Rabat – Historically, Amazigh (Berber) women tattooed their faces, feet, arms, and other body parts for beauty, health, and protection. However, as Morocco’s cultural dynamics and traditions change with time, globalization, and the influence of Islam in society, the ancient tradition is quickly disappearing.
Amazigh women with tattoos today were born in a time when tattoos were highly encouraged, celebrated, and an integral part of their lives. Within their lifetimes, the women witnessed an unexpected transformation within Morocco and North Africa, where their tattoos, which once made them sought after, became a source of shame.
Tattooing is an ancient tradition practiced in cultures around the world. In North Africa, the tradition of tattooing dates to pre-Islamic times, and Amazigh populations across Morocco have practiced it consistently since then.
Historically, the tattooing aided nomadic Amazigh tribes in distinguishing members of different groups. Symbols within the tattoos served as a unifying force, deeply rooted in each group’s history and purpose. Beyond beautification, tattoos told the stories of tribes, tied women to their land, and conveyed familial ties.
As a result of a new stigma due to the occupation of the French and the rise of Islam in Morocco, this practice is now quickly disappearing. At the moment, the tattooed elderly Amazigh women of today are the last generation to have taken part in the tradition.
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Traditionally placed on women, Amazigh tattoo designs are extremely symbolic and are believed to induce fertility, to cure illnesses, and to protect against spirits or jnoun. Much of the time, Amazigh tattoos are placed near the eyes, mouth, and nose. The markings, tattooed on Amazigh girls beginning at a young age, acted as a rite of passage. After an Amazigh girl was tattooed, she became a woman with the potential of motherhood.
Tattoos followed Amazigh women throughout their lives. The first facial tattoo is called the “siyala” and is placed on the chin for fertility. At an early age, women also applied tattoos to protect from death and disease. Along with important milestones, such as with the onset of puberty or for fertility, women received more tattoos. Tattoos were also used to convey one’s social or marital status and portray beauty.
Later in life, if a woman’s social status changed, her tattoos would evolve with them. If a woman was widowed, she may have a tattoo from one ear to the other, symbolizing the beard of her dead husband.
However, when asked about the purpose of their tattoos in interviews, many tattooed women and their family members told Morocco World News the purpose was solely decoration and to make them beautiful. Fatima, an elderly women with many facial tattoos stated her tattoos were “the same as makeup.”
When asked about the meaning of the symbols on her face, another woman from Khemisset, a city east of Rabat, stated they are “just for decoration.”
Many tattoo symbols have relationships with vegetation. The palm tree is a common facial tattoo, drawn as a straight line surrounded by dots that represent seeds. It is placed between the bottom lip and chin of a woman as a “siyala.”
The tattoo correlates with the Carthaginian goddess Tanit, who is the fertility, war, and lunar goddess to the Amazigh people. The tattoo is a symbol of fertility and regarded as one of the most beautiful symbols a woman could have on her face.
Tattoos relating to the animal world are correlated with female sexuality. Additionally, tattoos with diamond shapes, such as the eye or flower, were seen as a source of protection against evil spirits.
One of the most important facets of the designs was the way they connected women as they were passed from mother to daughter and between generations.
A tattoo artist, usually a middle-aged woman from within or near a girl’s town, came occasionally to tattoo the young women of different villages. Tattoo mistresses would have their own signature twist on the designs special to the artist and region. When tattooing, the artist used the opportunity to deliver advice, answer questions, and share news with the woman being tattooed.
The women tattoo artists created the ink for the tattooing in several ways. One of the most common of these preparations was to squeeze the leaves of broad (fava) beans. Along with the dye, the tattooist would also use sharp needles, incense, black coal, and aromatic herbs.
However, this supportive tattooing process was not always the case. One elderly woman, Hama, who spoke to MWN in Khemisset, stated that a tattoo artist came to her town and forcefully tattooed her face despite her cries for help. She was only 12 years old, and after the encounter she ended up with a tattoo between her eyebrows and a line down her chin for the rest of her life.
The role of tattoos began to shift at the beginning of the 20th century with the French occupation of Morocco. For some Amazigh women, the occupation encouraged them to get tattoos, since they believed that the tattoos could protect them from rape.
According to Professor Ahmed Aassid, during the time of the French colonization, women used tattoos to show their independence and exert freedom. The tattoos were also used to inspire Moroccan men to work harder.
During the occupation, the French established brothels around Morocco and abducted Amazigh women from rural regions to work as prostitutes in these brothels. Since many of the Amazigh women had tattoos, a relationship grew between prostitution and facial tattoos. Slowly, Moroccan society began to judge women with facial tattoos, associating them with prostitution.
Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, Middle Easterners, mainly influenced by the extremely conservative Salafi branch of Islam, were encouraged by King Hassan II to travel around Morocco to counter the influence of the left wing. According to Amazigh specialist Michael Peyron, as a part of the Salafi preachings, the teachers conveyed that tattoos were “haram” and therefore forbidden.
The teachers who were trained in Saudi Arabia endorsed a rigorous, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. While Wahhabism existed in Morocco since the 19th century, it did not benefit from government support until the 1980s. During their teachings, in addition to condemning tattoos, the teachers also preached about the importance of wearing the hijab, in turn significantly impacting the practice of wearing the hijab in Morocco.
Although in the Qur’an there is no mention of tattooing, one hadith, or story about the Prophet Muhammad, does condemn the practice. According to the hadith Sahih al-Bukhari, narrated by Abu Hudhayfa, “The Prophet cursed the one who does tattoos and the one who has a tattoo done.” This is because the process of tattooing changes the body, thus altering God’s creation.
Another claim against the tradition is that tattoos prevent water from reaching the skin and in turn obstruct “wudu” or the ritual ablutions of purification. However, in reality, tattooing is done several layers beneath the skin, so it does not affect the water touching the skin.
Despite Islam being the main reason the tradition has disappeared, tattooing has been traced to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, when most women were tattooed. Lalla Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the prophet, likely wore the siyala tattoo on her chin.
According to Amazigh activist, Ahmed Assad, in areas with religious influence, the tradition no longer continues because tattoos are seen as “haram.” However in some regions with less religious influence like Khenifra in the central Middle Atlas Mountains, the Zayanes Amazigh population continues the tradition.
Since the mid-1980s, the tradition of tattooing has ceased to continue in most of Morocco. The disappearance of the tradition is not only linked to the French occupation of Morocco and the role of Islam, but also to urbanization and modernization of Moroccan society. Traditional tattoos, such as those of Amazigh women are now seen as unbecoming and non-modern.
In turning away from traditional Amazigh tattoos, Moroccan women now channel this form of expression and beauty through henna. Additionally, some youth in Morocco are turning to modern tattoos, despite it being “haram.”
In urban regions of Morocco, such as Rabat or Casablanca, it is rare to see women with facial or body tattoos. Some women, especially those in large cities, have opted to get their tattoos removed through a painful and costly process.
In rural regions, the tattooing tradition rarely continues. There are no longer young women getting tattoos in most regions, but many of the women in the older generation still have the tattoos on their faces, hands, and feet.
Several women MWN spoke to in the city of Khemisset stated that they used to be proud of their tattoos and thought they were beautiful, but now they are deeply ashamed of them and feel guilty because their tattoos are “haram.” Fatima in Khemisset stated she feels guilty and believes having the tattoo is like a crime.
Husbands and families who encouraged or forced women to get tattoos at a young age now suggest they get their tattoos removed or covered. Tattoo symbols which were passed down between generations will not continue past their skin.
The tradition of tattooing connects the Amazigh people of Morocco to many communities of indigenous people worldwide who use tattooing as a form of expression, healing, and protection. Around the world, traditions of indigenous groups face the growing threat of globalization and modernization, which has in turn led to the disappearance of many indigenous tribes and practices. In Morocco and North Africa, this is no different.
It is up to the Moroccan people to decide what will be lost with the end of a centuries-old tradition. How will Morocco preserve the photographs, symbols, purposes, and stories of the tattooed Amazigh women for the future? How will Morocco protect the ancient traditions that remain?