The traditional Palestinian checkered scarf known as kaffiyeh is once again at the center of a conflict over freedom of speech and negative stereotypes following a Pennsylvania high school’s decision Wednesday to reverse a ban on the scarf imposed the day before.
Two seniors at Gateway High School were told they could not attend class while wearing their kaffiyeh, a checkered scarf worn by many men in the Middle East, in what school officials said was a bid to lessen tensions with Jewish students.
In a meeting Wednesday with school officials, Riggs and a representatives of several civil liberties groups and religious organizations, the school’s principal agreed to allow the kaffiyehs. He reportedly said his initial ban on the scarves was an attempt to “diffuse tension” between Jewish and Muslim students.
The Muslim students say they were called “terrorists” after a Jewish classmate published a commentary claiming the scarves were “hate” clothing.
Three students had recently worn shirts with saying "RIP Israel," although they removed their shirts when told to do so, according to school district spokeswoman Cara Zanella.
Jewish students signed a petition against the scarves and student Scott Scheinberg wrote an article in the Monroeville Times Express in which he said those who wear the traditional scarf align themselves with terrorists.
“We’re trying to prove it’s just cultural, It’s not political at all,” 18-year-old Mohammad Al-Abbasi, told KDKA news.
He said he had worn the scarf for the past year. But with the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza, tensions were particularly high.
“For people to term this scarf as a symbol of terrorism and a symbol of hate is against everything we believe in and we work very hard to counteract those stereotypes, so it was very disturbing,” Loretta Riggs, Abbasi’s mother, told the channel Tuesday.
Symbol of terrorism
An Islamic civil rights group praised the decision by the school to allow students to wear the kaffiyeh and sought to distance the scarf’s cultural heritage from the stereotype often portrayed in American media and by anti-Arab commentators that it is somehow linked to extremism.
“We thank school officials for recognizing that all students have the right to freedom of expression and that cultural symbols such as kaffiyehs have nothing to do with hate or terrorism,” said Council on American-Islamic Relations Pittsburgh Communications Coordinator Zohra Lasania.
This was not the first time the kaffiyeh, often seen as a symbol of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has been mischaracterized as a symbol of terrorism.
Celebrity-chef Racheal Ray came under fire last year for wearing a black and white scarf that resembled a kaffiyeh in an ad campaign for Dunkin Donuts. After threats of a boycott, the company caved to pressure from conservatives and the right-wing blogosphere - who said the scarf gave symbolic support to Muslim extremism and terrorism - and pulled the ad.
* See Alarabiya.net's Video Forum for Abbassi's interview at http://evideo.alarabiya.net/ShowClip.aspx?clipid=2009.02.19.13.16.44.025