Discrimination's many faces in Thai society

Just last week the nation woke up to shocking Thai-language newspaper headlines along the lines of "Sexy skimpy-uniform-wearing girls smoking cigarettes at Wat Pho!"

The story went that Culture Minister Khunying Khaisri Sri-aroon, upon receiving a tip-off, headed to the revered temple to witness for herself the horrendous sight of five naughty young women wearing saucy-looking uniforms with their belly-buttons poking out while supposedly flirting with foreign tourists.

Khunying Khaisri, disgusted at such sickening behaviour, immediately ordered an investigation to determine whether the girls were in fact university students at all or rather prostitutes out to procure clientele for a quick fling at a nearby short-time motel. The reports were made even worse by the reporters deciding to repeatedly mention that the foreign tourists involved were "coloured", "dark" and "black". After an intensive investigation it was found that the girls were actually "real" students, who just wanted to practise their English. The damage had been done, though, and the girls had to publicly apologise to the Culture Ministry live on television.

While I agree that attendees at places of worship ought to dress conservatively, the Culture Ministry isn't exactly going to solve the problem of skimpy university outfits by busting students like a troupe of undercover cops. As for the dean of the girl's university, he came out with the classic quote "Our institution enforces strict dress regulations". Now come on - just what planet is he living on?

Women's Day in Thailand was on Thursday, and if there is one thing the Culture Ministry in this country has never been an advocate for it is women's rights - it's very unlikely that it will ever be the recipient of any prestigious accolades from female liberation groups.

This story was not the biggest of the week, but it really does say a lot about the Thai mentality towards women. Shiver me timbers - the girls were smoking! Thai society frowns upon this kind of delinquent unladylike behaviour. As for men, however, they can huff away on cigarettes until they drop dead and nobody will look at them cross-eyed. This sad discrimination, as supported by the Culture Ministry, dictates that women smoking in public ought to viewed in the same light as "low-class ladies of the night".

The same applies to the drinking of alcohol. The Culture Ministry has continually informed us that it is completely "un-Thai" for young women to drink alcohol. As for men, well they can get blitzed as often as they wish.

Discrimination against women is deeply embedded in society. Pick up the classifieds of a newspaper and you can read a variety of job offers for women, which stipulate "Not Over 30", for it is that age at which society dictates that women are getting past their prime. In rural areas, should any woman still be single at this ripe old age, her parents will be trying to shuck her off to any potential husband regardless of how cheap a dowry he suggests. Should the 30-plus-year-old woman be poor, a divorcee with kids and have dark-skin, she is graded as "bottom of the barrel".

And it is exactly that kind of discrimination that forces many such women to save some dignity by looking for a foreign husband.

Getting back to the Wat Pho scandal, I was very disappointed that the reports repeatedly mentioned the skin colour of the innocent tourists.  Generally, however, Thai people are certainly not that prejudiced towards different races; they may have a joke and a giggle at a "coloured" foreigner's expense, but thankfully there is none of the full-blown racism here that is often prevalent in the West.

It has to be admitted that a lot of foreigners - and especially Caucasians - are pretty paranoid about being discriminated against. Take the word "farang" - scores of Caucasians just fail to realise that it is not derogatory. In fact, the Thai language has an abundance of descriptive words for people of different races, not just "farangs". Westerners bristle at hearing the word because their own society teaches them that such name-calling of folks of different creeds is rude, if not downright racist.

What is prejudiced, however, is the colour discrimination that is embedded in the culture here. Before a toddler even learns how to use adjectives such as "tall" or "short" to describe his friends, he instead picks up "Ai Dum" (darkie). Again, even though the child doesn't mean anything vicious, she is entering a society that dictates "white = beautiful". I deliberately use the word "she", as it is that sex which is conditioned to believe that unless they are of the fairest complexion they aren't going to score a rich handsome husband - unless of course he is a Caucasian.

Colour discrimination is rampant in the entertainment industry. The only dark-skinned folk you will see acting on trendy Thai soap operas are those playing the parts of under-educated maids or gangsters. This discrimination is also portrayed in Thai movies - 2005's "Yam Yasothon" in particular was a movie that took colour discrimination to new heights. This movie, set in the Northeast, included every stereotype under the sun about Isaan villagers - not just portraying them as "buck-toothed", but also "big-lipped".

Around the same time as this, Bangkok was splattered with billboards advertising the new album for singer Sena Hoi, known for his dark complexion, shown completely in black face with the album's title "Dum Jung" (So Black!).

While this would be seen as completely unacceptable in the West, a lot of the time the locals here see it as simple, harmless fun, and not in the least vindictive. Even folk from the Northeast pile into cinemas and DVD shops to enjoy for themselves the way they are stereotyped in urban society. What is worrying though is that they haven't fully realised that they are the victims of a discrimination that affects their daily lives.

In the eyes of the average urban-educated Thai, northeasterners are often stereotyped as unattractive, lazy, and uneducated with alcoholic tendencies, while indigenous southerners are often viewed as thugs and "jai dum" (heartless). In stark contrast however, northern females are seen as beautiful, simply because of their fair-complexion and soft-spoken regional dialect.

Thai society, parents, the education system, the media and the entertainment business must take much more responsibility in teaching our children that everyone is born equal regardless of sex or colour. And I would certainly advise, particularly with Women's Day having just passed, that the Culture Ministry gets the ball rolling and gets a handle on the fact that this is the 21st century and that the young female generation is not going to tolerate any more blatant sexually discriminatory policies, which the ministry - "Sunthorn Phu-style" - adheres to. Their heartfelt intentions are caring, but trying to crack down in the way they just have is only going to have the opposite effect to the one they desire.

Stephen Cleary The Nation SUPHAN BURI  www.thai-blogs.com