Skirting around the skirt issue
It wasn’t going to be a protest. “More a demonstration of support for a cause,” says Galadriel Forrest. “A visual petition.”
A visual petition, she says, about skirts versus pants, of human rights, the right to choose and cold knees.
Fifteen-year-old Galadriel is a student at Tauranga Girls’ College - an all-girls school of 1349 pupils and in the dead of winter, potentially 2698 cold knees. Because TGC’s tradition is steeped in skirts – has been since 1958 when it was founded. That’s 60 years of skirts; 60 years of no pants.
Galadriel and a friend Shae Northfield have become champions for change at TGC. Not champions for one or other, not pants or skirts, but having the option. And they have been lobbying, emailing, petitioning and campaigning.
Shae took one bold step further. “I wore pants to school the other day because I was cold. When a teacher asked me why, I asked her why she was wearing pants” The girls decided to ramp things up – they organised ‘an event’, a protest by another name.
“An event to show the depth of feeling,” says Shae. “We wanted lots and lots of girls to come to school today wearing the kind of pants they want to wear to school, that they want to be part of the uniform.” Not a protest, they insist, but a demonstration of feeling.
That depth of feeling was evident recently. “At mufti day,” says Galadriel. “I only saw about three girls in skirts all day. About 1400 girls at school and just three girls in skirts because that’s not what girls want to wear these days.”
Galadriel’s mother, Kazel Cass, says she first raised the issue with the college early this year, then again last week. “I asked the school specifically if Galadriel could wear trousers. They didn’t say no, she can’t. We call it being fobbed off.”
Then earlier this week, a breakthrough. “I took the pants uniform option to the board and asked for it to be explored,” says principal, Tara Kanji. “Uniform is board policy and takes some time to change. But the board has given me that approval.”
So Galadriel and Shae were told there was no need to wear pants as a part of a protest and that everyone should turn up to school in correct uniform.
And if Galadriel and Shae wanted to participate in change, they were invited to join the student board representative this week at the beginning of a student consultation process over uniform options.
However, for Galadriel and Shae, it was too little and not soon enough.
“We want change this year, not next year,” says Galadriel. “So it’s valid to apply pressure to bring about change sooner.” Galadriel and Shae encouraged everyone to attend the consultation to press for pants now, not next winter. And on their ‘wear pants to school day’, the girls intended to present their petitions to the school.
“I think they are keen for me to hear their voice and realise I am open to change,” says Tara “And I am really keen to support what might be an alternative to skirts and tights.”
“But I think some students don’t really understand or appreciate all the stuff that has to go on behind the scenes first.” The school is dealing with two contracted uniform suppliers who have to be consulted over what’s achievable and when. “Some student are demanding change and demanding change now. But considering winter is upon us and how long it takes to get uniform stock for the following year….it all takes some time.
Fifteen-year-old Shae has three skirts in her wardrobe – none by choice – two for uniform and one for netball. So if she’s not at school then she’s not in skirts. “They are inconvenient and uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable to wear, uncomfortable that I’m made to wear them.”
“Hate skirts,” says Galadriel. “I haven’t chosen to wear skirts since I was four or five.” Her personal out-of-school uniform of choice is jeans.
Galadriel first railed against skirts when shopping for a school uniform. “She spoke of her embarrassment, her shame,” says Kazel, “How it didn’t feel right. She just hated having to do it.”
And behaviours changed. “Once upon a time Galadriel would cartwheel and do handstands without a care – that completely stopped, so her body confidence went downhill. It was sad to watch.”
And skirts are annoying it seems. “For decency and modesty sake you have to wear something under them, otherwise everyone can see your underwear.” And when she first went to TGC, Galadriel discovered she had to tuck her skirt beneath her. “Weird. I had never had to do that. So they even change the way you sit down.”
There are other big issues for the school to consider – like affordability. “If you introduce a uniform change without first considering who can and can’t afford it, then you can create a greater inequity than that around the fairness of the new option,” says Tara.
“We need to make sure parents have time to be in a position to afford it, rather than be under pressure – you know, the daughter’s friends have got it so why can’t we.”
“We don’t want to embarrass the school; we’re trying to do everything right” says Kazel. And their campaign, they say, is a celebration of young women pushing an agenda and using their initiative. And after all, they say, this a college that promotes ‘empowering tomorrow’s women’.
“There’s a social studies unit standard that says something about participating in a civil protest,” says Kazel. “So we told the girls their show of feeling would just be them doing their homework.”
There has also been a student petition. It states: “In 2018 we are still being limited to a choice of uniform that conforms to an age old stereotype that encourages no choice, or freedom of expression regards our gender, and our right to embrace or dismiss these ideals. As a school that appears to promote pro-feminist ideology, we think that Tauranga Girls’ should permit pants as part of our school attire.”
But pants are coming, and it’s just a matter of when. “This winter? I don’t know,” says the principal. “It might be towards the end of winter that students have the opportunity to enjoy pants for the short time before summer kicks in.”
Kazel Cass says it’s about 10 years too late and change doesn’t need to wait “It doesn’t have to be a one or two-year process – the girls are getting sick right now.” There are winter uniforms options now but Kazel says most women know going out in winter wearing just woolen tights isn’t adequate.
So what about students having the opportunity to wear warm pants of their choosing while the uniform option is explored. “We want a uniform that’s in standard with the uniform we already have,” says Tara. “So just having something in the meantime is not really a suitable alternative.”
Kazel uses the firepower of the Post Primary Teachers Union to back their argument. It too has called for change – the PPTA’s latest voluntary guidelines call for gender-neutral uniforms to be introduced into schools.
“We go to an all-girls school,” says Shae. “We shouldn’t have to wear skirts to identify us as females, we don’t need skirts to remind us what gender we are.”
Then again some of the girls think skirts “are cute and like them.”
“We think it’s okay for girls who want to wear skirts to wear them,” says Shae. “We are not against skirts, we just prefer not to wear them ourselves; we want the choice.”