You might not be familiar with the name, but you will most certainly have seen it.
I’m talking about the shemagh – the iconic Middle Eastern head scarf found throughout the Arab world.
But can anyone wear it? Is it disrespectful to do so? What are the shemagh colors to avoid?
Let’s take a look at this fascinating and hugely popular item of clothing, and find out if YOU can wear the shemagh, and all the ways in which to do so.
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- Shemagh Colors to Avoid – The Short Version
- What is a Shemagh?
- How to Wear the Shemagh
- Tactical/Tacticool Uses
- Traveling with the Shemagh
- Shemagh Colors and Patterns – What to Avoid
Shemagh Colors to Avoid – The Short Version
If you’re in a hurry, and you want to know the “too long, didn’t read” summary of this article – here it is:
The colors and patterns of a shemagh may have connotations relating to different countries and regions, and you should take care when choosing the right one for you.
Especially if you intend on traveling anywhere in the Middle East.
Having said that, there isn’t anything that’s really set in stone. No one group or tribe claims one color or pattern over the other, and nothing can be “proved,” either way.
It’s just that certain colors have been linked with certain groups in the past.
If you are concerned, you should try to avoid more traditional colors – like black and white, and red and white patterns.
Unless, of course, you understand what they (might) mean and are fine with wearing them. It’s a complex issue for some people, but perfectly harmless for others (the vast majority).
Keep reading to find out why.
What is a Shemagh?
A shemagh (pronounced “schmog” – hard ‘g’, or “shmay”), is a type of headscarf that originated in Middle Eastern countries.
Depending on where you’re from in the Arab world, it is also known as the keffiyeh, ghutrah, ḥaṭṭah, and/or chafiyeh – among many other things.
Usually made from a woven cotton cloth, it is a large, square garment, often with knotted tassels at the edges. It is commonly worn on the head but has multiple other practical uses.
The shemagh is worn in dry, hot, arid regions to protect the wearer from harsh conditions, including the sun, dust, and sand.
It can also be used in colder climes to provide some warmth and protection from the snow and lower temperatures.
In the west, it became a hugely popular fashion accessory in the 1980s and early 90s, and (aging myself here) I can certainly remember owning my first one in my teenage years.
It was also immensely popular among teenagers in Japan during the early 2000s.
Today, it never seems to be out of fashion and remains a must-have item for all ages. Just ask the likes of David Beckham, Zac Efron, and Colin Farrell.
But it means many different things for many different people, and you should at least understand its history before jumping on the trendy bandwagon.
The wearing of the shemagh has a history as checkered as some of the patterns on the cloth, and dates back centuries, to Mesopotamian times.
It gained particular prominence in the 1930s, when used as a symbol of Palestinian revolt and nationalism, and later in the 1960s when it was iconically worn by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Some people choose to wear the shemagh today in support of the Palestinian people – but let’s not turn things political – there’s far too much of that going on already.
Find out more about the shemagh’s fascinating history by watching the excellent video below.
Stigma and Cultural Appropriation
Unfortunately, the shemagh has suffered a lot of negative stigmas over the years – largely thanks to mainstream media spin.
And racist trolls.
Some ill-informed people – most noticeably in the west – associate the garment with terrorists, military insurgents, radicals, and other, unsavory organizations.
People in the public eye have been called out for wearing a “jihad scarf.”
And you can sort of understand why, when photographs, images, and footage of heavily armed militias toting AK-47s are plastered across our screens on a daily basis – many of them wearing the shemagh.
To put it bluntly – this is a lot of bullshit. Sensationalist nonsense is designed to promote division and fear.
While these groups do wear the item, they wear it for exactly the same reasons that the vast majority of peaceful wearers do – to protect their head, face, and neck from harsh, hot conditions.
As such, we need to do away with those negative stereotypes – particularly when it comes to wearing the garment for combat sports.
I was appalled to read one so-called airsoft website encouraging the wearing of this garment to the team representing “terrorists.” It was worded in such a way that perpetuates this bigoted stigma.
And while certain overly-woke individuals will also cry foul with cultural appropriation, one must still take care to remain respectful when wearing any garment or item that is not born from one’s own culture.
If you’re going to wear the shemagh, it’s important you take the time to learn about its history, where it comes from, why people wear it, and what it represents.
Here’s a great article from the Atlantic on the dos and don’ts of cultural appropriation.
But the short answer is yes, you can wear the shemagh. Just be respectful about it, and keep reading to find out exactly how to do that.
Not everything needs to be politicized, FFS.
How to Wear the Shemagh
The beauty of this garment is that it is highly versatile, and it’s almost limitless in the ways it can be worn, depending on your needs.
It can be used to fully cover the face and head, as a simple scarf around the neck, and as a headpiece – in any number of different styles, each requiring a different technique to fold and wear the garment.
The video below offers just a few examples of the many ways to wear the shemagh.
The shemagh is commonly seen adorning the necks, shoulders, and heads of military personnel – particularly those operating in desert theaters.
That’s because it’s actually a standard issue for many of the world’s Special Forces, including Britain, Australia, and the US.
It’s also regarded as a “tactical” garment, given its versatility and the number of uses. This article further explores what makes tactical gear different from the ordinary stuff, and you’ll soon see why a shemagh fits right in.
And this in turn has made it a much sought-after item for combat sports enthusiasts, who wear the shemagh for airsoft and paintball games. It is often used in MilSim (Military Simulation) events.
Again, remember to do so respectfully. Wearing the shemagh to “represent terrorists” in an airsoft game is NOT cool. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.
Follow this link for some excellent tips and advice on what to wear for airsoft, and go here for a similar article if your preferred sport is paintball.
And this article will give you a general idea of the best tactical brands operating today.
Traveling with the Shemagh
As popular as the shemagh is with the Military, the fashion world, and in combat sports, it is equally sought after for travelers and backpackers.
Many never leave home without one.
I picked up my shemagh in South America, and it was with me for as long as I was on the road – a go-to garment come rain or shine. And the sheer number of practical uses is quite astonishing:
- Head and neck protection
- Carry bag
- Mat or ground cloth
- Emergency bandage/sling
- Water filter
- Heat/ice pack
- Eye mask
- Short sarong/modesty garment
- For covering/hiding belongings and gear
That list isn’t exhaustive, and this remarkable item of clothing should be in every traveler’s kit. You can also take it down the range, too, and follow this link for some tips and advice on range bag essentials.
Shemagh Colors and Patterns – What to Avoid
I found that wearing the shemagh in public in most countries was generally not a problem. However, when I arrived in the Middle East, I was asked to remove it once or twice.
This is likely because, in my ignorance, I had chosen a black and white coloring – which may or may not have some kind of cultural connotation in the particular region I was visiting.
Or, perhaps it was because I was wearing it incorrectly?
But when it comes to choosing the right shemagh color, I would err on the side of caution, and avoid traditional colors – such as black and white, and red and white.
The black and white pattern is commonly associated with the Palestinian struggle and nationalist movement. (Not 100% confirmed.)
The red and white pattern is thought to be linked to Palestinian Marxists, a socialist group founded in 1967. (Not 100% confirmed.)
Again, this is not set in stone, and you can wear either if you so choose. It just helps that you understand what they might be linked with before doing so.
Regardless, you’re still left with thousands of possible patterns, designs, and color combinations, and there are so many, non-traditional variations out there you’ll easily be able to find something that looks great with your loadout, without the risk of causing offense.
There are some stunning shemagh prints and designs available.
Just remember, if you’re using them for tactical purposes, you’ll probably want to blend into the background, so a camouflage shemagh might be a better choice.
And you can follow this link for an entertaining article on the different types of camouflage patterns if you’re interested in learning about the art of being a chameleon.
As awesome as this garment is, it should be noted that it’s not without its downsides, and there are a couple of shemagh limitations you ought to be aware of.
First, is that it’s not going to be a substitute for a proper dust mask/surgical mask/respirator. While it will help to keep airborne particles at bay, it won’t protect you 100%.
The second is that it isn’t a substitute for a winter scarf in plunging temperatures.
I found this out the hard way while hiking in the Andes. Sure, it will keep you warm to some extent, but don’t rely on it too heavily.
Finally, you might get more than some raised eyebrows if you’re wearing one covering your full face, wandering down a western high street.
As unfortunate as this stigma is, be prepared to field a few questions if you choose to wear the item in this manner.
Can women wear the shemagh?
Yes, of course. The shemagh is a main-stay of women’s fashion and is very popular among members of the fairer sex.
Is wearing the shemagh offensive?
No. Not at all. However, there are certain, small-minded people out there who would try to make you think it is, and might give you a hard time as a result. Tell them where to go.
It’s a similar story for civilians wearing American flag patches. Of course, you can do it – so long as you do so respectfully.
Provided you avoid wearing certain colors if you happen to be traveling in certain parts of the Arab world, then it’s highly unlikely that wearing the shemagh will cause anyone any offense.
Is a shemagh religious?
No, the shemagh has no religious symbolism in any way. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
It is, however, strongly associated with Arab history and culture.
While there are other types of headgear that have a religious significance, such as the hijab, the turban, and the kufi, the shemagh does not.
The shemagh is a beautiful, highly versatile garment that can be worn in multiple ways. However, there are certain shemagh colors that might cause the minority offense, and it should still be worn respectfully.
If you are going to wear one, I urge you to learn about its cultural significance and importance beforehand. Never wear a shemagh without knowing what it means.
Let me know about your experiences wearing the shemagh. What you use it for, and where you’ve worn it – or any thoughts you would like to share with the community on the subject.
Be well, be healthy, and stay safe out there!