This photo shows two Palestinians wearing a keffiyeh at a polling station in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2006. (Credit: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
(CNN) -- Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, three Palestinian college students were shot in Vermont, two of them while wearing a traditional Palestinian headscarf known as a kufiya, in a crime their families say was "driven by hate."
Although kufiya are worn throughout the Middle East, in recent decades they have come to be identified in particular as a symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance. At pro-Palestinian protests around the world amid the war between Israel and Hamas, demonstrators wore kufiyas around their necks or wore them to cover their faces.
Originally worn by nomadic herders and farmers, the kufilla or kufiya "has become an iconic garment worn around the world by anti-colonialist revolutionaries, activists and the like, although elders and farmers still wear it in the traditional way," Majeed said. Malhas is a Palestinian-Canadian journalist and PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Toronto.
Historians trace the history of the keffiyeh to the nomadic Bedouin farmers of historic Palestine, who wear the scarves as protection from the sun and sand. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
What is a kufiya?
A kufiya (sometimes spelled kufiyya or kaffiyeh in English) is a traditional scarf worn in many parts of the Middle East. It's usually black and white or red and white, with different patterns and tassels on the edge.
Wafa Ghnaim, a researcher and curator specializing in the history of Palestinian dress, told CNN that until the 1920s, kufiyas, also called hattahs or shamaghs, were mostly worn by nomadic Bedouin men in historic Palestine.
Ghnaim, a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, told CNN that in her work she often sees 19th-century kufiyas made of cotton, silk and fine wool, and incorporating white, black, green and red threads.
"Every person, male or female, wore headdresses in this part of the world. The villagers and townspeople had different styles of headdress than the Bedouins," he explained.
"Bedouin men bent the kufiya diagonally and secured it to their head using an 'aqal or head rope."
In addition to acting as a visual marker of Bedouin identity, the scarves serve a practical purpose: they help protect the wearer from the fierce sun and desert sand.
And the patterns woven into each kufiya "reflect different aspects of Palestinian land, such as the olive tree and the fishing net," Malhas told CNN.
The red and white kufiya is also sometimes linked to Jordanian nationalism because British commanders wore it as part of the uniform of the Desert Patrol, a Bedouin unit of the Arab Legion. But Palestinian activists and resistance fighters have worn kufiyas of all colors, according to Malhas.
In addition to the traditional style worn on the head, nowadays scarves are also worn around the neck and as shawls over the shoulders.
- How the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began
A Palestinian man walks through the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank on July 24, 2017. (Credit: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)
What Kufiya Means to Palestinians
For many Palestinians and people of Arab descent around the world, the kuyifa serves as a crucial link to their culture.
Dalia Jacobs, a Palestinian brand strategist and creative director, told CNN that she wears a kuyifa made in her hometown of Hebron when she travels abroad.
Wearing the kuyifa feels "like carrying it home on my shoulders," she said, describing the scarf as "a symbol of resistance and existence."
AS, a 26-year-old Palestinian-American living in North Carolina who asked to be identified only by her initials because of privacy concerns, said that for her the kuyifa is like "a comfortable blanket for a child."
The kufiya "says who I am and always carries my family's history with me," she told CNN.
Ghnaim similarly said that the kuyifa reminds him of his father, while the tatreez (traditional Palestinian embroidery) reminds him of his mother. To combine the two pieces of Palestinian cultural heritage, she used traditional embroidery techniques to adorn her black-and-white kufiya.
"My fondest memories are when I made this kufiya and wore it with pride and joy for my beautiful people."
Yasser Arafat, who served as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and later chairman of the Palestinian Authority, was rarely seen without a black-and-white kufiya on his head and over one shoulder. (Credit: Georges de Keerle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
How the Kufiya Became a Symbol of Resistance
In addition to symbolizing cultural identity, the kufiya also took on a political dimension, like many other garments linked to cultural or religious interests. Heritage and nationalism.
Ghnaim traced this political dimension back to the 1930s. During the Arab Revolt between 1936 and 1939, when Palestinians sought to end the British occupation and establish their own independent country, Palestinians of all social classes and religions wore the black-and-white kufiya to symbolize their solidarity, according to Ghnaim.
During the 1960s, there was another resurgence of the kufiya as a political symbol, with the headscarf worn by both men and women. Yasser Arafat, who for decades was chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was often photographed wearing the black-and-white kufiya, further cementing the headscarf as a symbol of Palestinian national struggle.
Leila Khaled, a former militant who became famous for her role in the 1969 hijacking of a plane and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was also often photographed with a kuyifa wrapped around her hair and neck in the 1960s and 1970s.
Malhas, who grew up as a second-generation Palestinian in Jordan in the 2000s, told CNN that wearing the black-and-white kuyifa could be seen as a sign that he was "ungrateful" to Jordan as the host country. The headscarf "was seen as "a symbol of defiance and pan-Arabism" and could be controversial due to its links to Palestinian identity. My family would feel uncomfortable if I used it" in Jordan, he said.
He recalled being bullied during high school for wearing one. An older boy told him, "If you don't like it here, get on a boat and go."
In recent pro-Palestinian protests around the world, organizers have encouraged attendees to use kufiya to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. CNN previously reported that a protester in France said he was fined €135 for wearing a kuyifa after the country banned all pro-Palestinian protests.
But wearing the kufiya can also expose those who wear it to anti-Palestinian sentiment or Islamophobia: A lawyer for the students shot in Burlington said he believed the Vermont students were targeted in part because they were wearing kufiya. And a woman in New York was arrested and charged with a hate crime after she allegedly accused a man wearing a kufiya of supporting Hamas and attacked him in early November. She pleaded not guilty.
Who can use a kufiya?
In addition to serving as a symbol of national identity and resistance, kufiya have also made their way into the mainstream fashion world. In an episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw wears a tank top that mimics the design of a kufiya. And both luxury and mainstream retailers have sold kufiya as fashion accessories, divorced from their history.
But stripping kufiya of its original context can be controversial. In 2021, Louis Vuitton sparked accusations of cultural appropriation when it first unveiled a $705 "keffieh stole," according to multiple reports. The social media backlash reportedly forced the luxury brand to remove the item from its website. Louis Vuitton declined to comment to several media outlets at the time. CNN has reached out again for comment.
Ghnaim urged kufiya wearers to research the garment before wearing it.
"In the last 10 years, the fashion world has appropriated kufiya without cultural attribution to its Palestinian origins," he said.
"Cultural appropriation leads to cultural erasure, and it is of the utmost importance that those who wear this headscarf educate themselves about its meaning and history. It's not a garment that just anyone can wear," he explained. "It symbolizes Palestinian solidarity, liberation and freedom."
Malhas, on the other hand, said that while non-Palestinians should be careful about wearing the kufiya in the traditional style worn by Bedouins, in general, non-Palestinians wearing the garment can be a "great show of solidarity."