Long synonymous with Palestinian nationalism, the traditional Keffiyeh — a square white cloth with black stitched designs, authentically made from 100% cotton, has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, but also a way of communicating identity and association, and the concepts of sovereignty, existence, and revolution. It is the unifying language of the Palestinian people, at home and abroad.
Usually worn draped over the head, its origins remain blurry. Some claim it dates back to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, or the Babylonians, and it might have first appeared as early as 3100 BC. What was initially used as a symbol of high rank, or honor and was worn by priests and rulers who controlled land, has transcended social status over the years. In recent times, the Keffiyeh has been used as a head covering by farmers, protecting them from the sun as they worked on the land, and in winter as a shield against the rain and cold.
During the Arab Revolt in 1936, Palestinian freedom fighters used the Keffiyeh to hide their identity and avoid arrest as they revolted against the British Mandate. When the British banned it, many members of the community started wearing it to make it harder to identify those who rebelled against their oppressors, solidifying its meaning as one cemented in resistance, a theme which continues through to this day. The Keffiyeh and resistance were further bonded during the first and second Intifada in 1987 and 2000 respectively.
Usually associated with Arab masculinity, Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, flipped the narrative around the Keffiyeh. Several images of Khaled wearing it in the style of a Hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders, started circulating in the West after the hijacking of the TWA Flight 840. Through this move, Khaled denoted her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle, making the Keffiyeh a symbol for all.
Public pressure and backlash
The appropriation of the Keffiyeh as a fashion statement by non-Arab wearers separate from its political and historical meaning has been the subject of controversy in recent years. While it is often worn as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, the fashion industry has disregarded its significance in using its traditional pattern and appearance. In 2017, Louis Vuitton came under fire for cultural appropriation, listing a USD 705 scarf on their web-store and describing the accessory as “inspired by the classic Keffieh and enriched with House signatures.” The scarf has since been removed. In 2015, Chanel released a Keffiyeh print tweed jacket as part of their Cruise Collection. Other instances include stores such as Urban Outfitters, which labeled their faux-keffiyeh as an “anti-war scarf” and Topshop releasing a Keffiyeh inspired playsuit called a “scarf playsuit.” Both retailers later pulled the items from their stores and websites following mounting public pressure and backlash.
Given the great importance of the Keffiyeh, its meanings and connotations, it is important to invest, now more than ever, in an authentic Keffiyeh. Five decades ago, there were more than 30 factories operating in Palestine that specialized in the production of the Keffiyeh. Today, however, only one remains open, the Herbawi Factory based in Hebron, Palestine. This is why we’re naming the Keffiyeh our item of the month.
Pictures featuring Keffiyeh have been extracted from Palestinian, Ramallah based collective and fashion brand: Nol Collective.