Appropriated by fashion brands as a ‘desert scarf’, the keffiyeh remains powerful symbol of Palestinian resistance, solidarity-Living News , Firstpost

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As much as fashion brands remove the political edge from powerful cultural symbols, the reality will not allow for it to happen. The keffiyeh will continue to be a reminder to the world that Palestine continues to be unfree. That Palestinians exist, that they resist.

Appropriated by fashion brands as a 'desert scarf', the keffiyeh remains powerful symbol of Palestinian resistance, solidarity

Image via Shutterstock/Hazem Swidan

‘Curious Fashion’ is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.

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The keffiyeh is a chequered cloth traditionally used as a head-dress in parts of the Arab world, and is interesting for many anthropological reasons. A different colour or check pattern represents different regions or tribes. How it’s worn — whether it is loosely draped around the shoulder, folded up on either side of the head, as a turban, or arranged with a circlet of rope (called an agal) — can tell you about this too. It is a piece of cloth, but also a way of communicating identity and association.

It is best known in its thick black and white checked avatar as the symbol of Palestinian resistance to the bloody history of Israeli occupation and violence since 1948. The keffiyeh was the political symbol when I was growing up in the Middle East in the 1980s. Made famous by Yasser Arafat, then leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or PLO, it signified Palestinian quest for self-determination, nationalism and struggle against the occupation of their land by Israel.

As the occupation deepened and consolidated itself, the keffiyeh represented the memory and reality of “dispossession, systematic displacement, extra-judicial killings and oppression”, as Palestinian fashion designer Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury says.

In recent years, the keffiyeh you could say has been “turmeric latte-ed”.Fashion contributed to it through the cultural appropriation of the keffiyeh by various fashion brands, removing its political edge but also mainstreaming it into a “made in China” variety. In 2007 Urban Outfitters began to sell it as an “anti-war woven scarf”. It became part of “festival fashion”, or items commonly worn to music festival in the 2000s. Celebrities like Kanye West or David Beckham were often photographed wearing these “desert scarves”. Within a decade, the keffiyeh’s design had inspired several garments across high-end and high-street brands, including a controversial Topshop “festival-ready scarf playsuit”.

The last straw was its appropriation by Israeli brand Dodo Bar Or on playsuits, dresses and smocks in 2016, which had Palestinians around the world drawing swords to call out the designer. A photographer wrote about the surreal experience of being “stopped in her tracks” in a Tel Aviv mall, looking into a boutique filled with the keffiyeh fabric used to make “sexy dresses, flouncy skirts, hippy draping gowns”.

Palestinians around the world have an emotional relationship with the keffiyeh. The weaving of the authentic keffiyeh in itself is a craft that is dying, but its political roots make the keffiyeh different from other things. British Palestinian rapper Shadia Mahmoud (known as “the first lady of Arabic hip-hop”) said famously in concert once, “You can take my falafel and hummus but don’t fucking touch my keffiyeh.”

When Adele wore the Jamaican flag as a bikini top, or Kim Kardashian named her line of shapewear Kimono (later retracted), their thoughtless cultural appropriation led to public outcry. What is it that is so offensive about cultural appropriation? Removing the context of any cultural symbol is one part of the problem. It is also the entitlement with which some groups (Western, white, coloniser countries usually) believe they can do this. In some cases, it is an act of cultural erasure. It threatens to normalise, trivialise, or worse, invisibilise, the issue the object stands for.

The appropriation of the keffiyeh by fashion brands would not cut so deep if the reality were different. But the truth is that Palestine continues to be ignored and erased. The truth is that in the last week alone, Israeli air strikes and offensives in the Gaza Strip have killed 109 Palestinian civilians (and seven Israelis) and injured 500. In the last week of Ramadan, they stormed the golden domed Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem in which over 200 Palestinians were hurt, leading to global outrage. Palestinians around the world remind us that this is not new for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli state has been waging war on Palestinian lives since it was established by Western states in 1948. For 73 years, conflict and death of the young and old have coexisted with everyday life, and with resistance.

Resistance, in fact is the leitmotif of the Palestinian people.

As much as fashion brands remove the political edge from powerful cultural symbols, the reality will not allow for it to happen. The keffiyeh will continue to be a reminder to the world that Palestine continues to be unfree. That Palestinians exist, that they resist.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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