The Women of the Karen

Many tribal communities migrated to Thailand from China and Tibet at during different periods of time but remain closed communities, adhering to their own cultural practices. They have been granted asylum and are supported by the government with land and other basic needs. Theirs is a turbulent history, struggling with settlement  and relocation issues. Initially many of these tribes were involved in opium farming but when a stop was put to that, they have had to turn to other cash crops. The younger generation speaks Thai, but the village elders still speak their own native tongue, making it even more difficult to integrate. The settlements they live in are always temporary, so they move every three years or so. Through the help of non-government and government organizations they have developed other livelihood skills, particularly handicrafts. 

Of all the tribes I had the privilege of visiting, the images of the Karen tribe will haunt me the most. Hidden up in the mountains of norther Thailand, the Karen are one of the most socially isolated of the indigenous tribes. There are peculiarities to this community that sets them apart from the rest, in a very negative sense. First of all, they are all illiterate. On purpose. The elders have forbidden the community members to make any attempt to integrate into mainstream society, and that means keeping away from schools Whatever work the men have, they are confined to farming in equally isolated areas. All Karen marriages are arranged, and the girls are married off at the age of 14 or 15. What I assumed were older children taking care of the younger siblings turned out to be the young married women!

Visiting the Karen is a photographer’s dream come true. However, there are ethical issues to be considered here. Whether we wanted to or not, we ended up purchasing a couple of hand-women scarves from them in order to approach them, take a look at the extremely simple weaving technology, and eventually ask if you could take their picture. Yes, you certainly run the risk of treating them like a human zoo of sorts, but on the other hand, if they were not comfortable with tourists and cameras, they wouldn’t allow them to enter the village in the first place. The guide kept reassuring us that it was alright to take their pictures, but at some point you can’t buy a shawl from everyone, and unlike the Akha and Yao who offer much more variety in their handicrafts, the Karen shawls don’t vary much and they only have the shawls to offer. 

The brass neck coil is a difficult thing to look at, but even more difficult to understand. A Karen girl will get her neck coil at the age of five, and will start small. The coil is changed every three years and the length increases, as does the weight. I had the chance to hold a neck coil for and adult and was shocked at the weight. There was at least 10-15kg in my hands! What the coil does is that it pushes the shoulder blades down and keeps the neck extended all the time, giving the woman a long-necked appearance. They do not remove the coil at any time for any reason whatsoever, except when it will be exchanged for a new one. Legend has it that in the past this was the tribe’s way of protecting the women from tiger attacks.