The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation

The Keffiyeh and Identity

The keffiyeh (كوفية) is a cloth used in the Arab region, traditionally, as a headdress. The scarf has different symbolic meanings, styles and colors depending on context and country. How it is worn, too, has significance. It is a scarf with the ability to convey identity. It is best known in its black and white checked form as a popular sign of resistance for the Palestinian people. Everyone living in the Arab world recognizes it is as the main symbol of the Palestinian demand for self-determinism and their ongoing struggle with the occupation of their land.

The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation
The Importance of Symbols

Symbols are respected in nations. They have emotional significance as they are expressions of that which unites and represents a people. Symbols are never just static images, especially those of resistance. They are manifestations of the abstract. The keffiyeh is something you can touch, wear, hold high. The more suffocating the occupation got, the more the keffiyeh began to represent not only the fight for freedom, but the mixture of memory with the reality of displacement, oppression and diaspora.

This is why when fashion brands take the political edge off the keffiyeh, it is cultural appropriation. It is, by definition, an unacknowledged and inappropriate adoption of an element of one culture by a more dominant people. When the keffiyeh becomes mainstream, it is an act of cultural erasure and obscuring of the scarf’s real meaning.

The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation
Appropriation in the Fashion Industry

While there is no doubt that it has long been culturally appropriated, companies are under more fire now than ever. Many Arabs have spoken out, objecting that the keffiyeh’s commercialization smothers the seriousness of the occupation. We see the checkered print being used by luxury brands like Cecilie Copenhagen and Louis Vuitton, whose $705 blue and white scarf sparked intense outrage. LV faced fire for claiming to be politically neutral while profiting off a Palestinian symbol without addressing the origins of the pattern.

The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation
The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation
The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation

Screenshot taken from the Cecilie Copenhagen website’s fall/winter collection

The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation

Screenshot taken from the Cecilie Copenhagen website’s fall/winter collection

Fast fashion companies, too, use the keffiyeh print, like Boohoo calling it a “tribal print smock,” Topshop a “festival-ready scarf” and Urban Outfitters an “anti-war woven scarf.” Perhaps the most controversial was the Israeli brand Dodo Bar Or applying the print on playsuits, dresses, smocks and blouses. Dodo Bar Or dresses can be sold for more than  £1,000. After seeing a Dodo Bar Or boutique, Jordanian photographer

Tanya Habjouq posted on Facebook the following:

Cultural appropriation to an extreme….in a chic Tel Aviv mall, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the Palestinian and Jordanian Keffiyeh fabric filling an entire boutique. Chic sexy dresses, funky flouncy skirts, long hippie draping gowns….minimum cost 150 USD. No sign or explanation of where this material came from. Even my husband stood frozen in alarm, peering in [the] window. It really was too much. Even by the standards here.

The Palestinian Keffiyeh’s Appropriation

To feel entitled enough to divorce the keffiyeh from its context is appropriation. It is exploitative. Designers know how powerful clothes can be, and that is why the diluting of the keffiyeh is controversial. The use of the keffiyeh in fashion would not be so harmful if the Palestinians were not continuously threatened to be erased. There is a very clear power imbalance here. Despite fashion brands trying to reduce the power of cultural symbols so deeply rooted in identity, the keffiyeh will remain a reminder that Palestinians resist.

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