The Miss Universe pageant and cultural erasure in Israel

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On Sunday 12th December, the new Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu of India was crowned in Eilat, Israel in a pageant surrounded by controversy. Beatrice Luigi Gomez, Miss Philippines, put up a seemingly inoffensive tweet, picturing herself and other contestants wearing traditional robes and making traditional food, under the tourist tag visit Israel. The problem? The robes worn by the contestants are traditional Palestinian thobes (also spelt thawb).

The thobe is a traditional embroidered garment worn by Palestinian women, usually on special occasions, such as weddings. But the Palestinian thobe represents so much more than just tradition. The garment became a political symbol of Palestinian nationalism after the war of 1948, which Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba (the catastrophe). 

For Palestinians, the thobe represents home through its embroided patterns and cultural significance

Throughout the Israel-Palestine conflict, the thobe has been used as a symbolic resistance against dispossession and cultural appropriation, a history explained by the Palestinian Museum in a 2018 exhibition of Palestinian embroidery. In the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising), the patterns of thobes began to incorporate guns, flowers and doves. 

After Palestinian flags began to be confiscated by Israeli soldiers, the flag and its colours were woven into the designs. The embroidery pattern and style vary by city, meaning each variation asserts heritage.  The garment hit international news in 2018 when Rashida Tlaib – the first Palestinian-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress – was sworn in wearing a thobe, inspiring Palestinian women to share pictures of their thobes on social media under the hashtag #TweetYourThobe.

This issue comes amid a broader concerted effort by the Israeli Government to erase the historical presence of Palestine and strengthen the claims made to the land. At its most physical level, Palestinian houses are razed and replaced, such as the case of Zippori National Park being built over the remains of Saffuriyya, a Palestinian Arab village. But the erasure of Palestine goes beyond the physical to the cultural, and so obscures the pride that comes with heritage and tradition. For Palestinians, the thobe represents home through its embroidered patterns and cultural significance, and the reframing of the thobe as Israeli fashion erases that sense of home.

54% of Gazans are food insecure and over 75% are aid recipients

The Miss Universe pageant came in the same week as Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz announced the completion of the ‘iron wall’ project on December 7th. The ‘iron wall’ stretches 40 miles around the border between Israel and the Gaza strip and will further enclose the residents of Gaza. The UN states that “the Gaza blockade (through the land, air and sea) is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law and amounts to collective punishment”, and the extension of this blockade through the ‘iron wall’ will worsen food insecurity and lack of construction materials. The Gaza strip has very high poverty levels, with current UN figures showing that 54% of Gazans are food insecure and over 75% are aid recipients.

The wall is equipped with underground sensors and radar systems aimed to prevent attacks from the terror group Hamas. Key to this operation are underground sensors, designed to locate tunnels. While tunnels have been used by Hamas for terror attacks, they are also used by smugglers, many of which are children, who bring goods through the tunnels – a dangerous industry, which is the direct result of the enforced isolation of Gaza.

These two events reveal the double-edged sword of Israeli policy regarding Palestine. The ‘iron wall’ is a visible show of force that constrains and controls populations, and the appropriation of the thobe is a symbolic erasure of the culture and traditions of Palestinian people. As easy as it may be to focus solely on the 40-mile barbed wire adorned walls, we cannot neglect the cultural erasure of the Palestinian identity occurring concurrently. 

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