These Photographs Are Preserving the Vanishing Tradition of Female Facial Tattoos

Photographer Yumna Al-Arashi would know. At a young age, she saw her great grandmother’s tattoos for the first time: a constellation of delicate markings that filled the space under her bottom lip.

At first, Al-Arashi didn’t think twice about the tattoos—the faces of many of the older women in her great grandmother’s native Yemen bore similar designs. But as Al-Arashi grew older, and more interested in the role of women in the Muslim world, she began to wonder: What was the origin of these tattoos? What did they symbolize? And why was the age-old tradition disappearing?

This past winter, Al-Arashi—who is Muslim, and grew up in Washington, D.C.—spent three months trekking across North Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia to Algeria, to get to the bottom of these questions. She came back with intimate portraits of women whose aging faces and bodies are spangled with intricate black markings. She also returned with their stories, which begin to shed light on the origins of the tattooing practice—and why it is in the process of vanishing.

For the last five years, Al-Arashi has explored the experience of women in the Muslim world through her work. For her 2014 project “Northern Yemen,” for instance, she photographed women wearing hijabs against stark Yemeni landscapes, their robes billowing in the wind, exuding a heroic strength. Through the series, Al-Arashi addressed the stereotypes (that all covered women are weak and without agency, for instance) that stifle Muslim women.

Her work documenting the last generation of tattooed women across the Middle East and North Africa also comes from an interest in unearthing a more “nuanced, full picture of women in the Muslim world,” she tells me. She has a theory about the tradition’s impending disappearance: that it “physically marks the loss of women’s power, not just in the Middle East, but on a grander scale throughout the world.”

Al-Arashi began researching the origins of female facial tattoos about a year ago, online and in libraries in Beirut, where she was in the middle of a residency, and London, where she lives and works. But her research came up mostly dry. “I realized there was still a huge gap in the story behind these tattoos, their symbolism, and what they represent, on a larger scale, to the Arab woman and the Muslim woman,” she explains.

What’s more, the documentation she did find was written from a Western perspective. “That position tended to present these women as even more alien than they’re already perceived to be by younger generations,” she says. “I realized that I needed to go in and learn about the tattoos from the source.”

After securing a pair of grants, from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and The International Women’s Media Foundation, Al-Arashi began to plan her trip, mapping the locations where the tattooing tradition is most prevalent. While she learned that Yemen, Syria, and Iraq had high concentrations, “they are all in such a deep state of war,” she says, “and I’m not as accomplished a reporter as I’d need to be to put myself in those places.” So she turned her sights to North Africa, and plotted a trip through the countryside in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Accompanied by a driver and translator in each country, Al-Arashi traveled from village to village, asking strangers if they knew women with facial tattoos. “Arabs are notorious for being the most welcoming people on earth,” she recalls. “We’d literally just knock on the door of a stranger’s farm, and they’d happily let us in, offer us tea, and talk for hours.”

Through these conversations Al-Arashi got to know a cohort of older women, mostly in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, who had tattooed their faces, and in some cases bodies, as acts of beautification, devotion to female goddesses, and appreciation for the lands in which they live.

One photograph, which Al-Arashi took in Tunisia, shows a woman named Brika. Al-Arashi first glimpsed her, standing in front of her farm, as the sun was setting. She wore an elaborately patterned shirt, a long skirt, scarves wrapped around her head for warmth (it was a cold day), and a men’s blazer. On her face, she had three tattoos. One cheek held a small circle, the other a star.

“She told me the markings represent the moon and the stars,” Al-Arashi says. When she asked Brika why she’d gotten them, Brika explained that they were “the most beautiful things her eyes have ever seen, and that they’ve helped her navigate her land.”

Brika told Al-Arashi that she is a farmer who doesn’t read or write or have newfangled tools to cultivate her olives, fruits, and vegetables. Instead, she relies on her knowledge of the sky and the landscape to guide her. “I dedicate these tattoos to them,” she told Al-Arashi. “If it wasn’t for my ability to read the moon, I wouldn’t know how to tend my crop, or know anything about my well-being.” The marking on her forehead symbolizes a palm tree, a dedication to the plants she grows.

Other women Al-Arashi met had tattoos that also paid homage to the land that, in many cases, they lived off of. Aisha Baya, for instance, also has stars on both cheeks. These are joined by a smattering of dots on her chin, which she explained was a dedication to Fatima, the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, who Al-Arashi notes has wields great power in the Quran and has become a symbol of feminism amongst progressive Muslim women. “She represents the importance of women’s power in the religion,” she explains. “We often forget, in Islam, that the woman actually had so much more power than we give her today. It’s something that’s been completely overlooked recently.”

One visit with an elderly Tunisian woman drove this point home for Al-Arashi. While all of the women before her were excited to tell the stories behind their tattoos, Sassiya, who was heavily tattooed on both her face and body, became upset. “She had been led to believe by her son, as well as other younger people in the region, that she’s going to hell for having all these tattoos,” Al-Arashi remembers. “It was so sad to see how men had manipulated this women into thinking that something is wrong with her.”

Al-Arashi’s experience with Sassiya offered a glimpse into why women in this region have stopped getting tattoos, and why the tradition is vanishing. She has also noted that economic factors have impacted their disappearance. “Globalization brought a shift from depending on the earth to relying on capitalistic endeavors,” she explains. “So much of the symbolism of the tattoos represents these women’s connection to the land. As that connection loses its strength, the tattoos are disappearing, too.”

As Al Jazeera has reported, other developments have worked against the tradition. “With a rise in Arabic literacy specifically,” they note, discussing the practice in Algeria in particular, “it became more widely known that tattoos are considered haram, or religiously prohibited, in Islam.”

Luckily, though, in the photos Al-Arashi captured, the practice—and in turn, Muslim women’s power and connection with the land—will be preserved.

By Alexxa Gotthardt