The politics of students’ hairstyles

THAI PBS WORLD SYNDICATE/ANN – For decades, students have been grumbling about rigid school rules on hairstyles – short bobs for girls and tight crops, shaved at the sides for boys. However, though subtle, their latest complaint has arguably been the loudest.

Instead of yelling at teachers for partially shaving their heads or ruining their looks, students decided to launch a campaign under the banner of ‘BadStudent’, involving a symbolic solo demonstration. The protest only lasted about an hour, but it caught the attention of the entire country.

The ‘BadStudent’ group demonstrated their angst by having a fellow pupil in school uniform sit on the pavement tied up and muzzled. She was pictured with a sarcastic sign saying, “This student has violated school rules by wearing hair that goes beyond her earlobes and has destroyed Thai students’ identity by wearing bangs. PLEASE PUNISH HER.” Below that in small print were the words: “Stop imposing forced haircuts”.

“What you see today may look surreal and cruel, but that’s what really happens to us students. We are forced to cut our hair (regardless of our preferences),” the solo protester said.

BadStudent, which describes itself as an unintended result of the “so good” educational system, said it represents students who can think for themselves and are not blindly submissive.

In reality, Thai law has not required students to wear their hair short since 1975. Yet, a huge number of schools still base their rules on the 1972 regulation that banned girls from wearing long hair and required boys to have their hair closely cropped.

As a result, teachers checking the length of students’ hair and sometimes even using scissors to “correct” the length is a common sight in many schools.

Some students complain of suffering public embarrassment because teachers deliberately ruin their hair. In some cases, the teacher’s so-called haircuts are so disastrous that students must suffer humiliation until their hair grows back.

Such cases make headlines every year, generating interest for a while before fading away.

No matter how frustrated they get, students do their best to comply with school rules, bear the humiliation and wait for the day when they will become masters of their own hair. This probably explains why the voice of students demanding an end to this rule has not been powerful or loud enough to trigger any change, so far.

Putanes Patthapong, whose group has been rallying against students’ forced haircuts, launched an online protest petition two years ago at change.org. He insists that the hair rules go against the constitution and the personal rights of students. These rules, he said, give teachers the power to shame and abuse their students.

While students have never stopped complaining about forced haircuts, as of July 14 the change.org petition had failed to win the 25,000 signatures needed before it can be submitted to the Education Ministry.

Many students are more easygoing about rules governing their appearance.

“I know that my hairstyle, be it long or short, does not affect my ability to learn. But I’m fine with my school’s rule, because it only aims to make us look tidy,” said one.

BadStudent, which was founded in May, continues pushing hard for tangible change. After its pavement protest, a mother in Si Sa Ket province voiced anger over a teacher who had chopped her daughter’s hair and said she would stand by her child to fight against such punishments.

The teacher eventually apologised for his actions, but the mother and daughter meanwhile suffered attacks from cyberbullies. Indeed, many Thais believe strict hairstyle rules are necessary to teach children about obedience and discipline.

“If students can’t learn to accept rules and only focus on what they want, they will lack discipline and suffer problems later,” one teacher said on condition of anonymity.

Another said that if these rules were relaxed, students would demand more changes such as the right to dye their hair or not wear uniforms.

Some critics have even asked whether the BadStudent group is linked to a political group. Suspicions were heightened when activist Nuttaa Mahattana, who is often linked to prominent opposition Pheu Thai politician Watana Muangsook, was quick to share photographs of the solo demonstration.

Meanwhile, the Secondary School Administrators Association of Thailand recently demanded that MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn apologise for calling the Si Sa Ket-based teacher a criminal and suggesting that he should resign, for chopping a student’s hair. Wiroj should instead check what qualifies him to continue sitting on the House committee for educational affairs, the association said.

“If he doesn’t apologise, the association and its allies will not, under any circumstance, support Wiroj’s political party (Move Forward),” said the teacher’s body.