No tie-ing down

After row over tie-wearing, New Zealand Parliament has changed the rule. Stuffed shirts must follow suit.

The first problem with uniforms is, tautologically, that they enforce uniformity. Sometimes, they erase differences for the good — say, markers of inequality among school students. But often, they serve to reinforce hierarchies. So, when a member of New Zealand’s Parliament was ejected from the House for not wearing a tie, which he called “a colonial noose”, there was more to the act than either enforcing a formal dress code or simply following the rules.

It’s not as though Rawiri Waititi, a member of the Maori Party, did not give the legislature the respect it deserves: He was formally dressed and wearing a traditional Maori pendant called hei-tiki. Waititi’s point is simple. The history of New Zealand, which has echoes in almost every formerly colonised country, is one where traditional beliefs and symbols were devalued and, to succeed, indigenous people had to assimilate and adopt European upper- and middle-class mores. The fact that Speaker Trevor Mallard, who ejected Waititi, said he did not agree with the rule but was merely following it, isn’t a good enough excuse. After all, given the rule was changed within a day of the global outcry against the MP’s ejection, it was clearly not crucial to legislative functioning.

The fact is that while European political power in the colonies has long since waned, the colonisation of the mind continues. There are “power suits” but no “power dhotis” and even now, exclusive clubs will insist that people wear a “colonial noose” around their necks, or dress like a brown sahib, before entering and engaging in such high-minded pursuits as drinking a gin and tonic or playing an oh-so-exciting game of bridge. Now, at last, New Zealand’s Parliament is free from the chokehold of an ill-designed scarf. Stuffed shirts around the world should loosen up, and follow suit.

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