Embroidered thobes have become a symbol of resistance and a way to confront Israeli attempts to appropriate Palestinian culture.
Palestinian women express their connection to their ancestral towns and villages by wearing traditional embroidered thobes or dresses on social occasions.
Since the Nakba, when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from Palestine in 1948, the Palestinian thobe has become symbol for Palestinian women that helps them keep a connection with their land.
Adorned with hand-stitched embroidery, making a Palestinian thobe can take months of handiwork. . The dress represents a time when Palestinian peasant women used to sew their own clothes after a long day of farming.
“[The] Palestinian thobe is part of our history. When I see the images of grandmothers wearing these thobes, then the next generation then us, I know I am part of this history. That’s my identity and culture,” Lana Hijazi, member of the Palestinian Heritage Wear Society told TRT World.
Claiming as its own
“The Israeli occupation has been attempting to steal components of the Palestinian identity because this occupation has no identity so it tries to impersonate our character,” Hijazi said.
“Israeli rudeness came when their designers took part in fashion shows displaying Palestinian embroidery as if it belongs to them,” Hijazi explained. “They tried to register Bethlehem thobe in the Global Encyclopedia like it belonged to the occupation!”
Israeli airlines El Al assumed the embroidered Palestinian dress as their uniform in the 1970s. In addition, some Israeli designers used Kufiya or embroidery in their designs and shows.
Israeli figures were spotted wearing the Palestinian thobe in international events like the Cannes Film Festival in an attempt to add a national character to Israel’s image.
“We protest against such attempts, reassuring that this thobe has owners who don’t accept it to be stolen,” Hijazi condemned.
Dressing sea and mountains
Mona Alghosain, a member of the Palestinian Women Union, spoke to TRT World on what the Palestinian thobe says about Palestine and Palestinian women, their life and economic situation.
“There are many designs of Palestinian thobe depending on the area it comes from. There are different styles between thobes from coastal areas or mountainous areas,” Alghosain said.
“Palestinian women used to make their own dresses. Embroidery on these dresses reflected the area and the social level,” Alghosain explained. “For example, we can see the thobes of women in mountainous areas have more complicated embroidery work than others. This means women in Palestinian mountains had more time than those in coastal areas.”
The patterns and colours also have meaning, said Alghosain. “A thobe can have various symbols including birds, trees and flowers. Brides used to dress red, and widows dressed blue with colourful stitches. The Palestinian thobe is distinct and different from others in the region.”
"We are proud of our Palestinian thobe; it reflects our civilised history. Me and my daughters will preserve it and preserve our artistic heritage,” Alghosain added.
In recent years, designers have created Palestinian embroidery and thobes with a modern twist, reflecting a wave of creativity on an international level.
Public figures like US politician RashidaTlaib, Jordan’s Queen Rania, film director Farah Nabulsi and supermodel sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid flaunted their Palestinian cultural background.
In such instances, Palestinian designs are not solely about fashion but a way of making a statement in support of the Palestinian cause.
While some people believe the designs and styles of Palestinian embroidery and thobes shouldn’t deviate from traditional form, Hijazi encourages going with modern designs.
“There shouldn’t be a concern in developing Palestinian clothes designs. This preserves the embroidery handcraft, supports women working in this field and creates a market for such artistic products.” Hijazi explained, noting that a real challenge is the machine embroidery which is not handmade nor original.
A way of expression
Young Palestinian women have kept original thobes inherited from their mothers and grandmothers and almost every girl has a traditional thobe and Palestinian embroidery stitched to their modern clothes, or at least an accessory that connects them to their heritage.
“We, at the Palestinian Women Union in Gaza, encourage new generations to grasp our beautiful culture, support handmade embroidery projects and organise continuously relevant exhibitions,” said Alghosain.
“Embroidery work is a way of expression for many women in besieged Gaza for relief from hard social and economic conditions.”
Recently, UNESCO added the art of Palestinian embroidery, an integral part of the thobe, to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Palestinians welcomed the listing, which was announced in an annual gathering of governments, NGOs and cultural institutions.
“UNESCO listing is a beautiful move in the right place. However, it’s a small step in our struggle because the occupation doesn’t recognise or consider international resolutions. We need to be cautious and awake to attempts of stealing our heritage,” Hijazi warned.