Hong Kong HC denies teen's request for legal assistance to contest school's long hair policy

China: Oscar Wong Wing-hei, a 17-year-old secondary student, was given the option of cutting off his ponytail or being sent to the sick bay when he disobeyed the school's hair policy. He decided to maintain his long hair.

The Form Four student was thus prohibited from entering classrooms, participating in physical education classes, and hanging out with his friends at Tin Shui Wai Methodist College from April to June of last year.

Instead, he was confined to the school's sick room, where he used a tablet computer to virtually attend most classes. "I was in distress. When I went to the bathroom was the only time I got to see my classmates, he claimed.

Oscar, who has autism spectrum disorder, said the punishment further weakened his social skills despite the fact that he was permitted back to class in July of last year while still wearing his ponytail.

He is one of two students from Hong Kong who are known to have complained to the city's equality watchdog about the sexism in their schools' hair policies for boys.  Like many other schools in Hong Kong, both of them enforce the rule that boys' hair should not extend past their eyebrows or the top of their shirt collar.

Oscar asked his father to apply for legal aid on his behalf to file a civil lawsuit against the school after filing a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in May of last year, but their application was denied.

In a hearing held behind closed doors on Friday, the High Court rejected their appeal.

The judge stated that legal aid initiatives should not duplicate potential legal action by the EOC, which was still conducting its investigation, Oscar told the Post outside of court. In the other case, Form Five student Nathan Lam Chak-chun, 16, filed a complaint with the EOC last month against Kowloon Tong's Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Wong Fut Nam College.

Nathan, who prefers to be addressed as "she" or "her," and who claims to have gender dysphoria (a mismatch between the sex assigned at birth and gender), expressed her displeasure with the school policy in an Instagram video post in the middle of July.

 

The school's prohibition on long hair for male students, according to Nathan, is "unreasonable and out of date" and goes against the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. She was required to get her hair cut by the school and was now hoping to get the rule changed.

In three weeks, the post received 680,000 views, and as of Friday, 50 civil rights organisations had joined to support her complaint.

According to an agreement made by the EOC, Nathan was scheduled to meet with school representatives for the first mediation on Wednesday, but the principal cancelled it because more legal counsel was required.

Both students claimed that former opposition lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who filed a lawsuit against the prison administration for shaving his shoulder-length hair when he was imprisoned in 2014, served as inspiration for their actions.

After a six-year legal battle, the city's highest court decided in 2020 that enforcing different hair standards for male and female inmates constituted sexism.

Oscar argued that the school's rule was illogical because it assumed that if boys kept their hair short, a better ethos would be developed. He claimed that by ignoring the need for students to build their self-confidence through their choice of hairstyle, such stereotyping did more harm than good.

In a written submission to the EOC that The Post was able to obtain, Oscar's school stated that there were no plans to "casually change" the code before the investigation's findings were made public.

It claimed that due to Oscar's infraction, it was challenging to teach students to uphold the campus code of conduct, and that the additional paperwork associated with his complaint had "piled pressure" on teachers.

"The ban on male students' hairstyles serves no purpose but good, and it won't significantly interfere with their daily activities, personal hygiene, or health. It helps the school develop a positive school culture and satisfies public expectations for the representation of male students, it said.

When the Post contacted the school, it stated that it had nothing further to say and that it wanted to "avoid impairing the work of the EOC."

The equality watchdog would not discuss specific cases, according to a spokesman, who also noted that each complaint took an average of 100 days to be resolved. Liam Mak Wai-hon, the president of Quark, a support group for transgender youths, who is 21 years old, was one of those who backed the students' protest against the hair rule for boys. He claimed that Oscar's punishment was indicative of the homophobic and traditional culture present in some Hong Kong schools.

Only one of the roughly 20 youths who sought Quark's assistance regarding their schools' dress codes, according to Mak, was successful in convincing a school to permit the student to come in sportswear rather than a dress. Mak, a trans man, admitted to having gender dysphoria as a child and feeling upset when forced to wear dresses and maintain long hair.

He convinced his school, CCC Chuen Yuen College, to let him wear trousers when he was in Form Four. The Family Planning Association of Hong Kong surveyed 8,343 students last year, and the results showed that 4% of females and 2% of males believed their birth gender did not accurately reflect their experiences with gender.

According to Diana Kwok Kan, a gender studies expert at Education University, sexual prejudices in local schools are frequently linked to the religious affiliation of the organisations that sponsor the schools and those who provide their social services.

She claimed that some Christian organisations had taken the lead in fighting against legislation protecting students from discrimination.

On Friday, Oscar vowed to continue his legal battle to have the rule at his school changed.

He stated that if the EOC findings were unfavourable, he would be consulting attorneys and filing a lawsuit on his own behalf once he turned 18 in March.

Perhaps there isn't such a thing as complete equality, his father said to him as they were departing.

"Breaking gender stereotypes takes time," Oscar retorted.

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