Mufti madness

28 September 2009

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If recent news coverage is to be believed, the propensity for private school students to engage in cyber-bullying, ‘sexting’ and other abominable behaviour is spiralling out of control.

While it is symptomatically easy to scapegoat that which our generation does not understand; Facebook, instant messaging and iPhones, it may be the culture perpetuated by these privileged institutions themselves that can be seen as a root cause for all of this nonsense.

If your child attends any day school in NSW, chances are you have already encountered many of these days of terror. Somewhat aptly, given our prevalent ‘chk chk boom’ standards of ethnic vilification, we call these events Mufti Day.

Descended from sailors by way of their interactions with Oriental traders during 19th century voyages, Mufti Day is meant to signify a day in which the shackles of uniform, school, government or otherwise, are joyously removed in the name of charity.  Today, however, Mufti events are so divorced from donations that the standard gold coin seems almost insignificant.

What is of utmost importance, making or breaking a child’s self-esteem from as early as ten years old, is what exactly they are going to wear. Ugly, uncomfortable and downright mousy as they may be, school uniforms are designed to live up to their title; promoting uniformity. At an age where body image, social status and popularity are intrinsically linked to how expensive one’s jeans are, it makes logical sense to force students to don the same itchy blazer as their peers, for in essence, they all look as dorky as each other.

By lifting the veil of sameness, albeit for a select few days a year, schools not only shatter this illusion of equality, but also intensify the bitchiness, bullying and social maligning most of us only see on reality television.

Students whose parents are well off, have the latest threads and are generally popular find Mufti Day a walk in the park.  But since most children do not fall into this category, they soon find themselves stumbling into the deadly trap of comparison, where name-calling isn’t even required to make them feel hopeless – they simply have to look around at everyone else.

Many students agonise over what they are going to wear on these days, worried that they are not up to date on what is acceptable attire and actually losing sleep over how they will be perceived by their more confident peers.  This is endemic in private schools in particular, where there have been numerous cases of girls not turning up to school on Mufti Days because they  would have “nothing” to wear.

With many private schools having tuition price tags of around $20 000 per year, it’s hardly likely these students are wearing op-shop garments.  But the pressure of having to compete, especially with such a large contingent of peers at such a delicate age, is often too much to bear.

Puberty only makes matters worse.  As boys grow biceps and girls grow breasts, they suddenly start to notice one another; the emphasis on looking good and being desirable to the opposite sex becomes an often unspoken rule of high school Mufti Days.

In the professional sector, grateful to be free of their stiff suits and tie combination, men often come to casual work days looking decidedly ‘unsexy’ in shorts, old t-shirts and running shoes.  Try marketing that to a fifteen-year-old boy, who has figured out just how to pull the tongue out on his box fresh sneakers to show them off and has opted for upmarket tracksuit pants to give off an aura of sophisticated cool. 

God forbid parents buy their kids a look every season; wearing last year’s brand is a mark of social suicide.  I still remember wearing a Mambo ‘Farting Dog’ T-shirt on my first Mufti Day of Year 7, not realising that over summer, the brand had become completely passé.  I never made the same mistake again, but for many children, it can be somewhat inevitable.

If we want to stop kids sniping at each other, monitoring their internet access might be a good start.

However, in challenging the validity of Mufti Days, where bullying thrives completely unaided by technology, parents might begin to see how this simple practise has far more sinister ramifications for a young person’s confidence.

Jonno Seidler is a final-year Media/Communications student at Sydney University.  You can also visit his blog at: http://jonnoseidler.wordpress.com/   This is his first article for upstart.