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A mufti day is enormous fun. But time to give it a new name

Let’s disentangle the prized day of casual clothing from its colonial connotations, writes historian Katie Pickles.

As another school year starts up around the country, getting into uniforms is compulsory for most pupils. It’s only the occasional mufti day that brings the chance to ditch the conformity.

But little do most mufti day organisers and participants know that their prized day of casual clothing is Kiwiana that is menacingly tangled up in the colonial past.

A Mufti is a respected Muslim cleric. Through good times and bad they’ve been about since the early modern Ottoman Empire. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abubakr Ahmad is the Indian Islamic community’s current most senior religious authority. Mufti interpret Islamic law and then issue fatwa (legal opinion).

So what’s the connection between Muslim authority figures and out of uniform school children?

Once upon a colonial time during the Raj in India, off-duty British military leaders adopted a subjugated culture’s ceremonial clothing as their informal attire.

It appears that officers started dressing in robes and slippers that they slightly mockingly thought resembled garments worn by Mufti. This happened at a time when, with the objective of rendering them obsolete and powerless, the authority of Mufti in India was being extinguished.

From there, the British Army started using the word “mufti” for their days out of uniform when they wore loose and comfortable clothing (including dressing gowns). One culture’s power dressing was another’s play clothes.

We can now interpret the development of mufti as a classic example of cultural appropriation and othering during the height of British imperialism. Entitled officers adopted Mufti outfits at the same time as they implemented colonial rule. It was postcolonial scholar Edward Said’s orientalism in action; part of the West’s patronising representations of the East.

Mufti as a colonial term was then released around the British Empire by the military. It referred to a variety of situations and outfits when soldiers dressed in informal clothes. Unsurprisingly, police also adopted the term.

Next mufti spread to the schools. It took root in educational institutions that were often quick to employ militaristic language and activities. School military drilling and training provided the perfect platform to launch mufti. In 1906 it was recorded in Whanganui that three cadet corps from the District High School would attend a funeral in mufti. Out of mufti’s connection to cadets’ uniforms grew a wider meaning that included all school non-uniform wearing.

A further development came in associating mufti with special and festive school days. For example, in 1930 Auckland Grammar School old boys lined up for a sports day sprint in mufti. It was the precursor to fancy dressing up for mufti day fundraisers, a theme that continues to the present day. The spirit of the Raj’s adopting “oriental” clothing lives on in adapted form.

The appearance of mufti in schools also remained closely connected to the military. And the word was on people’s minds during wartime. There is evidence of the widespread use of mufti during both world wars. True to the origins of the term’s appropriation, off-duty military wore mufti. Returned soldiers received a mufti allowance so that they could resume wearing civilian attire. Interwar ANZAC Day events involved parading in “mufti with medals”. And mufti was used as slang for all manner of informal dress.

In the post-World War II years mufti persisted beyond its military stronghold. Its school appearance was likely kept afloat and reinvented first by a generation of teachers who were ex-service people, and then by those who had taken compulsory military training.

By the end of the 20th century, along with other Kiwiana such as Belgian biscuits and Swanndris, mufti was a relic of the colonial past. It was an invented tradition developed in a past time steeped in Anglo-Celtic dominance and patriotic Britishness.

Yet mufti managed to soldier on devoid of its origin narrative. Even as New Zealand became more multicultural the term continued in popular usage. Indeed it flourished, as new life was breathed into mufti days that raised funds for all manner of good causes.

If Muslim citizens thought it strange that school non-uniform days were called a Muslim cleric, their voices went unheard.

And then the horrific events of 15 March 2019. There was a spirit of “they are us”, and calls to value cultural diversity and inclusion. In the aftermath schools held mufti days to raise funds for Muslim victims of the Christchurch shootings.

It was a moment when the menace of the colonial past collided with a well-intentioned present. In stark ironic relief, mufti days inadvertently added insult to death and injury. They were caught up perpetuating the very cultural appropriation that they intended to challenge.

It’s time to decolonise mufti days. Let’s simply call them what they are: non-uniform days. Mufti has had its day. It’s time to call time and shed the menace.


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