From Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the deserts of Libya and even the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a new generation of young revolutionaries has begun to assert and fight for their rights, identities and beliefs. By Jo Arrem.
Revolutions have swept across the Muslim world over the past year like wildfire and show little sign of abating.
Protests, demonstrations and other forms of political mobilisation are about putting oneself square in the centre of the space important to him or her while being a part of the change that he or she seeks. So defining are these moments that cultural, political and even style icons for each generation emerge through their involvement in such movements.
The famous photograph of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara by photographer Alberto Korda positioned the young revolutionary as the icon of the Cuban revolution. More than half a century later, the beret with a star remains a symbol of socialism and the struggle against the elite. A generation before this, and in a whole other part of the world, Mahatma Gandhi fashioned a political movement around khadi, a type of homespun, handwoven cloth that continues to form an intrinsic part of the fashion and style landscape of India today.
In 1969, American Pulitzer prize–winning photographer Eddie Adams took an iconic photograph of young Palestinian revolutionary Leila Khaled, arguably making her the poster girl of the militant movement for Palestinian statehood in the 60s and 70s. She was (and still is) a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and was involved in several high-profile hijackings of international flights at the time. Eddie Adams’ famous photograph that elevated her to iconic status shows a young and beautiful Leila Khaled, nicknamed ‘deadly beauty’, delicately holding an AK-47 while looking down, away from the camera. On her finger, gripping the assault rifle, she wears a ring made of a bullet wrapped with the pin of a hand grenade. The brazen image of a bullet ring on a woman’s finger gripped the imagination of millions worldwide.
As the latest of wave of revolution washes over the Muslim world, style remnants of revolutions past and adaptations for the present can be seen on the young revolutionaries of this generation. Like any other social group, there is a consistency in the styling and accessorising adopted by the politically mobilised youth of today. Interestingly, many of these style staples are common across the Muslim world, despite the variety of the movements themselves.
A ubiquitous sight of most protests, demonstrations or other forms of political mobilisation in the Muslim world today is the kaffiyeh. It is a chequered piece of cloth, traditionally worn on the head by men in the Middle East as protection from the sun. The style of the kaffiyeh varies by country. Palestinians wear a black and white version, Jordanians wear red and white, while the one worn in the Gulf States is all white.
The black and white kaffiyeh became a prominent symbol of protest alongside the growth of the Palestinian movement in the 60s and 70s. Yasser Arafat used to famously wear his kaffiyeh folded in the shape of the Palestinian state, however wearing a kaffiyeh is no longer limited to the Palestinians or indeed even the Arabs. Farah, a young Bangladeshi studying in Britain, says ‘I wear a kaffiyeh at every protest no matter what the protest is about. It’s a staple accessory now.’
The kaffiyeh is today worn by both men and women, usually as a scarf. It is also popularly worn as a wrap around the face, either to protect against smoke and tear gas or to conceal the identity of the wearer. The popularity of the kaffiyeh has even extended to fashion industry, with several fashion brands featuring the scarf — sometimes controversially — in their shows. The most popular of these was probably the Balenciaga fashion show in 2007, in which models walked down the runway wearing glamourised versions of the kaffiyeh in various colours, replete with sparkles.
The primary aim of any self-respecting demonstration or protest is the psychological impact — on the greater public as well as the authorities — of the solidarity of large numbers of people fighting for a single cause. An effective way of conveying this message is through the use of colour. A single colour worn by hundreds of people can give a greater image of strength and solidarity of purpose than thousands wearing clothing of various colours.
For practical reasons, many protestors and demonstrators today also carry facemasks to protect themselves from pepper spray, tear gas and other sprays that are used to control and dissipate crowds. This simple, functional accessory has also been adapted to the message-carrying needs of a successful demonstration. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, the recent Bersih demonstrations for electoral reform featured yellow facemasks, the official colour of the movement, with the words ‘Bersih 3.0’ printed on them.
Finally, the creativity of young revolutionaries is also evident through their use of face paint, hijabs, effigies, flags and posters. With the increased access to cameras and video footage that new mobile technology brings, every small bit of style and accessory can be shown to the world — and it is.
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