Arts and Culture

Politics vs clothing: the case of the kefiyyah

Fashion has hijacked the kefiyyah and the scarf's political status must be reclaimed, says a group of young women in Cape Town.

Fashion has hijacked the kefiyyah and the scarf’s political status must be reclaimed, says a group of young women in Cape Town.

The kefiyyah is a long-time symbol of the Palestinian solidarity movement and was popularised by prominent Israel-bashers Yasser Arafat and Leila Khaled.

Its traditional chequered colours are black and white or red and white. But since its appearance on catwalks and dance floors worldwide, the garment has appeared in other shades.

And today—Friday August 14—should be Kefiyyah Day, says Sherbanu Hayat, a third-year psychology and law student at the University of Cape Town student. She believes that pop culture has diminished the ideals invested in the familiar piece of fabric.

Hayat and her girlfriends have used social networking website Facebook to launch their “Kefiyyah Day” campaign. The internet group displays photos of Brazilian soccer player Ronaldo and other stars garbed in the kefiyyah.

Since inception this month, the Facebook group has attracted at least 2 300 participants from various countries. They pledged to wear the traditional kefiyyah as a political statement.

A similar event, dubbed “Wear Your Kefiyyah With Pride Day”, spread in American cities last June after Dunkin’ Donuts canned its TV advert with celebrity Rachel Ray wearing the scarf. It had apparently faced opposition from anti-Palestine lobbyists.

“Before this fashion craze the kefiyyah meant solidarity with Palestine but that’s been lost,” Hayat said. “We wanted to have this event to show solidarity and reclaim the scarf and its political symbolism.”

Her classmate Nabeelah Mia was more blunt: “It’s like wearing the Che Guevara T-shirt and asking who’s that? If you ask students why they’re wearing the kefiyyah they say that it’s cool and sold everywhere. They need to know the politics.”

A third student organiser, Rizia Parker, said their efforts have started a debate among students. It has also shown her that the kefiyyah is a political statement that others are uncomfortable with.

“Some wanted to know if it’s a Hamas or Fatah thing. But the kefiyyah is also worn across the Arab world. It’s just popular as a Palestinian symbol,” said Parker.

Hayat said she’s also had some “negative responses” when stepping out in her kefiyyah. “But nothing hectic, just a few funny looks. People ask ‘Why are you wearing that?’ or say ‘little terrorist’. Not everyone supports Palestine,” she said.

For “Kefiyyah Day” group members like Sayed Dhansay, who recently spent a month in the West Bank, wearing the kefiyyah is “100% political”, and he laments the fact that there are “kids walking around shopping malls with the kefiyyah around their necks but don’t understand”.

“Kefiyyah Day” coincides with intense local focus on the Palestine-Israel conflict. Just last week, NGOs sought to have the South African government prosecute Israeli military adviser David Benjamin who visited the country this month. And the Palestine Solidarity Group is currently hosting controversial Jewish American academic Norman Finkelstein on a three-city lecture whirlwind.

Joining his platform will be Judge Dennis Davis of the Competition Court of South Africa, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils and former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala Routledge.

The Durban University of Technology’s journalism department has incorporated Finkelstein’s visit into its ethics class, said one of its lecturers, Mahomed Junaid Khan.

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