Photographer Yumna Al-Arashi had long been curious about the lines permanently writ across her great-grandmother’s face. Aisha, who was born in Aden, Yemen, had marks tattooed below the sides of her lips. When Al-Arashi began researching the origins of the tradition, she was bowled over by the matriarchal history she uncovered.
“Tattoos were a symbol of matriarchal power,” London-based Al-Arashi told HuffPost on the phone. The custom, once prevalent throughout the Middle East and North Africa, dates back thousands of years. Yasmin Bendaas, who undertook a similar project for the Pulitzer Center in 2012, notes that drawings of tattoos appear in the ancient Tomb of Seti and a centuries-old poem by Tarafa Ibn Alabd references women with “tattoos on the back of the hand.”
In large part, the appeal is aesthetic. Young daughters admired their mothers’ tattoos and yearned to one day get their own, just as Western girls count down the days until they can apply lipstick like their mothers. The designs themselves held rich symbolism, communicating connectedness to the earth and the fruits it produced, as well as the cosmos that made it so. Certain images also carried spiritual powers, including the ability to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from evil spirits.
Yet over the past century, something shifted. The same marks that once communicated power and beauty are now regarded by the younger generation to looking “weird” and “backwards,” Al-Arashi explained.
She attributes the shift, in part, to the spread of capitalism and the Western ideals of beauty that accompanied it. Another factor is the growing influence of Islam, which prohibits any permanent changes to the body. Bendaas points out that “Islam has been present in Algeria since the 7th century, yet only recently, after an increase in the literacy rate, has its impact on tattooing become evident.”
Women, for the most part, stopped tattooing their faces and bodies in the 1930s and 1940s. Some elderly women with tattoos have since opted to remove them because of the religious connotations. The ever-shrinking remaining generation of women bearing the traditional ink are now in their 70s and older.
“I knew there were still a lot of these women alive,” Al-Arashi said. “I wanted to find them and talk to them.” While photographers have documented traditional face tattoos before, Al-Arashi described their tones as Orientalist and voyeuristic, framing the subjects as other. She resolved to couple her subjects’ portraits with their own words, ensuring their stories were not misconstrued.
Al-Arashi embarked on a project funded by the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture, and the International Women’s Media Foundation, visiting Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, photographing tattooed women and hearing their stories firsthand. While many tattooed woman also live in Iraq and Syria and Yemen, Al-Arashi’s sponsors felt the destinations were too dangerous. “Those women are going to pass away without their stories being heard and that’s very tragic,” she said.
Al-Arashi met some of her subjects through friends of friends. Others she met through exploring villages, knocking on doors and asking if anyone had a grandmother with a face tattoo. The youngest women she captured were in their late 70s, the oldest was 109. She was blind and deaf, but Al-Arashi was sure she sensed her presence. She described the experience as supremely eerie.
Yet for the most part, Al-Arashi’s subjects were excited to share the tales that accompanied their ink. “I wanted these tattoos for as long as I could remember,” one woman recalled. “I wanted them to show my beauty, to highlight it. Every beautiful woman had tattoos. They symbolize my power, my beauty, and my ability to connect to the Earth. It’s something I’m so proud of.”
The tattoos, administered by nomadic women called “adasiya,” are often similar along village lines. Agricultural crops common to a region, for example, will often manifest in the designs. Al-Arashi remembered speaking to a woman who snuck out of her house at 9 years old and gave an adasiya eggs in exchange or a tattoo. Her mother freaked out but she didn’t care; she thought the tattoos were beautiful.
Brika, a Tunisian woman pictured above, described the symbolism of her tattoo in stunning detail. “I have the stars and the moon on my cheeks,” she said. “They’re the most beautiful things my eyes have seen. I don’t know how to read or write and I don’t have any devices like you, but I know my land and my Earth, the stars and moon help me navigate it. That’s why I’m here.”
The waning tattoo tradition, Al-Arashi explained, represents an earlier era when feminine power reigned supreme. The markings signify the amalgamation of flesh and spirit, the personal and the universal, the ethereal and the everyday. They represent a generation that communicated through music, myths and stories, when beauty and power went hand in hand.
Looking back on the project, Al-Arashi mourned the inevitable passing of this matriarchal tradition and all that it represented. But of course, the force, the charm, the ritual embedded within the customary ink will persist beyond the marks themselves. They will live on through women.
Al-Arashi recalled a particularly affecting conversation with a cab driver, an Amazigh (Berber) man living in Morocco. When she asked how his people had survived after being conquered by the Romans, the Italians, the French and now the Arabs, he replied: “Because of women. When your world is run by women, it never dies.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story suggested the Quran explicitly prohibits tattoos.
This article has been updated to note previous research Pulitzer Center fellow Yasmin Bendaas conducted in 2012.