School renames mufti day 'be yourself day' after students worry it's culturally insensitive

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 28 Mar 2021, 11:26AM
(Photo / Getty)
(Photo / Getty)

School renames mufti day 'be yourself day' after students worry it's culturally insensitive

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 28 Mar 2021, 11:26AM

An Upper Hutt secondary school has renamed its no uniform "mufti" day "be yourself day" after concerns the colloquial use of the Arabic word was culturally insensitive.

Heretaunga College held its first "be yourself day" last Tuesday after months of research and deliberation over the cultural connotations of the term "mufti", which it decided may be offensive to some students and staff.

Although there were no official complaints over the term mufti, assistant principal Matthew Lambert said the school's head girl last year questioned its suitability after hearing "murmurings" other schools may be ditching it.

Lambert then asked three head students to research the origins of the term and provide a summary to the school principals and executive group - who then voted to abandon the name.

"They came back with some pretty interesting things. Some links with Islam and things like that, definitions of the word from back in the past and obviously what it means now as well as their own summary of the whole scenario," Lambert said.

"No one has actually come forward who has taken offence to it and it's more again about using empathy across the board to make sure it doesn't happen. Knowledge is power so the more our students know about other cultures and whatnot the better.

"We have told students and staff the why behind it and people are pretty understanding. Then it's an easy change, it's no skin off anyone else's nose, nothing else changes."

Lambert said the school's executive group was also aware of a Spinoff article from February last year by University of Canterbury historian Katie Pickles, which detailed mufti day's colonial origin and called for its removal.

Pickles described how off-duty British military leaders in India in the 19th Century would adopt the clothing of local Muslim clerics - Muftis - as their informal attire in a "slightly mocking" fashion.

This then led to the British Army using the word mufti for their days out of uniform wearing comfortable clothing - which eventually infiltrated the British school system.

Although Heretaunga's decision to rename mufti day was made last year, there was no real opportunity to introduce "be yourself day" while students were relegated to home learning by Covid-19.

This meant Heretaunga College's head students for 2021 were tasked with the education and promotional campaign for "be yourself day" in the classroom and on social media.

A post on the school Instagram page in October 2020 announced no uniform day was "previously known as mufti day".

A poster promoting "be yourself day" was also created for last week and placed around the school and on social media.

Heretaunga College head boy Cameron Prince admitted there has been some derision towards the name change, but the response has largely been positive.

"A lot of people don't understand the history behind the term so there has been a bit of negative feedback towards it but I have heard a lot of positive feedback in saying that - that it was a good move for the school," Prince said.

"That's been quite a headache to deal with.

"It's just a matter of getting used to the idea of change I guess."

Prince and Lambert assured there had been no punishment for students who had used the term mufti this school year, but they were reminding them of the change.

"A member of the leadership team used it advertising house sports. They said 'please remember to wear mufti clothes with your house colours'. So I sent them a message and said 'hey look we're trying to go away from this, is there any chance just with further posts could you avoid using this term? Cheers' and it went pretty well.

Lambert said the "be yourself day" concept had been creatively embraced by staff and students, leading to some more extravagant outfits than previous mufti days.

"Giving it the 'be yourself day' label meant that a few people would have wanted to express themselves even more with what they were wearing, staff too. For example one of our staff is heavily into his spear fishing and free diving so he was wearing some of his spear fishing gear with suit bottoms on and a towelling poncho over the top.

"We 're not suggesting people can't be themselves every other day but quite clearly from knees up they have to wear what we tell them."

Participating in no uniform days twice a term at Heretaunga had always required $2 from students, half of which goes to charity. Last week's no uniform day will contribute $500 to the Te Pa Manawa Shelter Britannia House in Petone.

Lambert also pointed out the name change fitted nicely with the school's decision to alter one of Heretaunga College's mottos from "excellence" to "empathy".

"We call them our pride values which are participation, respect, integrity, determination and empathy," Lambert said.

"So it fits in really nicely with our empathy pride value, putting ourselves in the shoes of others sort of thing."

Accusations of culturally insensitive over a mufti day were also raised in 2018 when Middleton Grange School in Christchurch invited students to "dress as refugees" to experience "a little bit of what it feels like to be poor".

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy labelled the theme, which donated to World Vision, "well intentioned but ignorant".

text by Georgina Campbell and Tom Dillane, NZ Herald