The secret of the dying tradition of Berber women’s facial tattooing

The facial tattoo of women in the ancient Berber tradition is a mark of cultural identity and femininity. Many African tribes regard the body as a decorative canvas and prefer to wear little or no clothing. Body decorations and transformations have been made to mark certain milestones in a person’s life.

For most tribes, decorations elevate a person’s status and enhance a person’s beauty, in short, it is a form of representation of their identity.

For this ethnic group in Northwest Africa, tattooing a woman is a means of communication. The different types of tattoos indicate his marital status, tribe and fertility. In other African cultures, some tattoos have religious overtones and others are believed to provide both spiritual and physical healing.

Historically, women of Berber or Amazigh culture were tattooed on the face in an era prior to the arrival of Islam in North Africa. Now, with the influx of Islam, many believe that any modification of Allah’s creation is haram or prohibited. In Arab culture, it is called It is Haram, which means “it is forbidden”.

Now those who have tattoos are stigmatized unlike before where women apart from their facial tattoos decorate their hands and feet with the inks. Others have even gone so far as to tattoo every square inch of their body.

Berber tattoos were seen to protect their wearers from evil spirits or Jhouns, who might attempt to possess the woman. The designs were stylistically done on women to protect them from the evil eye. So, in Berber culture, tattoos are called “Jedwel”, which means Talisman.

Many researchers like Lucienne Brousse have tried to better understand the symbolism of these tattoos. In his book, Feminine beauty and identity: Berber feminine tattoos from the regions of Biskra and Touggourt she seeks to answer the question of why tattoos in the first place, so that the new generation of Berbers does not shy away from the elderly due to their current beliefs stemming from Islam.

She has compiled and interpreted hundreds of drawings by her close friend Elaine Ocre. Ocre made these tattoo designs during her nursing career in Algeria.

From the photographic series ‘C’est Haram’, documenting the dying tradition of Berber women’s facial tattooing, Morocco, 2020. Photo: Giulia Frigieri / Culture Trip

“The symbol says” The eye of partridge “is a small diamond, its edges rounded or bearing a small cross”, writes Brousse in the chapter entitled “Complex symbols.

“For women who wear this symbol, it represents the bird itself, a symbol of beauty, of agility … and to represent this symbol on oneself is to attract what it symbolizes.”

However, Brousse said his work is only a “small study, not exhaustive, historical or comparative.”

“The paintings representing the palm leaf, originating in the Touggourt region, are particularly rich drawings which, with a few exceptions, are not representative of anything”, writes Brousse.

They view these tattoos as a relevant rite of passage that is added at key stages in their life. The ‘siyala’ is drawn on the chin. It symbolizes the palm tree.

“The palm leaf, like the palm tree, represents, for some women, the (unspoken) status of ‘mother goddess’, a source of wealth and a protective figure, like the protective shadow of a palm tree. “

Photographer Giulia Frigieri also spent time with Berber women of Morocco in the High Atlas Mountains and captured the few women who still proudly wear their tattoos. The photographic series is called ‘This is Haram’ and discovered these women in their 70s who certainly don’t see these tattoos as an abomination.

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