Home News When an embroidered dress is more political than the keffiyeh – Catherine Cornet

When an embroidered dress is more political than the keffiyeh – Catherine Cornet

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The Miss Universe pageant, held on December 13 in the Israeli coastal city of Eilat, was contested and the subject of several international boycotts. Photos of misses from the Philippines, Mauritius or Ukraine dressed in the thobe, the traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, posted on social networks with the hashtag #visitIsrael, infuriated the Palestinians and relaunched the controversy over Israel’s cultural appropriation of Palestinian identity.

Before the competition even started, several queens, such as those from Greece and Indonesia, had announced their intention to boycott the event. Subsequently, the Greek candidate Rafaela Plastira explained on her Instagram account that she cannot “go up on stage and act as if nothing had happened”. Symbol of the normalization of the respective countries with Israel, the misses of Morocco and Bahrain were present.

According to Palestinian social networks, the “height of humiliation” was reached with the Instagram post of the Philippine queen: with the caption “#visitIsrael, a day in the life of the Bedouins”, the girl poses like her colleagues wearing the thobe and prepares vine leaf rolls, as if the traditions of the Bedouin – a highly discriminated group in Israel – were part of Israel’s heritage. Meem magazine summarizes “cultural theft” in a video. It is a truly “humiliating” thing, contextualizes an article by Al Quds, “because it takes place in a context in which Israel tries in every way to erase Palestinian culture”.

In Palestine, embroidery has been done since the time of the Canaanites, about three thousand years ago, writes the newspaper Al Arabi 21. And each of the thobe is embroidered with a variety of symbols including birds, trees and flowers. The choice of colors and designs indicates the woman’s regional origin or her marital and economic status. So this dress “is not only an ancient and unimportant thing, but it helps to understand the history of Palestine in the last two centuries”.

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If the Lebanese Elias Khoury, one of the most important writers and intellectuals in the Arab world, chooses to write his editorial in Al Quds on Miss universe, it is a sign that a threshold has been crossed. Khoury denounces the nefarious role of the Arab states towards Palestine. Morocco, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates were in a hurry to normalize relations with Israel, collaborating in the demolition of Palestinian identity: “The queens on the throne of the naqba of Eilat are an echo of the naqba of the tyrannical Arab countries who stripped Palestinian dignity and destroyed what Israel could not destroy ”.

Cultural appropriation
The wars around political symbols and the denunciations of cultural appropriation are nothing new for the Israeli-Palestinian question: from the Dead Sea manuscripts to the monuments of the cultural heritage of historical Palestine to hummus or couscous, the accusations of appropriation of art o Palestinian culture are very numerous.

My he thobe it also means much more: according to the Egyptian newspaper Egypt Independent it has become a new “political symbol”, even more than Yassar Arafat’s famous keffiyeh, which has become the flag in demonstrations around the world. The international visibility of the thobe was born thanks to Rashida Tlaib, the first American woman of Palestinian origin elected to the Washington Congress, who on the day of her inauguration wore her mother’s dress. Tlaib has inspired many other women to tweet photos of themselves in traditional clothing with the hashtag #TweetYourThobe.

Tlaib was then followed by Nujoud Merancy, also of Palestinian origin, head of NASA’s Artemis mission, which plans to send the first woman to the moon in 2024: on the day of her appointment she posted her official photo wearing an embroidered blazer inspired by the thobe Palestinian.

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A political object?
“The ancient thobe it evokes an ideal of pure and unspoiled Palestine, prior to the Israeli occupation, ”explains Rachel Dedman, curator of an exhibition at the Palestinian museum focusing on the evolution of Palestinian embroidery. “It is explicitly linked more to history and heritage than to politics. This is what makes it a powerful symbol ”.

On December 16, Unesco added the embroidery of the thobe in the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. A quick internet spin from Pinterest to Etsy also shows the vibrancy of the global marketplace thobe. And if the Miss Universe candidates certainly did not know everything about the history of the dress they wore, the governor of Ramallah, Leila Ghannam interviewed on this subject by Al Jazeera, wanted to remember the basic principles: “This type of clothing is part of our everyday life and all those who follow our culture know it. We don’t use it for fashion shows or competitions. Our beauty is well known, it is in our mothers, in the mothers of martyrs and prisoners, in the beauty of oppressed women ”.


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