• I started wearing the hijab in high school and when I hit the senior years, decided to wear the school skirt. (Getty Images )
Despite the assurances of experts on Q&A, uniforms are not the great equaliser we think they are.
Maryam Azam

25 Sep 2019 - 7:54 AM  UPDATED 9 Oct 2019 - 5:36 PM

I had been wearing brown ballet flats with white socks to Sydney Girls for a couple of days when the year advisor, Ms Peters*, pulled me into an empty classroom one lunchtime. She had been on her way out of the English staffroom when I walked past, the corridors clear but for the stray student.

“Where are your school shoes?” She leaned in close in her motherly manner, her forehead lost in a very deep and very wide V-shaped furrow. She knew I wouldn’t flout uniform policy without a good reason. We sat at a vacant desk, the faint sound of traffic drifting in through the window. I explained that I’d discovered my school shoes were lined with pig leather. Someone told me that there was such a thing as pig leather and I had looked it up. Apparently you could tell the leather was made from pig because it has a pattern of three dots grouped together. That pattern lined my school shoes. I checked the stamp inside: ‘lining – leather’. I cried when I told her that I had eight months’ worth of prayers not accepted. That was five prayers a day for 240 days; 1200 prayers not accepted because I hadn’t known to complete the purification ritual after coming into contact with a pig product.

Ms Peters sighed sympathetically, placed a hand on my shoulder, and told me I could wear the ballet flats until I found suitable brown school shoes. She then went on to tell me about her cousin who was married to a Muslim and how they were raising their child with the rites of both Christianity and Islam, so that the child could make their own choice one day. I wasn’t sure why she told me that. I didn’t find it at all comforting or related to our discussion. But I was relieved that I was allowed to wear the ballet flats in the meantime, and I would go on to wear them until the end of year 12.

There needs to be a range of options to cater for the needs of our diverse school communities

As it turns out, most school shoes made with real leather are lined with pig leather. This wouldn’t have been such an issue, there are plenty of synthetic leather shoes on the market, except for the fact that my school required brown school shoes. At the time, I had heard there were only two schools in all of Sydney which required brown school shoes as part of the uniform. Chances are you’ve never had to hunt for a pair. Let me tell you that they are extremely difficult to find. Target won’t have them. Payless didn’t have them. Mum and I had trudged all over Blacktown Westpoint before we found a pair from Williams that came in only one design and which I eventually discovered was lined with pig leather. The brown ballet flats from Rubi were the closest thing I could find that was halal for me to wear.

It’s been years since I’ve had to worry about the lining of shoes but the anxiety of that time all came rushing back when I watched the recent school special episode of Q&A. Someone asked the panel: “Despite wearing a uniform to look presentable, why is wearing a uniform so imperative to how students learn in schools? How does a uniform affect the actual learning of students?”

Overwhelmingly, the panellists, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, NSW Senator Kristina Keneally and four high school students spoke favourably of the uniform – about how it shows pride in your school, is cheaper than keeping up with fashion, makes it easy to get dressed in the morning and is the great equaliser of all students. Coming through those school gates, dressed all the same, made us all the same. Our differences in class, wealth and cultural background fell away like crumbs when you stand up thanks to the school uniform. Clearly, none of the panellists had the experience that I did. For the duration of my schooling career in Sydney, uniforms were nothing but a source of stress for me.

The reason for this is that schools take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to an increasingly diverse school community. Being of Muslim background, the short school culottes were no longer acceptable for me to wear as I reached the upper primary grades. My parents bought me a bigger size so that they were knee-length. I stood out in my baggy, extra-long shorts in front of the other girls in shorts that were actually short. In fact, to my great embarrassment, they had asked me about it. “Why are your shorts so long?” They were genuinely confused, and I felt my face burn when I had to explain that I had to dress modestly for religious reasons.

 I felt my face burn when I had to explain that I had to dress modestly for religious reasons.

I started wearing the hijab in high school and when I hit the senior years, decided to wear the school skirt. I knew I was on the fringes of what was acceptable from an Islamic point of view, given that we’re not supposed to display the shape of our legs, and I regularly felt the twang of guilt. But I wore stockings and my school skirt was longer than most, just grazing below my knees. Even though I didn’t roll up my skirt to make it shorter like the other girls, I appreciated being able to fit in with the rest of the school population.

I wore the skirt until one day, exhausted, I decided to take a taxi home from the train station. I slid into the back seat, my skirt catching under myself and riding up slightly. Once buckled in I pulled my skirt down only to have the taxi driver comment that what I was wearing was not appropriate for a Muslim girl. Obviously he noticed my hijab. Humiliated, I didn’t say anything, but I rued the $10 I paid him, and I cried when I got home.

After that, I wore the school pants. Hardly anyone wore them because they were daggy with their wide-legged slacks that made a curvy adolescent body look like a whale. But at least I could live without the guilt of going against my religion and without the fear of another reprimand from my community. Did I feel equal to everyone who could wear the uniform without guilt or modification? Did I feel included? Not when I was in Year 11, in the school pants, reading a noticeboard outside the Languages staffroom and a couple of junior girls in tunics (they looked like Year 8s) asked if I was lost. “Actually, I’m in Year 11,” I replied in a voice as strong and standoffish as I could muster, to mask the embarrassment I felt.

Outside of school, I enjoyed experimenting with clothes to meet my dress requirements. A t-shirt with tights and a mini skirt was a look I had fun with. If I could have worn my own clothes to school, it would have made a huge difference to the quality of my experience. ‘Mufti Days’, or ‘Civi Days’ as my school called them, were something I looked forward to every term. It was a chance to show everyone that I could look good in clothes too. For once, I felt comfortable in my own skin at school. I believe that not wearing the school skirt limited my opportunities. I had aspired to the school leadership team, but year after year I noticed that none of the team wore school pants. They’d march onto the school stage at the beginning of assemblies, covered in blazers and badges and all wearing skirts. The skirt was the official uniform, not the pants. I didn’t apply to be a Prefect because I knew I wouldn’t be able to represent the school in the official uniform.

Years later, I returned to my old high school for a six week block of teaching prac. I was ecstatic to hear that there were several new uniform pants designs in the works. If uniform is to be truly equalising, there needs to be a range of options to cater for the needs of our diverse school communities and we need to ensure that we don’t disadvantage some students by designating a particular type of uniform the ‘official’ one.

*Name changed for privacy reasons

Maryam Azam is the author of The Hijab Files

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.

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