Activism through fashion

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A photograph of a protester wearing a keffiyeh and speaking into a megaphone while walking in a group.
Styling in support of Palestine. lee lim

The evolution of the Keffiyeh

Believe it or not, fashion is not just about looking stylish or being practical. It can also be at the centre of a socio-political movement.  

Advocacy can be signalled by a single article of clothing, worn to aid in the expression of resistance against the oppression of a group. Take the Keffiyeh as an example; there is a rich history behind this scarf that continues to be upheld and revolutionized by its wearers.  

It varies from culture to culture, but in some, the scarf started as a symbol for classifying one’s prestigious status, such as for priests, and then trickled to the general public. The Keffiyeh, also known as shemagh or hatta, has been a staple in Arab countries for practical reasons, especially for people who work outdoors like farmers and fishermen.  

The scarf was used as a head covering to protect them from the sun, rain, and sand. Anzal Omar, a Somali student in Social Work said, “It is mostly worn by Middle Eastern men.” Omar added, “Where I come from, men in my family wore it especially for prayers.”  

Apart from being known as a headdress, there are different ways of wearing the scarf. One can fold it into a triangle and don it on the shoulders or wrap it around the forehead. It can also simply be worn as a neck scarf with the tassels hanging on two sides, or you can have the scarf wrap both the neck and the face. For Omar, she said, “I usually wrap it twice on my head or sometimes just drape it on my shoulder on normal occasions.”  

A high quality Keffiyeh is made out of cotton fabric that is fed through an embroidery machine, then cut into the standard square metre that tassels can be sewn onto. Its patterns are significant to Palestinian cultural identity and a reminder of their way of life. The net-like pattern symbolizes the Mediterranean sea, the curvy design represents the olive trees, and the bold stripes are the trade routes.  

Omar elaborated, “It says much about their identities, like how they fish and trade. Now, we wear it because their identities are being taken away from them. They cannot even fish, nothing is coming in from the trade lines, and they are starving. We are holding on to their last piece of identity.” 

To understand the Keffiyeh’s importance to Palestine, we should know its political history and why it is strongly tied to the representation of Palestinian resistance to colonial powers. During the time of the Arab revolt against the British mandate, Palestinian rebels used the Keffiyeh to hide their identities.  

This resulted in the banning of the Keffiyeh. However, Palestinians showed their support and started wearing the scarf to make it harder for the authorities to identify the rebels. The Keffiyeh’s usage continues to evolve and, these days, wearing the Keffiyeh has been an unspoken symbol for solidarity with the Palestinian people.  

According to Omar, “Right now, the whole meaning of it has changed, it is more about showing strength and showing what you believe in. Showing up for Palestine. For me, if I see someone wearing the Keffiyeh, it shows which side they stand in. Whereas before, it was a part of the fashion in different cultures.”  

Of course, fashion houses did not miss their chance to monetize the scarf.  

Topshop was under fire for categorizing the Keffiyeh as “festival-wear,” while transforming the scarf by taking its pattern and making it into a romper. Louis Vuitton received similar heat when they decided to put their own $705 Keffiyeh-inspired scarf into the market.  

Marketing and profiting off the suffering of Palestinian people has led to criticism of popular clothing brands for their appropriation of the Keffiyeh and silence over the years of oppression that the Palestinian people continue to face.  

This raises the question of who gets to wear the Keffiyeh? And how do you properly treat it?  

“I wouldn’t say there’s any restrictions, whoever wants to wear it can wear it. It depends on what they’re using it for and what their intention behind wearing it is. If someone is stepping on it, writing something weird on it or treating it in a way that shows they’re not standing up for Palestine, then that would be some kind of restriction. Otherwise, it’s open to anyone,” said Omar.  

As the situation in Palestine remains increasingly harrowing, there has been an increase of Palestinian and non-Palestinian activists choosing to wear the scarf. “Since October 7,” Omar said, “even before, but recently I have been actively wearing it.” 

She continued by stating that, “I just wanted to show resistance and liberation, to show that I support Palestine and that I’m always there with them. Especially on October 7. It was harsh, but afterwards, I decided that I am a supporter of Palestinian people. What are you gonna say about it?”  

It is evident that throughout history, the scarf has been of great importance for its wearer. But its impact crescendos as both Palestinians and other advocates flaunt their Keffiyeh; they show the same resistance to colonial powers and injustice as seen over the course of the scarf’s existence.  

Because of the rise in people wearing the Keffiyeh, this allows those who are unaware to inquire about the importance of the scarf. This further strengthens the movement, because it makes Palestinians more visible and it reveals what they have been fighting for.  

However, let it be a reminder that advocacy shouldn’t just stop at wearing a Keffiyeh. Use your voice by calling for a permanent ceasefire through contacting your representatives, signing petitions, donating, following the BDS movement, and going to your local pro-Palestine rallies. 

If you live in Regina and you’re looking for a great alternative to the ridiculously priced scarf from Louis Vuitton, check out stores like Reyana Fashion & Home Decor.  

From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. 

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