed to the amendments made to school dress codes two years later.
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According to Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss in their book ‘Very Thai’ (2005), the military-style haircut was adopted nationally after being first introduced in 1972 in Vajiravudh College, a private boarding school for boys in Bangkok, established by King Rama I in 1910.
Over the years, there have been reports of several incidents where attempts to exercise these haircut rules by school authorities have overstepped the mark, resulting in trauma and humiliation for the student involved. Cornwel-Smith and Goss mention one such incident in 2004, where a teacher ended up lopping off a student’s earlobe “when brusquely snipping her locks to the regulation length”.
When were Thailand’s haircut rules amended?
Haircut rules had come into focus in 2013 when then Education Minister Phongthep Thekpkanchana had ordered schools to follow the relaxed dress code regulations of 1975, saying students had filed complaints with the ministry over haircut rules. This order was a result of an anonymous complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in 2011 by a 15 year-old student, who had stated that these rules violated human rights and freedom.
According to an AFP report from 2013, the student had written in the letter: “It made adolescent students lack confidence and lose concentration in studying.” The agency had reported that the letter had “won mass support across social media among teenagers”.
The amendments in 2013 allowed male students to wear longer hair till their nape, and female students could keep their hair long if tied neatly. Some local Thai news reports suggested that female students could only keep long hair after prior permission from authorities. However, permed and coloured hair have always been prohibited and all rules remain in force for the entirety of a student’s school life.
— Thai School Life (@ThaiSchoolLife) November 3, 2014
In March this year, rights-group ‘Education for Liberation of Siam’ in collaboration with the Association of Youth for the Abolition of Student Haircut Rules challenged this decades-old rule in court, on grounds that the regulations “deprived students sovereignty” over their bodies and stated that the rule was “unconstitutional” and has been “hurting students and Thai education” for more than forty years.
While the country was grappling with the spread of COVID-19 infections, in May, Thailand’s Ministry of Education announced relaxations regarding the kind of hairstyles that school students could wear in the country. The changes to the rules were announced in the nation’s Royal Gazette and applied to all schools in the country that come under the purview of the education ministry.
The ministry’s announcement implied that fresh amendments were being made to reflect “changing times” and in the interest of “human dignity”. When the amendments were issued in May this year, the Bangkok Post reported that a group of students who had called themselves the ‘Dek Leow,’ meaning ‘Bad Children’ in Thai, protested outside the Education ministry’s building, calling for stricter enforcement of this amendment because many schools had reportedly continued to ignore the ministry’s directives.
Although the Ministry of Education had appeared to acknowledge that schools were not following their amended orders, it declined to penalise schools and teachers who continued to forcefully cut students’ hair.
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What happened after haircut rules were amended?
Despite the government’s amendments to haircut rules, observers say that little is being implemented on the ground, with school authorities clinging to archaic interpretations of the rules and enforcing their own punishments and penalties for students perceived to be in violation.
Observers say the amendments give students a certain amount of freedom when it comes to their appearance and one reason why schools have been unwilling to comply with these amendments is because they have enjoyed the power and authority that these school dress code rules have provided to them for decades.
These haircut rules have stirred a debate on social media channels regarding students’ rights and the kind of power and authoritarianism that institutions exert over them. The debate has also highlighted the drawbacks of Thailand’s public school system that has consistently prioritised rote learning over critical thinking and unquestioned acceptance of authority, starting from teachers in the classroom to government officials.
This debate has also resulted in students reporting how school authorities have wielded power over them, leaving them unable to or discouraged from reporting cases of violence and abuse, due to prevailing socio-cultural norms in Thai society.
— นักเรียนเลว (@BadStudent_) June 27, 2020
In a recent social media post, 15-year-old Benjamaporn Niwas, co-founder of the group “Bad Students”, posted a photograph of herself sitting on a chair outside Siam Square in central Bangkok, with her mouth sealed with duct-tape, her hands tied behind her back, and a pair of scissors in her lap. Hanging from her neck is a sign board saying: “This student with long hair violated regulations. She invited punishment.”
In the photos, Niwas’s hair appears to be of the prescribed length, not exceeding below her ear lobes. Her protest seems to have earned her supporters and critics alike on social media.
Twitter user ‘MyGroomisYibo’ wrote in support of Niwas: “Older people: Children these days don’t have patience… no need….more modern times…..But we think that today’s children have heads….Dare to doubt and ask the question why and why….”
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