This summer, as a global community we have been forced to take time to not only educate ourselves on racial issues, but look inward and question how we are a part of the problem. How do we play a part in upholding oppressive systems that marginalize minorities? How do we benefit from the status quo? What privilege do we hold and how can we use it productively and effectively? 

Whether it was the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Beirut Blast, we have encountered a series of injustices and devastations happening around the world. However, beyond these current events, there has also been a resurgence of other racial issues that have frequently been silenced and overshadowed. 

I have been indulging, like many of us, in having tough conversations with family and friends here in the Middle East regarding proper ally-ship and using and/or correcting people’s rhetoric. In the light of learning and unlearning, I’ve been having a lot of conversations particularly regarding cultural appropriation. 

For clarification, cultural appropriation is when a culture, mostly Western/Eurocentric, takes something such as clothing, art, practices etc. from another culture or ethnic group that experiences oppression. In this case, cultural appropriation feeds off systemic oppression of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people and their variously rich cultures. Systemic oppression also stems from giant industries, particularly within fashion, in which cultural appropriation remains a prevalent issue for brand designers. 

Many people tend to confuse cultural appropriation with appreciation, and vice versa. the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can be different to each marginalized individual. However, the main point is that there is a difference between choosing to dress up as a sheik for halloween than actually visiting an Arab country, going on a camping trip in the desert, and having the opportunity to buy/be given a” Hatta” headdress by a local 

You may be asking, “When does a piece of clothing become cultural appropriation?” 

Allow me to explain a scenario for a better understanding. When white privileged individuals take an aspect from a culture and profit from it, such as wearing a scarf on your head, they are applauded for their “creativity” and for taking a revolutionary step in the fashion industry. They are praised by promoting it as a ”vintage Audrey Hepburn” look or “Europe styles inspo” lookbook. However, when an Arab woman wears a scarf on her head, the hijab, as means to practice her faith and personal morals, people feel entitled to pity her, fall for stereotypes and need to “liberate her” from being oppressed. This mindset resulted in many countries passing laws against hijabs.

When a dominant culture takes credit and amplifies a part of a cultural heritage but prevents BIPOC individuals from partaking in their traditions and practicing their faith by using that cultural heritage, it becomes a form of injustice.   

In the light of recent events that allowed people to speak up against injustices, many people in the Arab community shed a light on a brand from Copenhagen called Cecelia. The brand has been appropriating traditional Arab patterns in their clothing, reducing their significance and representation of resistance to “tomato shorts” and “Judith dresses.” There is no cultural appreciation in this as there is no acknowledgement of the rich histories of the patterns they are using or where their inspiration comes from. 

Each country belongs to a particular pattern, but all of them are similar in terms of general stylistic patterns. However, each pattern is carefully crafted to tell a story that holds a country’s significant history and traditions. In Jordan, our pattern is referred to as the “Keffiyyeh,” also known as “shmagh” and “Hatta.” We all have worn this in our lifetime, and continue to wear it whenever we have the chance. In fact, our world leaders wear the shmagh whenever there is an important ceremony/conference to represent their respectful country.

If there is any point you should take from this, it’s that these patterns are a reflection of our resilience. Each thread represents a powerful and historical significance of our past traumas. The Arab people have been exposed and continue to be exposed to countless tragedies that costs Arabs their quality of life and loved ones. To wear the shamgh is to wear our values, tradition, and identity that was ostracized for the last 30 years. 

These prints that the store finds as trendy, authentic, and best sellers, are in fact a symbol of our resilience from violence and imperialism. 

Cecelia has been selling garments ranging from shorts, rompers, and bikinis that were covered with these patterns in different colors. The same incident happened in 2017 in which top shop released the shmagh patterned bodysuit/romper under a collection called “festival-ready.” For the campaign, many YouTubers and influencers were encouraged to wear the collection for promotion purposes. This is reminiscent of the time the online retail shop Shein started selling islamic prayer mats for home rugs. 



These occurrences are not new in the fashion industry and often impact many other cultures such as the time that retailers released a line of headdresses appropriating Indigenous cultures as a part of a festival trend for Coachella. These incidents reduce the magnitudes of importance of what cultural patterns carry across generations as a symbol of endurance and survival.  

After a few weeks of my friends and I to sending DM’s and emails to inform the creative directors behind Cecilia of their poor choices, they apologized for appropriating the ‘Kaffiyeh” or “Shmagh” heritage to appeal to the western gaze. Yet, to this day, they continue to choose to sell them on instagram and produce more garments, making it their signature look. Explaining the pain of seeing a piece of my culture used for profit and for “trendy” looks is a feeling I can’t manage to articulate.

The rampant cultural appropriation that continues to plague the fashion industry is proof of the negligence and ignorance behind giant corporations that continue to prioritize profit over everything. Selling these garments shows not only the lack of accountability from the fashion industry, but the buyers’ level of ignorance of not recognizing the appropriation of a heritage and their positionality. These corporations and the fashion industry in general must be decolonized. 

Cultural appropriation is an attack on identity. By using cultural patterns for profitable cheap garments, we are not recognizing the historical violence that continues to perpetuate BIPOC individuals and their traditions today. 

This is a reflection of the amount of (un)learning we need to do not only to respect the variety of traditions and what these pieces mean, but to further empathize and recognize the trauma cultural appropriation represents, considering many cultures were under threat from assimilation and ethnic cleansing. I hope as a global community and consumers we grow to be more conscious of our decisions and how they impact our surroundings. 

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: – @ceciliecopenhagen

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