11 July 2024

School students were both busy and brave this year, mustering unprecedented courage to challenge authority figures much older and more powerful than themselves over decades-long rules on hairstyles and uniforms.

Their struggle – in the form of large protests at the Education Ministry, direct challenges to Education Minister Natthaphon Teepsuwan, and defiance in school, to name a few – has been fruitful.

As 2020 drew to a close, Natthaphon revealed his ministry was in the process of amending the rules to give students greater freedom. School students, for example, may even be able to dress casually in class. Hairstyle rules will also become much less strict.

At the start of 2020, no one could have imagined such leniency in a system governed for generations by rigid rules that suppressed students’ individuality in favour of obedient uniformity.

Neither the Education Ministry nor schools had shown any willingness to relax the regulations – not even a bit. Every year, kids had complained of stringent enforcement of rules on their hairstyles and dress code. And every year the complaints were ignored, while those who failed to follow the rules were punished – often in humiliating ways.

But while millions of school students believed short bobs for girls and tight crops shaved at the sides for boys would be in place forever, a small group of kids came up with a brilliant idea to shake the status quo.

On June 27, just a few days before the start of a new academic year, Benjamaporn Niwas, 16, sat down on a pavement in the heart of Bangkok.  Her hands were tied and her mouth gagged. At her feet was a sign reading, “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, in small print, were the words: “Stop imposing forced haircuts.” Two of her friends then acted as passers-by who spotted her and cut her hair.

The ironically self-titled Bad Student group, of which Benjamaporn is a co-leader, had made their first dramatic bid to change the rules.

When photos of the stunt were posted on social media later that day, a storm was born.

People expressed disgust and dismay at the “punishment” suffered by Benjamaporn.

Soon after, Bad Student – group of schoolkids who are challenging the rigid hierarchy and stifling traditions in Thai education – revealed the purpose of the stunt was to provoke thought and debate. When the punishment was meted out on the street, there was a public outcry. So, why had such practices been tolerated in schools for decades?

The stunt placed student-hairstyle rules under intense scrutiny, and emboldened a huge number of kids to question what seemed like outdated and useless school regulations.

But while Bad Student’s pavement performance won much support and public attention, it took months of protest before the government finally relented. Meanwhile, critical thinking grew among students as they were prompted to question school rules and authority.

No longer grumbling behind their teachers’ backs, students began openly asking why their schools should dictate how they wore their hair. As youngsters’ awareness of individual rights increased, so did the momentum of Bad Student’s campaign. Protesters paid several visits to the Education Ministry and kept up the pressure on social media. By September, the education minister was even spurred into a debate with Bad Student leaders.

Education Thailand

However, with authorities apparently dragging their feet despite promising to address school rules, students began expanding their protest to other issues.

Among them was the necessity of school uniforms.

When the second semester started on December 1, many students defied their schools’ dress code by wearing casual clothes to class. Some were reprimanded while others were barred from entering classroom. But once again, the move sparked a nationwide debate that reaches beyond schools and questions authoritarianism and uniformity across Thai society.

2020 was the year that progressive school kids dared to challenge a status quo they feel sacrifices individuality for blind obedience. They never stopped fighting for what they believed in. And finally, what seemed to be an unimaginable dream just a year ago, is now coming true.