Shemaghs: A Rich History of Versatility

SAS team wearing tactical shemaghs.
February 3, 2023  
|  4 Comments
Categories: Gear Curious
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One of the most universally used pieces of gear are shemaghs, also known as keffiyehs. From a traditional headdress to tactical wear, they’re perfect for a number of uses. Typically made of cotton, a shemagh is a square scarf. When worn in the middle east they’re traditionally paired with an agal. No matter how they’re worn, they protect from the sun, dust, dirt, and sand.

What Are Shemaghs?

shemagh (plural shemaghs) “schmog” noun: a headcloth designed for a desert environment to protect the wearer from sand and heat.

Shemagh pictured both folded and worn.

Modern shemagh available on eBay. (eBay via god.house)

History of the Shemagh

The shemagh has a long history dating back to 3100 B.C. when Sumerian priests in Mesopotamia wore them as a symbol of rank and power. However, they later became prominent during the 1930s as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab revolt. Then the Palestinian resistance movement appropriated shemaghs commonly during the 1960s during the Palestinian resistance movement.

Man wearing a shemagh turban-style.

Yemeni Arab man wearing a turban-styled keffiyeh, also known as a shemagh. (Rod Waddington via Wikipedia)

During the late 1980s, the shemagh became a fashion accessory in the United States and then in Japan in the 2000s. Popular retailer Urban Outfitters modernized the shemagh in the west and kept it in stock until they chose to pull it from the shelves due to controversy.

Saudi Prince wearing a shemagh.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wearing a shemagh with an agal at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit on July 16, 2022. Bandar Algaloud via Rueters.

Tactically, militaries around the world adopted the shemagh as a standard-issue garment. The British military adopted it for several decades, even dating back to World War II. They are still constantly utilized by militaries for various uses, mostly to protect soldiers in arid environments. The simplicity of the shemagh brings versatility for a wide array of uses.

SAS team wearing tactical shemaghs.

SAS team sitting in North Africa during WWII. (unknown via spotterup.com)

Shemagh’s Many Uses

According to expertvagabond.com, uses for the shemagh include:

  • ​​Dust Protection – Cover your face on motorcycles, trucks, and buses.
  • Sun Protection – Great for when you’re stranded without shade.
  • Towel – Small, lightweight, fast drying, but thick enough to get the job done.
  • Ground Cloth – Keep your butt clean and dry when sitting on the ground.
  • Warmth – Wrap it around your neck as a scarf to keep warm.
  • Bag – Put items in the center and tie corners together. Instant hobo sack.
  • Sarong – Wrap around your waist for modesty. Shorter than a normal one.
  • Sweat Rag – Great for hiking, running, or other sweat-inducing activities.
  • Arm Sling – Sprain a wrist or break an arm? Temporary immobilization.
  • Emergency Bandage – Help stop bleeding and protect the wound.
  • Pillow – Thick & soft enough to ball up and use for bus rides/camping trips.
  • Weapon – Twist a rock up in the middle. Swing away. Self-defense tool!
  • ConcealmentUse to hide valuables in crowded areas.
  • Rope – Long enough to be rolled up to tie things together.
  • Water Filter – Fold multiple times to filter debris from water before boiling.
  • Pot Holder – Take that boiling water you just filtered off the fire!
  • Keeping Cool – Soak in cold water and wrap it around your neck.
  • Signal Flag – Large enough to wave to get attention.
  • Blanket – Decent for covering some of your upper or lower body.
  • Eye Mask – Sleep during the day or in a hostel when lights are on.
U.S. Marine wearing a shemagh.

U.S. Marine Lance Corporal France A. Mahabub, 3rd Platoon, 1st Battalion 3rd Marine Division, wearing a shemagh to an IED explosion site in Torkhem, Afghanistan. (PingNews via shtfblog)

FAQ 

What are the uses of Shemaghs?

The Shemagh’s primary use is to shield the face from heat, dust, and sand. Shemaghs are traditionally worn in the middle east but have spread worldwide—especially in arid environments. Many militaries have also adopted the shemagh for their soldiers for protection and camouflage.

What Militaries use a Shemagh?

Shemaghs have a history mainly in the British military since WWII, but several other militaries have started using it. Even if a military has not formally adopted it using an item such as a scrim, many soldiers order it for themselves.

Are Shemaghs good for heat or cold?

Shemaghs are good for either! They shield the face from cold and wind chill even in the coldest climates. In the heat, they help stay cool and offer protection from the sun, heat, and sand. There are colors available meant for use in different climates: darker shades for the cold and lighter shades for heat. The most commonly worn color, however, is white. 

What is a Shemagh made of?

A Shemagh is typically made of woven cotton, providing light weight, strength, and durability. However, sometimes it is available variations such as wool. Traditionally these fabrics are white, and tactically they are found in similar colors to camouflage.

Man demonstrating how to tie a shemagh.

Creek Stewart demonstrates how to tie a shemagh properly. (Creek Stewart via artofmanliness)

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Grace Ainsworth

Grace Ainsworth

About the Author

Grace is a freelancer of many talents: writer, artist, designer, and photographer. Maybe also smart-aleck and gunslinger, we're not entirely sure. We'll know better after she's been with us a while!

4 Comments

  1. 993

    The left was whining about cultural misappropriation as usual. They would get bent out of shape if they new I ate cultural cuisine too not appropriate for my background.

    Reply
  2. WRX222

    So why was wearing shemaghs banned in some areas and what is so taboo about it? This would be the controversy in my opinion but the article doesn’t elaborate.

    Reply
  3. T. Kinsey

    In the Cav we all snagged at least two of the OD Green cravats from the first aid kit. Wearing cowboy style until moving when you’d spin it around to cover your face like a bandit so that you didn’t breathe in all the dust kicked up by armored vehicles. It was something widely adopted, even by officers.

    Reply
  4. Bemused Berserker

    So what was the Shemagh Controversy? You mention it, but give no description of what happened that made the controversy.

    Reply

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