Min­istry de­ci­sion on Mus­lim stu­dents’ dress code seen as di­vi­sive

The Nation - - FRONT PAGE - CHULARAT SAENGPASSA

CON­CERNS ARE grow­ing over the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s move to leave it up to the schools and their monas­tic land­lords to de­cide on the dress code for Mus­lim stu­dents.

“I am ex­tremely wor­ried and con­cerned that this move will widen rifts,” Wisoot Bin­lateh, the di­rec­tor of Sheikul Is­lam’s co­or­di­na­tion cen­tre in the South, said yes­ter­day.

Thai­land’s deep South, which is mostly pop­u­lated by Mus­lims, has strug­gled with in­sur­gency-re­lated un­rest for more than a decade.

The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s lat­est dress-code move is widely seen as a clear sig­nal that Mus­lim chil­dren will not be able to protest if their schools force them to wear nor­mal uni­form – in ef­fect mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for them to fol­low re­li­gious dress rules of wear­ing hi­jabs and long trousers.

Last month, some par­ents chal­lenged the Anuban Pat­tani School in Pat­tani prov­ince about what Mus­lim chil­dren study­ing there could wear. Op­er­at­ing in­side a Bud­dhist tem­ple, this school had long re­quired stu­dents to wear school uni­forms re­gard­less of their re­li­gion. But the par­ents be­lieved their chil­dren should be al­lowed to fol­low their Is­lamic be­liefs.

The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry back then in­ter­vened to ease ten­sion, sig­nalling that Mus­lim chil­dren should be able to wear a hi­jab and long trousers as long as their colours matched those of the school’s uni­form. At that time, the min­istry’s school-uni­form reg­u­la­tion stip­u­lated that stu­dents could dress in ac­cor­dance with re­li­gious be­liefs.

But the Royal Gazette on Wednesday pub­lished the lat­est re­vi­sion to the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s school-uni­form rules. The amend­ment stated that Mus­lim stu­dents can wear school uni­forms or wear clothes based on their re­li­gious be­liefs at schools that are not op­er­at­ing on plots be­long­ing to tem­ples. But if they study at schools which sit on monas­tic land they must com­ply with the dress code set by the school and the land­lord.

Thou­sands of state schools in Thai­land are lo­cated in­side monas­tic com­pounds. While the Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s re­vi­sion of the school-uni­form rule aims to pre­vent fur­ther dis­putes over the dress code for Mus­lim stu­dents, the move it­self has be­come a cause for con­cern.

“I re­ally can’t un­der­stand why the gov­ern­ment will do this: why re­vise the reg­u­la­tion?” Wisoot said.

He said when Mus­lim chil­dren en­rolled in pri­vate schools, the gov­ern­ment was wor­ried about in­sur­gent ide­olo­gies. “So why does the min­istry make a move that would drive Mus­lim chil­dren away?” he said.

Wisoot em­pha­sised that state schools should wel­come di­ver­sity and foster har­mony.

“Chil­dren from var­i­ous re­li­gious and cul­tural back­grounds should be al­lowed to in­ter­act at state schools and learn to­gether,” he said.

“State schools should play a role in bring­ing chil­dren of var­i­ous back­grounds to­gether. If a dress code keeps some chil­dren away, they will not grow up in the sta­te­or­gan­ised in­cul­ca­tion sys­tem.”

Na­tional Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (NHRC) mem­ber Angkhana Nee­la­pai­jit said not al­low­ing Mus­lim stu­dents to dress ac­cord­ing to their re­li­gious be­liefs is a vi­o­la­tion of their re­li­gious free­dom rights.

She was also wor­ried that the dress code could cause di­vi­sions among peo­ple of dif­fer­ent faiths.

“The NHRC has re­ceived two com­plaints about school dress code, re­lated to Anuban Pat­tani School and Hatyai­wit­tay­alai School. Some par­ents have even taken their chil­dren out of the lat­ter school,” Angkhana said. She said the Hatyai­wit­tay­alai School in fact al­lowed stu­dents to wear hi­jabs but some teach­ers were against it and this had caused prob­lems.

Cross Cul­tural Foun­da­tion di­rec­tor Porn­pen Khongka­chonkiet urged all sides to sit down to­gether and talk. “Or else, there will be an­i­mos­ity on both sides – Bud­dhists and Mus­lims – in the area. Both sides are fo­cus­ing on win­ning. But chil­dren de­serve sym­pa­thy and they have got sand­wiched be­tween the two sides. This bat­tle, if it goes on, will cause pain to all sides,” Porn­pen said.

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