Critical update on ZARA’s kuffiyeh-printed shorts

Earlier, we reported that fashion retailer ZARA was selling kuffiyeh-printed shorts without any attribution to the culture or history associated with it.

Days later, we updated the initial report after discovering that the item had been removed from the website. The original link as well as another direct link to the shorts both bring up a webpage that reads: “We are sorry. The item you are looking for is no longer available. Next, you will see similar products to: printed shorts”.

Searching for “printed shorts” — which is what the kuffiyeh-themed shorts were originally classified as — also fails to bring up any sign of the item in question.

It is unclear whether the shorts sold out or were taken down in response to pressure. However, it seems most likely that ZARA made an executive decision to take down the item. Normally, items that sell out remain listed with some kind of indication that the item is sold out or that the item is on backorder until more units are produced.

In providing an update on the kuffiyeh-inspired shorts, we also want to address some of the concerns many readers have shared with us over the nature of the initial report. Some readers feel that we are inappropriately sexualizing the product and misdirecting our criticisms. Others feel that our criticism of the kuffiyeh-printed shorts is overly sensitive. Still others feel that we are wasting energy that could be better spent supporting ZARA for promoting the kuffiyeh design. We will do our best to address each point individually.

Sexualization of the shorts. In the initial report, we made the point that cultural appropriation (which we will discuss in the following point) and sexualization of the kuffiyeh design is offensive to Palestinians. This was meant in a general sense and was not in any way intended to suggest that these particular shorts were provocative or that the problem lied in the shorts rather than in ZARA’s uncredited use of the design. We amended the sentence to make our stance more clear, which is that any form of cultural appropriation is offensive to indigenous people who hold on to the appropriated designs and associated ideas as a sign of national, cultural, or historical identity.

Oversensitivity. ZARA’s kuffiyeh-printed shorts are an excellent example of cultural appropriation, which is commonly defined as the unauthorized, unattributed, or exploitative use of another culture’s traditions, ideas, objects, and expressions. This commonly happens to groups or communities that do not have the ability — due to imbalanced power dynamics — to represent themselves the way they wish. These traditions, ideas, objects, and expressions are commonly used in ways that don’t provide accurate context or credit to the communities from which they originate. Sometimes, the appropriation is designed to exploit. In the case of ZARA’s kuffiyeh-printed shorts, the company was set to make money off of a design that is not original content but, rather, a deeply-rooted element of Palestinian culture. The lack of attribution implies that the pattern was designed by ZARA. Done implicitly or not, cultural appropriation is theft.

Promoting Palestinian culture. Many readers have asked us why we haven’t criticized similar products — kuffiyeh-themed dresses and handbags, for example — made by lesser known manufacturers or crafted by amateur clothing designers. We would, except that everything we’ve seen has contextualized the kuffiyeh design in some way, either by using kuffiyehs manufactured in the West Bank or by articulating some kind of connection to Palestinian culture or history. ZARA’s kuffiyeh-inspired printed shorts don’t do that. Sure, wearers can use the shorts as a way to spark conversations on Palestine, but that can be done with virtually anything at any time. Cultural appropriation and cultural exchange are two very different things.

It ultimately boils down to a matter of principal and respect. While ZARA likely had no ill-will in printing the shorts, the company is still responsible for researching the designs it uses and providing credit wherever and whenever credit is due. If anything, being a multinational corporation and fashion industry leader that caters to the masses means that ZARA has the capacity to do just that. Especially when it comes to something like the kuffiyeh, which is already so misrepresented in mainstream media, it is important that ZARA doesn’t entrench the feeling of loss or lack of ownership in appropriated communities.

For the sake of completion, we are providing a general overview of the kuffiyeh‘s history. For centuries, the kuffiyeh was worn by Arab and Bedouin farmers to shield themselves from harsh weather conditions, including dust storms and wintry gusts. In the early 1900s, many of these farming communities grew in size while many villagers themselves moved into cities, bringing the kuffiyeh with them where it gained greater exposure.

It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that the kuffiyeh‘s traditional black and white pattern became associated distinctly with Palestinians. Starting in 1936, Palestinian farmers, villagers, and townspeople staged the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate as a form of protest against the colonization of their land by Jewish immigrants and British forces. The kuffiyeh was worn either as a symbol of resistance or a sign of solidarity.

In recent decades, the kuffiyeh has taken on a variety of different roles. It was used iconically by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who helped bolster the kuffiyeh‘s connection to Palestinian nationalism. It is also used today for practical reasons: not so much to protect against fierce winds but to cover faces from, say, tear gas canisters thrown by Israeli soldiers during weekly protests in the West Bank village of Bil’in. This is the kind of rich history and context that is lost when cultural symbols are appropriated.

Special thanks to everyone who helped with this report.

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