Arts & Culture

Threads of Solidarity: The Symbolic Power and Global Impact of Clothing

ART BY UMA EDULBEHRAM

On October 23, 2023, Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine posted a call for a walkout in protest of the siege on Gaza, inviting participants to “set [their] alarms and wear [their] keffiyeh.” As similar protests and actions have swept the globe in solidarity with the people of Gaza, organizers have called upon protestors to adorn themselves with the black and white tasseled scarves around their necks, shoulders, and heads. 

While the visibility of the keffiyeh has increased in the weeks since the siege began, the item itself is said to have originated in Ancient Mesopotamia. In its original form, the scarf would have protected men from sand, dust, and direct sun exposure. While Levantine men have worn the scarf for generations, the keffiyeh was first worn by Palestinian freedom fighters during the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate in the 1930s. During this period, Palestinian fighters used the keffiyeh as a means of concealing their identity, making it difficult for British authorities to identify the instigators of these rural uprisings. By the 1960s, the keffiyeh came to symbolize the Palestinian national movement, frequently adorned by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. Between 1967 and 1993, when Israel effectively banned waving the Palestinian flag in Gaza and the West Bank, many Palestinians instead opted to wave the keffiyeh as a source of national pride. 

The keffiyeh is typically woven from either cotton or linen. While the black and white pattern has become the most prominent in widespread protests, the keffiyeh is produced in a variety of colors. One example is the Jordanian red and white keffiyeh, which has been adopted by Marxist Palestinians as a means of differentiating themselves. According to Hirbawi, a West Bank manufacturer of the keffiyeh since 1961, the keffiyeh is made from “a specific cross-stitching technique developed over decades,” and the intricate patterns that decorate the piece are “based on historic landmarks, and elements of Palestinian culture.” One of the main keffiyeh patterns is the olive leaf. Today, between 80,000 and 100,000 families in occupied Palestinian territories rely upon olive products as a source of income, and the inclusion of this symbol has come to represent Palestinian resilience and attachment to their land. 

As a symbol of Palestinian liberation, the keffiyeh reflects a long history of indigenous clothing used symbolically within political and cultural decolonization movements. Beyond the keffiyeh, another historical example of this phenomenon within decolonization efforts against the British Empire is the Gaelic Revivals of the late 19th century. As calls for Irish independence swept the island, cultural nationalists “scoured academic texts for clues about what indigenous, ancient Irish folks wore so this could be replicated in their gatherings and promotional tours. The result was a veneration of the léine (a kind of tunic) and the brat (a mantle),” wrote Sarah Mass, an assistant professor of history, in a statement to the Observer. Just as contemporary protestors reach for the keffiyeh as a unifying symbol of Palestinian liberation and the indigenous roots of the cause, Irish anti-colonial protestors represented themselves with visible symbols of indigeneity. 

Another particularly poignant example of indigenous clothing utilized symbolically within American protest history is the Ghanaian kente cloth. These textiles originated from the Asante cultural tradition, emerging as early as 1000 B.C., and were initially used to dress kings and their courts. Much like the keffiyeh, each color and pattern reflects varied symbolic meanings. For instance, gold symbolizes serenity, green represents renewal, and black represents spiritual awareness, among others. Additionally, each kente weaver gives a name to their pattern motifs, usually derived from proverbs, giving each kente cloth a unique significance

The kente cloth came into global focus in 1958 when Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana following its independence from British rule and figurehead of the African decolonization movement, adorned the textile during his White House visit to meet with President Eisenhower. Since the 60s, the kente cloth has become a prominent symbol in both African decolonization movements and the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and the piece continues to be used in contemporary Black American activism. Donned by many Black college students at graduation ceremonies, the kente cloth has come to represent the perseverance and pride of Black students in the pursuit of higher education. Recently, the piece has resurfaced as a political symbol of protest. In 2018, the Congressional Black Caucus wore kente cloths in an act of protest against Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. The kente cloth, like the léine and the keffiyeh, demonstrates the important role of indigenous clothing items that symbolize resistance in the face of modern-day issues of neocolonialism and oppression. 

In addition to having symbolic significance, the increasing use of the keffiyeh in recent anti-colonial protests provides direct support to Palestinian economic interests and businesses. The New York Times reported that Hirbawi, the only keffiyeh manufacturer based in Palestine, has seen unprecedented demand for keffiyehs, and the company has “sold more than 18,000 [scarves] in October.” 

This support for indigenous economies also aligns with a legacy of supporting textile economies as a means of anti-colonial resistance. Mass writes that, historically, the British colonial economy relied upon extracting natural resources for centralized manufacturing. Therefore, “support for colonial manufacturing was arguably always an anti-colonial act.” While Professor Mass describes this as the case for Ireland’s manufacturing specifically, this is also true in “the most famous example of anti-colonial manufacturing and consumerism—Mahatma Gandhi’s Khadi movement between the world wars.” Gandhi argued that India should be economically self-sufficient to decolonize from Great Britain, encouraging individuals to only wear and purchase homespun khadi. In both the Irish and Indian pushes for decolonization, economic divestment from the industries of the oppressor was one of the most potent forms protest took on, especially for women, for whom “their purchasing power was the most powerful form of registering allegiance,” Mass writes. As a part of this long history of support for homespun production, the growing demand to purchase a keffiyeh from a Palestinian-based business in and of itself represents a stance against colonialism. 

At Tufts, members of SJP participated in this economic form of resistance at the club’s “Palestine Solidarity Concert” in April 2023 and the November 10 sit-in. At these events, club members purchased keffiyehs from a Palestinian business and “sold” them in exchange for donations to Gaza Mutual Aid organizations. For an anonymous SJP member, economic support is two-fold, believing it is essential to “[buy] directly from Palestine and then also, [make] sure to match that with your own consumer boycott of Israeli companies and Israeli goods.” 

The recent visibility of the keffiyeh in protest movements across the world has garnered adverse and even violent reactions from opponents of the Free Palestine movement. Schools in Berlin have banned the scarf for fear of it posing a “threat to school peace.” On November 6, a video went viral of a woman hurling her cell phone and hot coffee at Ashish Prashar, who was wearing a keffiyeh, along with his 18-month-old son, accusing them of being “terrorists” and “Hamas supporters” at a public park in Brooklyn

Most recently, on November 25, three 20-year-old Palestinian college students, Hisham Awartani from Brown University, Kinnan Abdalhamid from Haverford College, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad from Trinity College, were shot in a suspected hate crime in Burlington, Vermont. At the time of the shooting, two of the three students were wearing keffiyehs. In the wake of this act of violence, student organizers have called upon fellow students to wear their keffiyehs in solidarity with the three victims. For the anonymous SJP member who gave comment for this article, at this moment, “it feels extra important to show that you’re proud to be wearing this and not scared to be wearing it. It’s important to see a sense of unity among your community.” 

From the keffiyeh to kente to khadi, indigenous protest clothing acts as an expression of collective solidarity. When protestors reach for the keffiyeh, they are participating in a centuries-long global tradition of unity in the face of colonial aggression.