One of the things I enjoy most about walking to Parliament is looking at the various forms of fashion that are used to represent activism. One regular (protester) wears a full suit with shoes depicting cannabis, another wears a traditional dress for her eastern countrymen, one wears flags, and another a hat with the ocean and a fishing net on it.
Coming from Taranaki I was raised around the strength of activism by fashion. Often it was in how our kuia wore a fusion of colonisation and traditional dress and in the form of wearing a raukura (the white feathers of Parihaka). This one small tohu (symbol) has huge significance — it demonstrates resilience, dignity and the absolute belief to live a future of positive potential and peace.
When my co-leader Rawiri Waititi and I wore hats to our swearing-in at Parliament it caused somewhat of a furore. Most of the feedback from the public was positive, but it did draw some confused criticisms. My decision to wear a top hat drew on the example of my kuia who would wear top hats and drew on the best of colonial fashion, while remaining true to their culture and whakapapa.
As much as wearing something is a form of activism, so is choosing not to wear it.
This week Rawiri chose not to wear a tie in the debating chamber, as it represents a colonial noose, a symbol of Pākehā power and privilege. The Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, kicked him out as he said it didn't meet the standards of business attire, despite allowing an MP from another culture to wear their cultural adornment instead of a tie. Being told to leave the House because of his choice to wear hei-tiki as cultural business attire is absurd. His hei-tiki is his tie of choice. It ties him to his tūpuna, whenua, and people.
In support I chose to wear a tie to show how ridiculous it is that a male MP must wear one, while a female MP can wear whatever she likes, including a tie. It's time that we worked to undermine the expectations that everyone should dress the same way, and fit within the same narrow box.
How we dress can be one of the most powerful symbols of who we are and it displays our cultural identity. Our fashion choices represent our agency and show that we aren't bound by Pākehā norms. What is considered legitimate 'business attire' in Aotearoa is a political statement. For tangata whenua our clothing can convey a lot about who we are, we're from, and the kaupapa and people we uphold.
Wearing something that doesn't align with your values and the culture you represent undermines who you are as a person.
We aren't asking for anything that any other culture hasn't been afforded. We are simply asking to be recognised for who we are.
Just yesterday Trevor Mallard went back on his ruling and chose to allow Rawiri to ask a question during Question Time, despite his earlier ruling. This development is promising and suggests that Rawiri has been successful in his fashion by activism, affirming his right to dress as Māori.
We have made it known that this party will not be subjugated nor assimilated to outdated colonial rules or by Pākehā symbols of power.
As a Māori I will fight for our rights in every forum, in every debate, and in every fashion statement. As a wahine I will wear what I want.
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is co-leader of the Māori Party.