Traditional Palestinian Dress Becomes Means of Political Protest

19 February, 2019

A traditional dress worn by Palestinian women was not the kind of clothing one would expect to become a sign of political expression.

The brightly colored, embroidered woman's dress is known as a "thobe," notes the Associated Press.

Now the thobe is gaining popularity as a softer means of identifying with the fight for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is even competing with the keffiyeh – the head covering worn by Palestinian men protesting Israel's occupation of land they call their home.

The thobe is covered with complex, colorful embroidery, all put together by hand. It requires months of hard work to make. Some thobes have been sold to buyers for thousands of dollars.

The use of traditional cloth is a celebration of simpler times, when poor Palestinian women would make thobes while resting from a hard day's work in the fields.

Rashida Tlaib is the first female Palestinian American member of the United States Congress. Last month she wore her mother's thobe at her official swearing-in ceremony.

The move has led women around the world, especially in Palestinian territories, to publish pictures of themselves in traditional dress on the Twitter social networking service.

In this Tuesday, January 29, 2019 photo, designer Natalie Tahhan works on a modern version of the traditional Palestinian thobe in her studio in east Jerusalem.
In this Tuesday, January 29, 2019 photo, designer Natalie Tahhan works on a modern version of the traditional Palestinian thobe in her studio in east Jerusalem.

Rachel Dedman organized a recent exhibit at the Palestinian Museum in the town of Birzeit in the West Bank. The show centered on the changes to Palestinian embroidery throughout history. Dedman told the Associated Press the thobe is such a powerful sign of political expression because it is more directly linked to culture and history, not politics.

"The historic thobe conjures an ideal of pure and untouched Palestine, before the occupation," she said.

The Palestinian thobe's history dates back to the early 19th century, when embroidered goods were made mainly in villages.

Beautifully designed dresses marked major events in women's lives: the beginning of puberty, marriage, motherhood.

Maha Saca is the director of the Palestinian Heritage Center in Bethlehem. She says the designs were different from one village to the next. In Bethlehem, for example, wealthier women sought special three-dimensional embroidery. Bedouin women, who would spend their lives in travelling communities, made their thobes with large pockets for carrying things. Women from Jaffa, a city famous for its fruit trees, wore orange tree designs.

Thobe designs also expressed women's different social positions: red was the color for women about to be married, while blue was for women whose husbands had died. Blue with multi-colored embroidery was for women who were thinking about getting re-married after their husband's death.

Arab women across the Middle East have worn hand-made dresses for hundreds of years. But the thobe has taken on a Palestinian quality, especially since the establishment of Israel in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes during the war that led to Israel's creation. Many took only their dresses with them, Saca added.

The war, which Palestinians call their "nakba," or catastrophe, changed the thobe. Suddenly, making the dresses was seen as a way of protecting Palestinian culture, said Dedman.

Over years of fighting, Palestinian nationalism has taken on many forms. In the early days of Israel's establishment, nationalism was linked with calls for Israel's destruction and deadly attacks. Armed struggle later gave way to calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Israeli forces captured those areas in 1967.

Peace talks have been halted by periods of violence and, for the past 10 years, a suspension of negotiations.

Today, the internationally recognized autonomy government of the Palestinian Authority controls parts of the West Bank. It continues to seek a two-state solution with Israel. But the militant group Hamas, which seized Gaza in 2007, is still calling for Israel's destruction. Many Palestinians, especially the younger generation, now talk of a single joined state with Israel in which they could enjoy full equal rights.

Along the way, the thobe has grown in popularity and changed.

During the first major Palestinian attempt to break free from Israel in the 1980s, guns and flowers were often part of thobe designs. Now, Palestinian women of all social classes wear thobes to show support for an independent nation at special events.

"It's a way of defending our national identity," Saca said.

The care, hard work and skill that go into making a thobe prevent it from becoming everyday clothing. But less costly, mass-produced versions of the dress have become popular.

Younger Palestinians, especially those spread far from their homeland, are changing the traditional dresses to modern tastes. Girls are asking for shorter and less embroidered versions, notes Rajaa Ghazawneh, a thobe designer in the West Bank.

Rashida Tlaib said her Palestinian thobe brought back memories of her mother's West Bank village. The U.S congresswoman called her choice to wear the dress a demonstration of her love for the Palestinian people.

It has since increased interest in the dress worldwide.

I'm ­Dorothy Gundy.
And I'm Pete Musto.

Isabel Debre reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What traditional clothing is very important to your nation's identity? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

dressn. a piece of clothing for a woman or a girl that has a top part that covers the upper body and a skirt that hangs down to cover the legs

embroideredadj. covered in special designs made using a small, very thin object that is used in sewing and that has a sharp point at one end and a hole for a long, thin piece of cotton, silk or other material

exhibitn. an object or a collection of objects that have been put out in a public space for people to look at

conjure(s) – n. to make you think of something

pubertyn. the period of life when a person's sexual organs mature and he or she becomes able to have children

three-dimensionaladj. having or seeming to have length, width, and depth

pocket(s) – n. a usually small cloth bag that is connected to a piece of clothing that is open at the top or side so that you can put things into it

catastrophen. a terrible disaster

nationalismn. a desire by a large group of people, such as people who share the same culture, history or language, to form a separate and independent nation of their own

autonomyn. the power or right of a country or group to govern itself