Tattooing in Berber women (North Africa)

Historically, within the Amazigh (Berber) culture, women were tattooed facially. The practice was widespread before the arrival of Islam in North Africa. However, since the arrival of the Islamic faith, the belief that to alter a creation of Allah is haram (forbidden) has led to an almost complete decline in the practice. Since then, henna designs (harquus) are often used to produce the tattoo designs but on a temporary basis. These temporary adornments are usually limited to the hands and the feet, nowadays and so facial tattooing is a vanishing art.

Berber woman and child, showing the facial tattoos of the mother
Berber woman and child, showing the facial tattoos of the mother

Berber tattoos were often placed around the body openings (eyes, nose, mouth, navel and vagina) or on body surfaces perceived as vulnerable (feet and hands) as these areas were considered to require protection from bad spirits (jnoun) which may try to enter a woman’s body and possess her. Many tattoos were designed to provide protection from the evil eye. Indeed, the name for Berber tattoos is jedwel meaning talisman.

The tattoos are often relevant to rites of passage and were added at key stages of a woman’s life. The first of the facial tattoos is called siyala and is on the chin. Siyala often takes the form of a symbolic palm tree tattoo which consists of a simple straight line from the bottom of the lip to the bottom of the chin. This line would sometimes be flanked by dots representing seeds. At puberty, girls were often decorated with siyala to promote their ability to have healthy children. The second tattoo is called ghemaza and is placed between the eyebrows. This tattoo when later extended to the forehead is known as el ayach  (the lucky charm).


Tunisia By Roslind Varghese Brown, Michael Spilling





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