TEL AVIV — Three months after my friend Tamy’s husband died from melonoma at age 45, she donated her long hair so that a young cancer patient could wear it in a new wig. I decided to do the same.
The Zichron Menachem foundation, a cancer charity for children and their families, agreed to my unusual request to follow my donated locks to their eventual recipient.
The journey begins with Deborah Paryenty, a hairdresser and volunteer wigmaker for Zichron Menachem, who looks at my braid and begins searching in a box by her feet for others that might match. When they lay together on the table, she caresses them distractedly. Later, she will take them home, wash them carefully and put them in an oven, so the braids can dry slowly.
Our next meeting, a few weeks later, is at her workplace in Jerusalem. Anyone who has ever done delicate work with an industrial sewing machine would be amazed by what she can accomplish in three or four hours. She cuts black interfacing textile — very thin with the consistency of paper — into 1.5-centimeter-long stripes, folds them in half, inserts the strands of hair she has chosen and lays them gently under the sewing machine until it becomes a “tressing,” a kind of chain of real hair.
“Girls who have lost their hair always want the hair they had before,” she says, “so that people won’t notice that something has changed. That’s why I ask to see old photos of the girls.”
Amir Eliyahu, a well-known hairdresser in Tel Aviv, was the one who did the honors when it was time to get out the scissors. He braided my hair and began cutting it very slowly so the photographer could photograph it. When he finished the last cut, I heard clapping around me. This actually bothered me, and there is something very intimate and personal about this process.
From donor to patient
A few weeks ago Esty Schwartz, who is responsible for the foundation’s hair donation and wigs, called me and told me about a 14-year-old girl named Gal Yogev, whose hair was like mine before she lost it. In March 2013, Yogev was diagnosed with sarcoma and has been treated ever since.
In anticipation for our meeting at the hospital, I put on a robe, gloves and a mask and went into the isolation room. Gal was sitting on the bed looking quite pale and very embarrassed.
There is something not terribly inviting about a wig on a Styrofoam head that is wrapped with cellophane paper and a pink ribbon. Yes, it’s a gift with meaning, but it also underlines an absence. As I give her the wig, she very quietly says thank you and puts it on the other side of the bed.
And this is the moment when my narrative takes an unexpected turn. Because Gal doesn’t want a wig. She is comfortable with her baldness.
“If somebody stares, I stare back,” she says.
Her mother Jacky explains that her daughter feels “no need” to hide it. “At the beginning, she wore a bandana, but after a while she stopped. She likes it like that.”
Gal says she agreed to go through with the process because she wants people to donate their hair. “I wanted to raise awareness, because there are many girls whose baldness disturbs them very much.”
Jacky says that for her and her daughter the real difficulties don’t include Gal’s lack of hair. “The difficulties are the low blood counts, the sensitivity to heat, infections. These are things that are much more complicated to deal with than the treatment itself and the hair loss.”
When I ask Gal what she plans to do with the wig, she smiles and says, “I will keep it as a souvenir.”
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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