‘Long Hair’ strikes blow for equality behind bars
Legislator Leung Kwok-hung is no stranger to jail, yet he has won an important victory in his fight for gender equality in prisons
Legislator Leung Kwok-hung, better known as “Long Hair”, has fought many legals battles over the years dealing with issues such as public order, covert surveillance and the right to vote. The latest case to be decided by the courts might, in the light of such weighty issues, seem rather trivial. At issue was the question of whether Leung should be permitted to keep his treasured locks when in prison. Rules applied by the Correctional Services Department require all male prisoners to have their hair cut short. In the past, this has meant “Long Hair” becoming “Short Hair” when his actions have landed him behind bars.
No doubt, the severe haircut constitutes more of a punishment for Leung than other prisoners, given the iconic status of his long hair. But the issue before the court was much broader – and more significant. While male prisoners must have their hair cut, female inmates are given a choice. It is a clear case of gender discrimination. And that cannot be tolerated. That is why the judge ruled in favour of Leung. The practice of treating men and women prisoners differently, so far as their hair is concerned, breaches sex discrimination laws.
The government sought to justify the practice on grounds of health and security. Men, it was argued, are more likely to be violent, unhygienic and willing to hide forbidden items in their hair. The judge rightly rejected the argument, describing such suggestions as stereotypical. The case serves as a reminder that men and women must be treated equally and the courts will not accept tenuous reasons for discrimination.
Leung pointed out, after winning the case, that many of Hong Kong’s laws are outdated and need to be brought in line with anti-discrimination legislation. Our city’s laws should be reviewed to ensure they meet modern legal requirements. Prison authorities are considering how best to implement the judgement. Equal treatment might mean women prisoners must also have a hair cut. In the meantime, Leung might consider that the best way to keep his famous hair is to abide by the law and not end up in jail.