Essaouira – Wooden chalet style buildings lined the edge of the dusty street, and outside each a hut sat huddled groups of women and girls. Bare feet and splayed hands basked in the sun and the intricate golden-brown lines on each finger grew darker and darker. Small girls proudly showcased the designs traced on their small hands, and groups of older women flicked through images in albums and on smartphones.
The public setting and buzz of excited chatter blended strangely with the intimacy of the scene.
The first summer I spent in Morocco was as a tourist, exploring Casablanca with the eye of someone not planning to stay. At the end of Ramadan, I watched the groups of women covertly as I walked slowly down the path behind a spice market. Intrigued, I wanted to be a part of the group and to share that excitement, to understand the history and culture behind that moment in the summer sun. And, three years later, I am slowly learning the importance of henna through my experiences of Morocco.
In contrast to my initial view of henna tattoos on Casablanca street corners at exorbitant prices, I began to get a real insight into the power of henna at the end-of-school-year party for the preschool students at my husband’s school. Expecting party games and screaming, I was surprised to hear no such noises from our flat above the school. I pottered downstairs to find out what was missing from the so-called party.
However, rather than finding disappointed children, a queue of thrilled little girls waited for me. All dressed in their finest kaftans or takchitas (traditional Moroccan party dresses), they watched, fascinated and in awe, as the teacher finished the beautiful Amazigh (Berber) design on the first little girl’s hand. She, in turn, called out to me in excitement to look at the finished product.
Like so many little princesses, the girls showed off the unique patterns on their hands as they went to join the little boys playing musical statues in the adjoining classroom.
For the children, henna simply meant celebration and a moment of being beautiful and special. But, while this is one aspect of the tradition, it by no means tells the whole story. In Morocco, henna is part of the life cycle of a woman, and for me, symbolizes female friendship, shared experience, and solidarity.
Mourning the girl
Henna is a key part of Moroccan wedding ceremonies. At my own Moroccan wedding, we chose to include the symbolic henna application in the wedding party. Wearing a green takchita, symbolizing fertility, I sat in front of the wedding guests while the negafas (women responsible for the bride during a Moroccan wedding) applied the henna.
My husband’s family explained to me that the henna, and the specific symbols, gave the bride luck and happiness. Henna also symbolizes the end of the girl’s life and, through her marriage, the beginning of the woman’s.
Many Moroccan brides choose to dedicate a day to the henna ritual, a day that is shared with female friends and family. Sharing the ceremony in this way, with female companions and maternal figures, adds to the symbolism of mourning the girl and celebrating the birth of the woman in the presence of those who can understand and share her journey.
It is not only henna tattoos that symbolize womanhood, or wifehood. According to Marie Anakee Miczak in her book “The History, Mystery, and Folklore of Henna,” Amazigh tribes used henna as a hair dye in order to differentiate married women. She explains that in mountain villages such as Ait Haddidou, “Akidou, their name for henna hair dye/mud, is applied to the hair of married or widowed women only.”
Miczak added that regions like Ait Haddidou, due to their remote locations, have retained more of the traditional Amazigh customs than Moroccans living in more easily accessible regions.
Welcoming new life
Henna is also part of a woman’s journey to motherhood. Some Moroccan women celebrate pregnancy with henna. Whether a full hand design or a simple spot of henna on the palm of the hand, in Moroccan tradition henna brings good luck and good health to both the mother and baby.
In February 2019, internet users all over the world hummed and hawed over Meghan Markle’s henna tattoo. When the duchess of Sussex visited Morocco with her husband Prince Harry, the grandson of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II, she made a point of visiting a girls’ boarding house in the Atlas Mountains. The pupils, beneficiaries of the “Education for All” project, welcomed the royal duchess and celebrated her pregnancy with a henna tattoo.
One of their housemothers told People Magazine, “Now she is pregnant we do the henna to keep her happy with the baby. For good luck.”
Luck is not henna’s only power, in Amazigh tradition henna can also protect women from the evil eye. Henna artists historically used painted symbols and patterns, in particular eyes and diamonds, to ward off evil spirits and the bad luck brought on by envious eyes.
In her book on Amazigh culture, “Amazigh Arts in Morocco: Women Shaping Cultural Identity,” Cynthia Becker explains that henna was used by traditional Amazigh communities during female “rights of passage,” including engagement, marriage, pregnancy, and widowhood, “due to its association with baraka (divine blessing).” She adds that henna protects women from jnoun (demons or evil spirits) during “crucial moments in the life cycle.”
While some of the origins of the traditions outlined by Becker may have been forgotten, henna remains a key part of female celebration and, more importantly, a reflection of female solidarity and shared experience. It is true that the men do use henna on some occasions due to its links with baraka, circumcision and marriage for example, but it does not hold the same importance as for women.
When I recall seeing the women of Casablanca gather to celebrate with henna, I do not remember the details of the patterns or the faces, what I remember is the feeling of warmth and the atmosphere of joy and acceptance.
When my mother visited Morocco for the first time to meet my husband’s family after our engagement, his mother organized a henna day. At the time, I remember thinking that it was a waste of an afternoon and worrying how my mother, the deputy head of a boarding school in the UK, would go back to school a week later with full hand tattoos.
However, after an afternoon of admiring each others’ designs, and asking and answering questions about weddings in our different cultures, I realized that the henna itself was not really the point.
So, now, when my mother-in-law spends an afternoon mixing herbs and henna to color my hair and, painstakingly, paints the mixture onto my hair, I cherish it because it means that I have been accepted into the henna life cycle.
While there are obviously other perspectives on the matter and have experienced only a fraction of Morocco’s henna traditions, I see the henna tradition as one of support, solidarity, and acceptance. And, unlike the tourists’ view of the fading embellishments, the sense of being part of the ancient female tradition of henna is indelible.