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Ghutra and shemag: where does Saudi scarf come from?

Headgear is an essential part of men’s dress code in Saudi Arabia. And on this point, ghutra and shemag are references. But what is the difference between the two Saudi “scarves” and why are they so popular in the Peninsula?

They are the first distinctive men’s accessory in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, they have become an inherent Arabian cliché, usually mistaken for their Palestinian cousin, the keffiyeh. From a Western point of view, they remain mostly as pieces of cloth, “plaid scarves” or “folk headgears” that males wear on the other side of the Red Sea. In short, everybody knows ghutra and shemagh, but not their intricacies.

Ghutra, ancestral anti-sun accessory

Ghutra and shemagh are indeed two indelible elements of Arabian folklore. But before turning into irremovable fashion and traditional accessories, the two headgears were above all a necessary equipment. A piece that has accompanied men, from time immemorial.

It is thus admitted that ghutra covered male heads even before the advent of Islam, protecting them from a particularly aggressive sun. Its white color and light fabric – cotton or linen – made it an important ally for Bedouins facing the arid climate of the Peninsula.

Un soldat saoudien en ghutra en 1944.

A Saudi soldier wearing a ghutra in 1944.

Shemagh, 50s fashion style

Ghutra was generally worn over a kufi – which was used to fix the scarf on the top of the head – and locked with a black rope, called iqal. This association has even been embraced by UK soldiers, during the British Protectorate over Saudi Arabia, instead of usual military caps and colonial helmets that seemed less comfy considering the local climate.

The first known photographs of Arabia dating back to the 19th century confirm that white ghutra was a widespread prop at that time, although the use of iqal was not systematic. Some shots also reveal variants with different colors. However, shemagh, its thick red-and-white checkered version, appears to show up only in the 1950s, especially in Jordan and Iraq.

The circumstances of its genesis still remain unclear today, even though everything suggests that its generalization stems mainly from a fashion effect. A vogue that remains active today alongside the ancestral white ghutra’s one.


Published on 15 December 2017