Worn as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the keffiyeh — the iconic black and white patterned scarf — is a huge part of the Free Palestine movement.
The Palestinian keffiyeh has deep historical roots, originating from the country’s Bedouin communities and local farmers. They used it as a practical garment to protect themselves against the harsh desert environment. Woven from lightweight cotton, the fishnet pattern represents the connection between Palestinian sailors and the Mediterranean Sea, the bold lines represent the trade routes going through Palestine, and, the olive leaf pattern represents the strength, resilience, and perseverance of Palestinians, as well as the significance of olive trees to the people.
Becoming an icon
In the 1930s, during the Arab revolt, the scarf transcended its role as a culture-specific article of clothing and became a symbol of Palestinian resistance. During the British mandate of Palestine, rebels and revolutionaries wrapped the keffiyeh around their faces to hide their identity and avoid arrest.
The British put a ban on the scarf and, in a nationwide protest, all Palestinians started wearing it, making it impossible for authorities to identify the rebels.
The keffiyeh took on its official role as a symbol of Palestine on the global stage in the 1960s when Yasser Arafat, the former president of Palestine, wore it to all his public engagments. His method of wearing it was more than just draping a scarf over his shoulders — he draped it around his head with the tailend gracefully flowing over his right shoulder, symbolically resembling a map of Palestine before the Nakba.
During the 1970s, the keffiyeh gained prominence when Leila Khaled, a revolutionary freedom fighter and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), wore it as a headscarf and encouraged Palestinian women to do the same, fostering a sense of solidarity. This led to the keffiyeh becoming a symbol of unity, transcending gender and age, and was worn by people of all backgrounds.
During the Intifada in 1987 and again during the Second Intifada in 2000, people in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Yemen wore the scarf to show solidarity for Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.
Fast fashion enters the picture
The scarf is an identity marker for Palestinians around the world and is fiercely protected by them as well. With the beginning of the digital and late capitalist age, the keffiyeh reached thousands of people and many fashion brands co-opted the design like Urban Outfitters making ‘anti-war woven scarf’ in 2007 and Topshop’s ‘festival-ready scarf’ playsuit in 2017.
Many saw this as a dilution of the Palestinian cause. Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury, a Palestinian fashion designer, told The Guardian that the keffiyeh symbolises “dispossession, systematic displacement, extrajudicial killings [and] oppression.” Its use by designers divorced from that context is, he said, irresponsible. “It’s almost disrespectful and it’s exploitative.”
Around the same time, British-Palestinian rapper Shadia Mansour released her then-hit track ‘El Koffeyye Arabeyye’ in which she was dressed in a traditional Palestinian thobe and keffiyeh. Ahead of performing the track, standing on a stage in New York City, she said, “You can take my falafel and hummus, but don’t f*****g touch my keffiyeh”.
Today, the keffiyeh stands as a compelling visual emblem, representing the ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, and self-determination among the Palestinian people.
Worn by Palestinians and their global allies, this iconic scarf serves as a tangible expression of unity and resistance against oppression. Its core significance remains deeply rooted in the preservation of cultural heritage, the promotion of awareness, and the cultivation of a collective identity shared by Palestinians.
As people around the world protest for the rights of Palestinians living under constant attacks from Israel, they don the keffiyeh — a symbol of Palestine.