That’s the question I was pondering during the weekend of Thailand’s 2013 National Children’s Day (Saturday, January 12). From what I’ve seen, the answer depends on whom you ask. For instance, “a great deal” if you ask Thai school children,“not at all” if the Thai National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), “maybe a little” if the Thai education minister.
Here’s the hair in question.
Hair on Thai school children’s heads has become a national policy issue. The student hair debate has been simmering and finally came to a boil after a schoolboy filed a complaint with the NHRC in December 2011. The complaint said that the school regulation prohibiting all hairstyles except the crew cut for boys and ear-lobe-length bob for girls is in violation of children’s human rights and that the schools allowing selected students such as those engaged in classical art performances to wear long hair is discrimination against other students subject to the hair rule.
The ‘hair revolution!!!’
Thai school children have wanted the strict hair regulation done away with for a long time. It is probably among the most hated rules among generations of Thais students, especially those in government schools where such rules tend to be zealously enforced. So much so that a call for “student hair revolution!!!” has been made.
A 10-point hair manifesto was posted on Dek-D.com, the web board popular among students, in July 2009. Here are some of the points:
(1) The hair regulation is contrary to the Thai constitution,
(2) The military-style rule for school children is unnecessary and instills in children harmful authoritarian values, …
(4) [It] makes youth not learn how to think … only follow orders, …
(7) [It] promotes abuse of power by teachers and teaches youth to absorb such irrational power abuse…,
 [It] gives rise to insults on human dignity [verbal abuse by teachers given as an example]…
The response was overwhelmingly supportive on that platform, judging by the top 5 comments with hundreds of likes each. A few months earlier in May 2009 the issue was also debated on the most popular web board Pantip where a great many perspectives were shared by young Thais.
Since the student’s complaint to the NHRC in 2011 made the news, academics, policy makers, government officials and leading thinkers have weighed in with both pros and cons. The larger public recently jumped into the fray following the NHRC ruling in November 2012 and the decision by the education ministry just before Children’s Day.
There is much in the hair
Different people see different things in the hair on the young heads. Some see human rights, dignity, liberty and freedom (cut short or shaved a little too close to the skin). Others see order and discipline necessary to carry on by the new generation, a fine and unique cultural tradition worthy of preserving on the young heads, or a shield against evils always lurking and ready to harm vulnerable youth. Still others see nothing reflected in the severe haircuts but the rules that have always been there and should still be there because they are rules.
Then there are people wondering out loud what the fuss is all about with Thai kids these days. Why would they want to change the rules now — which generations of Thais have lived with? If they themselves have endured the good old Thai hair tradition with dignified acceptance, why can’t the youth of today?
Perhaps these people are oblivious to the new reality that Thailand is in the midst of change — more young Thais are now getting a taste of questioning and blind obedience can no longer be taken for granted. Today’s Thai youth are rushing headlong into the 21st century, only to be pulled back by the hair — so to speak —b y arcane rules. However, at least some Thai grown-ups are beginning to appreciate the children’s frustration. But enough to set them free?
Official obsession with rules
The NHRC ruling on the complaint speaks volume of Thai officialdom’s mentality. In short, the NHRC ruled that the hair rule is not in violation of the students’ human rights and the schools’ differential treatment by exempting some students from the rule is not discrimination.
In its ruling the NHRC refers to long, elaborate opinions of high-level education administrators, the Constitution and the Child Protection Act, and includes comprehensive excerpts from the 1972 military junta order on students’ behavior and two ministerial regulations issued under the order, and one small point from the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Other than the first 13-line paragraph giving the background of the complaint, the NHRC ruling refers to no opinions from any other school children, or their representatives (e.g. parents or child rights advocates). And of all the child rights stipulated under the CRC, the NHRC cites just this one:
2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.
The NHRC apparently sees no contradiction between its ruling and the child rights under other articles in the Convention—especially the ones about respecting the child’s opinion and freedom of expression. As to “the best interest of the child” principle, I suspect, like most grown-ups the NHRC believes it knows best without having to ask the children, because they have “bathed in hot water” long before the child, as the Thai saying goes.
The NHRC’s own opinion on the matter is the regurgitation of the laws and rules it has cited with a conclusion that, no, the hair rule “does not” violate human rights. The NHRC blames the ministry of education for not having made the rules clearer and more instructive for the schools to enforce, hence the divergent applications of the rules by different schools. So it offers a recommendation that the education ministry should iron out any “inconsistencies” in the regulations by repealing the existing regulations and issue a new, unified and clearly instructive ministerial regulation governing students’ hair with no room for divergent application. This new regulation, it says, should also observe the child’s human dignity and best interest (Thank you very much!).
The ministry of education has taken to heart the NHRC recommendation. It set up a committee to mull over the ministerial regulations concerning students’ hair from 1972 and 1975. The 1972 regulation, which is the source of the (over)zealous control of students’ head, hair, face, dress and more, is all about prohibition. It’s not about what students can do or how they should behave but about what they cannot do. There are two main items of prohibition on dress and conduct for school pupils (at primary and secondary levels – Item 1), and students (at college and university levels – Item 2):
1972 Ministerial Regulation issued by Ministry of Education
Item 1: The following dress and conduct are considered inappropriate for school pupils…
(1) Male students wearing hair on the crown and front of the head longer than 5 centimeters and hair on the sides of the head not close to the skin, or wearing a mustache or a beard. Female students wearing hair longer than the neckline, [but] if with its own discretion the school or educational institution allows longer hair, the hair should be tied up neatly. Students wearing make-up or other products for cosmetic enhancement.
(2) Loitering in public or destroying property of the school or educational institution, or public property.
(3) Showing impolite manner, speech or conduct.
(4) Gathering and creating nuisance.
(5) Gambling as prohibited by law.
(6) Reveling at night between 22:00 hr to 04:00 hr of the next day, except when accompanied by parents or guardians or having been permitted by the school or educational institution.
(7) Smoking cigarettes [or] marijuana, or drinking alcohol, taking illegal drugs or other addictive substances.
(8) Entering a legal establishment or any other establishment resembling a pawn shop or gambling den while there are ongoing activities, unless it is the place in which the student resides or visits relatives.
(9) Entering an event or a party where there are dances or other performances unfit for students, unless the student accompanies parents or guardians or that event/party is organized by the student’s parents or guardians or school.
(10) Entering prostitution establishment, unless it is the place in which the student resides or visits relatives living therein.
(11) Associating with women engaged in prostitution, unless they are close relatives.
(12) Behaving in romantic/sexual manner.
(13) Having in possession explosive devices or personal or concealed weapons with the purpose to use in violence.
(14) Deliberately avoiding school attendance.
Item 2: The following dress and conduct are considered inappropriate for students…
(1) Male students with haircut or wearing hair on the sides and back of the head longer than the hairline, or wearing a mustache or a beard. Female students wearing skirts with the hems more than 5 centimeters above the knee, skirt waistline lower than the navel, loose belt below the skirt waistline, or inappropriate dress for Thai ladies. Students wearing make-up or other products for cosmetic enhancement.
(2) Smoking cigarettes [or] marijuana, or drinking alcohol, taking illegal drugs or other addictive substances.
(3) Conduct hostile to management authority of the school or educational institution, or forcing, emboldening or supporting students to have such a conduct, and
(4) Conduct as listed in Item 1 (2), (3), (4), (5), (8), (10), (11), (12), (13).
In 1975 ministerial regulation issued an amendment, replacing Item 1 (1) above with the following, which in effect repealed the crew cut requirement for school boys:
(1) Male students with haircut or wearing hair on the sides and back of the head longer than the hairline, or wearing a mustache or a beard. Female students with a haircut or wearing hair longer than the neckline, [but] if with its own discretion the school or educational institution allows longer hair, the hair should be tied up neatly. Students wearing make-up or other products for cosmetic enhancement.
Despite the 1975 amendment, most Thai schools still enforce the hairstyle requirement in the 1972 regulation, evident in ubiquitous crew cuts on the heads of most school boys. (In virtually all Thai public schools crew cut is mandatory for boys in primary up to lower secondary level, while boys in higher secondary school are allowed slightly longer hair unless they take the 3 years long army reserve training, although some schools may still require the crew cut regardless. Most private schools do not require the crew cut for boys and girls are allowed to wear long hair neatly tied up.)
One can only wonder why Thai schools still adhere to the hair requirement already abolished decades ago. In issuing its order to schools to stop requiring the crew cut for boys, the education ministry ensures the schools that it is not making any new rule but merely clarifying that the crew cut requirement in the 1972 regulation was already repealed and they should apply the 1975 amendment instead. To think it took the ministry almost 40 years to clarify that!
Four decades is a long time. Long enough for many generations of Thai children—perhaps more so Thai teachers and school administrators—to get used to and even like such severe hairstyles normally associated with punishment for convicts in most countries. Crew cuts are common enough for military men, but I can’t help thinking that the only other place where I have seen many women and girls with the same uniformly ear-lobe-short hairstyle is in the Tuol Sleng Museum in Cambodia, where women, men and children were brought as prisoners of the Khmer Rouge to a school converted into torture chambers. It’s a troubling thought.
As soon as the education ministry announced its decision, the director of Bangkok Education Office told the media that schools in Bangkok won’t change any hair rules because in Bangkok schools already have “very clear rules” and “no one has complained” about the children’s hair here.
The commander of Army Reserve Command was also quick to confirm that high school boys in the army reserve training (who will be exempt from the military draft) still have to wear the crew cut, which, he added, does not violate personal freedom or human rights.
There is no question that Thais adore uniforms. Military and police are still the ‘coolest’ jobs for Thai kids according to a recent poll. We have uniforms for a great many professions and most of us have grown up with uniforms from an early age and have worn various uniforms throughout our school life. Thailand is one of the only four countries in the world that require uniforms for university students (along with Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).
Thais are by and large in favor of student uniforms. Besides equalizing uniformity, uniforms are often linked to order, discipline, and modesty. Whether these benefits are truly realized, a look at the way Thais generally board the BTS and MRT in Bangkok, keep cleanliness in public parks, drive on the roads and behave when caught with a traffic violation, may give one a pause. Considering the long unresolved school gang violence among male vocational school students, Thailand’s second world ranking in teenage pregnancy (first in Asia), and Thai university uniforms voted the “sexiest” in the world, may give one another pause. What can be said with some certainty, though, is that Thais are quite well dressed and like to dress alike.
But whether or not being well dressed or being dressed alike is a true reflection of order, discipline and modesty, Thai teachers are true believers in this and dedicate inordinate amount of attention to ensure that Thai children abide by the uniform and hair rules with such religiosity as though the future of the nation depended on correct dress and correct hair.
(Hair) crime and punishment
In the government school system children’s heads (and dress) are routinely inspected by teachers often with a pair of scissors in hand; rules violators are punished and the offending hairstyles corrected as students stand many rows deep in the school yard before the national flag. Many school girls have related a common story that if their hair is deemed a millimeter or two too long, it would meet the scissors at about the middle of the ear, to make sure the earlobes show. School boys whose sides of the head are covered with hair, skin not clearly visible, would be sent to the battalion pronto. Offenders sometimes have to pay a fine.
Some teachers can be more zealous than others and may find colorful hair clips or bows offensive (remember, no make-up or cosmetic enhancement, see (Item 1 (1)). Hair coloring is sacrilegious. And if some students have a misfortune to have incurred some teachers’ wrath, they may find themselves a particular target. Many stories have been told about overzealous homeroom teachers. In one, some girl whose hair was naturally very black was accused of dying it black, while another whose hair was naturally light brown was accused of lightening it.
Besides the humiliation of having one’s hair cut by teachers whose hairdressing skills and purpose of punishment combined often make one’s head uglier than it already is, punishment for hair and dress code violations is accumulative. After some violations and certain points deducted, students can expect a bad report card or a call for a teacher-parent meeting, and more violations would lead to a suspension. Sometimes cutting student’s hair is a punishment for offenses unrelated to hair. But too many questions or smart-mouth challenge to the teachers’ authority could land one in deeper trouble (see Item 2 (3) in the 1972 regulation). A heavier punishment or a worse grade can be expected.
It makes one wonder what the purpose of this hair rule really is, doesn’t it? What benefits are there in boys having hair shorter than 5 centimeters on top of their head and girls no longer than the earlobes and neckline? Many a Thai student have wondered the same. Here’s a video clip of interviews with many high school students in Bangkok on the hair issue from a satire show “Jow Khow Tuen: Doo Tuuk Sati Panya” (Shallow Investigative News: Insulting Intelligence). (Some comments are really quite amusing.)
(For more perspectives of students see many TV news and interviews on this thaitvnews page.)
Love of rules, head lice and Einstein
The hair rationale might actually be very simple. According to a noted historian Nithi Eiwsirwong, Thais originally got the school pupil hairstyles (along with school uniforms) from the Japanese during World War II when there was an epidemic of head lice. Given that Thai children’s heads have long been free of lice, it would appear that love for old rules is much harder to get rid of than the head lice.
And we wonder why Thai students are so impoverished in creativity and critical thinking and score so poorly in all important subjects in national as well as international tests. (I have written a 4-part series on the failure of Thai education here, here, here and here). If Thai teachers had spent less attention to the children’s hair and more on teaching them how to think, Thai children might have done much better. Rote learning combined with such a rigid, militaristic culture of control cannot be nurturing for creativity or critical thinking, or academic excellence. Young children going into the Thai education system with bright eyes, lively curiosity and creative spirit are at great risk of having their light quickly dimmed, and the future of Thai education is looking quite dim indeed.
A school girl in the video clip above said: “Thai kids have neatly short hair but are still stupid.” Harsh, but in the past several years Thailand finds itself at the bottom of one world ranking after another in students’ knowledge and scholastic abilities.
While many Thai teachers are still obsessed with the children’s hair, many Thai kids know there is little connection between what’s outside of their skull and what’s inside. A school boy helpfully pointed out: “Einstein had long hair.”
Of course, there are also many children (and many adults, the products of the same education system) who have absorbed the love of rules and learned to articulate the supposed advantages of (the appearance of) order and discipline. Here are a few comments on a conservative news website Manager:
When I was in school and had my hair shaved [by my teacher] I never felt any anger or hatred for the teacher. I’d like to thank the teacher for having taught me to be a good person in Thai society. (a 45-year-old man, Comment 151 with 97 likes)
Next it will be the uniform. Yeah, let’s have human rights. Abolish them all. Wear slippers to class. Wear jeans while we’re at it. Let’s follow the foreigners’ a**es. (Comment 4 with 31 likes)
Yet, even on this conservative online community such views are in the minority. The majority of the response is in favor of no more crew cuts. The top two comments with over 200 likes on that page want the hair rules abolished.
At present there is a group of students who call themselves The Thai Students Federation for Education Reform that has come out to oppose the existing hair rules, although their larger goal is education reform as the group name suggests.
The Thai attachment to uniforms and rules will be difficult to unravel. Uniform follows many Thais to their working life. Thailand is probably one of the few countries where physical appearance requirements for school admission and jobs are still the rule, instead of the exception. Job advertisements often have height and weight requirements, besides age, even when they are not relevant to the job. Resumes of Thais often include height and weight, as well as birth date and religion.
Applicants to nursing and medical schools must meet certain physical criteria in addition to academic and other qualifications: a narrow range of weight and height (not too short, not too skinny, not too fat), no facial marks, no crossed eyes, and no crooked teeth feature in a long list of physical qualifications and prohibited diseases.
How many disabled people are seen in the public life in Thailand? That is, apart from the blind selling lotto tickets or singing (begging) on the sidewalk? People with disabilities are still struggling to be integrated into mainstream Thai society. True, there are people with disabilities who have made it but against all odds and they have many more hurdles to climb over. For example, a lawyer with polio was not allowed to apply for a public prosecutor job because of his disability. He fought for years in court until he was finally allowed to sit in the exam but still didn’t get the job. Lawyers with disabilities are not found among judges in Thailand because judges have to look “credible” (i.e. without physical defects) to command “respect”.
These “respect” and “credibility” expectations have also made life difficult for people with diverse sexuality (gays, lesbians and transgenders). Many gays and lesbians voluntarily or are told to hide their sexual orientation at work, if they want to advance in the job because not being a “real” man or a “real” woman makes one “less credible”. (To whom is the question.) Transgenders who can’t hide their gender identity will have to comply with the rules or opt out of the system and find the few jobs allocated to them like cabaret performers, make-up artists, cosmetics sales agents, pretties, or go into sex work. For every successful (often good looking) transgender who is accepted into mainstream society, there are a dozen more who are not.
In recent years there have been more cases involving transgender people unhappy with the uniform they are made to wear. Among the most prominent cases that have gone to the NHRC are transgendered women (born male) in university or teacher’s training forced to wear male uniform despite their complete or almost complete transformation to the female sex. In some cases transgendered teacher’s trainees were even told to cut their hair short so that school children won’t be confused (although doing so usually confuses the kids even more, with their female breasts and all). The so-called toms (masculine lesbians) or transmen (born female but living as male) are likewise made to wear uniform according to their sex on the ID card. Complaints, requests, petitions made to related authorities more often than not get a negative answer and the same explanation: “Because there are rules.”
Many official rules governing the lives of many Thais are strict and fixed and allows for an extremely narrow range of self-expression, physically and in terms of gender identity. It leaves very little room for those who want to express themselves outside of what’s permitted, often by people who are long dead.
Conformity vs. rights of children
Interestingly enough, the national human rights body that sees no connection between the students’ hair and children’s rights sees a human right violation in transgender people being forced to wear uniforms inconsistent with their gender identity. Some questions arise. How does the Thai NHRC draw the line for violations of human rights for adults and for children? Can children be made to conform against their will to a higher degree than adults because they are children? What would then be the criteria to allow that (other than the existence of the rules)?
Certainly, a balance must be found between fulfilling the rights, freedom and liberty for children and protecting them from harm. In this case, though, does uniform short hair really protect young Thai children from harm? Will there be any harm if children are allowed to make their own decisions regarding their own hair?
A school administrator in Bangkok gives a scenario of a possible harm if Thai children are allowed to have longer hair.
Personally I disagree with [longer hair for school children] because the existing hair rules are already good and practical because we can distinguish between students and [adults]. [It] allows protection of children, for instance if girls are about to fall into the hands of bad people the perpetrators would stop to think about the punishment for rape of children and youth being more severe than [the punishment for rape of] adults.
I would have liked to ask this school administrator if he thinks the perpetrators in the many, many cases of sexual abuse of short-haired Thai school children ever stopped to think about the severe punishment before abusing the children anyway, so what good does short hair do in preventing children from rape? Does he think school children in most other countries who are allowed longer hair are being raped and sexually molested any more than Thai children because of their hair?
Silly rationalization is just that but it abounds in a culture where the education system discourages logical and critical reasoning but promotes conformity, control and obedience.
As Thailand goes through significant social changes and more young Thais demand more rights and freedom, Thai authorities will find themselves increasingly under pressure to justify the rules. It can only be hoped they will learn sooner rather than later that rigid conformity and control won’t always guarantee obedience, and acceptance will have to be earned.
Adults can help move the change process along by supporting and giving the children more opportunity to express themselves and participate in the decision making on matters that concern them. After all, it’s their future and learning about rights and responsibilities can never start too young.
Note: This article was first published for SiamVoices on Asian Correspondent on 13 January 2013.