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Algeria’s dying art: Berber women with facial tattoos tell their stories

By David Sim

First appeared on the net December 30, 2015

A facial tattoo was once considered a sign of beauty among Berber women of the Chaouia (or Shawia) region in eastern Algeria’s Aures mountains. The practice is frowned on today by the country’s majority Sunni Muslim population, as it is Haram (forbidden) to alter one of Allah’s creations.

Reuters photographer Zohra Bensemra visited 10 elderly Berber women, ranging in age from 68 to 106, and asked them when they were inked and how they felt about their tattoos now. Some told her they regretted the tattoos and, to make amends, have given away their treasured silver jewellery to deprived women. However, one woman said being tattooed brought her luck and enabled her to have many children, saving her marriage in the process.

Aisha Djelal (below), now 73, was tattooed when she was 25. She wanted to be more attractive than other girls her age by using body art, a decision she regretted later in life. Some believers told women including Djelal that, by allowing the tattoos, they had committed a sin according to Islam. To make amends, many have donated treasured possessions to the most deprived women they know. “I’ve given away all my silver jewellery after turning the offering seven times on my tattoo while I was crying,” said Aisha. “I feel like every tear has washed away a bit of my tattoo.”

Aisha Djelal, 73 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

“It was the rule, it was fashionable too,” said Fatma Tarnouni, 106. “To be beautiful, you had to be tattooed, so I did it.”

Fatma Tarnouni, 106 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Fatma Badredine, 94, was tattooed at the age of 13 by a nomadic woman from the Sahara region. “I had to endure excruciating pain just to look pretty,” she said. “I wanted to have the tattoo removed but my doctor advised against it, my age doesn’t allow it.”

Fatma Badredine, 94 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Mazouza Bouglada, 86, was tattooed at the age of seven by a nomadic man from the Sahara region. She was advised by her mother to get tattooed. The more she got tattooed, the more she showed off. Even if she still remembers the pain, she felt beautiful once it was done, she said. She was very proud of her stars on her cheeks. Her eldest sister had been tattooed before her and she wanted to imitate her. She says she has now given away all her silver jewellery to atone for the sin that believers told her she had committed.

Mazouza Bouglada, 86 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Djena Benzahra, 74, was forced to have a tattoo when she was nine years old by her mother, who wanted her to look beautiful. All the girls her age were tattooed, her mother said. “I still remember, it was so painful and I was crying, refusing to be tattooed,” she said. Today even if her tattoo looks small she regrets allowing her mother to do it, because religious people around her have told her that she has committed a sin. “To ask forgiveness from God, I’ve given away all my silver jewellery after turning the offering seven times on my tattoo,” she said.

Djena Benzahra, 74 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

“I did it because all the girls my age were tattooed,” said Fatma Haddad, 80, who was tattooed at the age of 18 by a local woman. Today she regrets that decision and has given away her silver jewellery to make amends. “At that time we were very young, even if we didn’t have extensive knowledge about the religion, our thoughts were far from committing a sin,” Haddad said.

Fatma Haddad, 80 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Djemaa Daoudi, 90, was forced to have a tattoo by her husband just after their wedding when she was 15 years old because it was a fashion. A local Berber woman tattooed her. Today she regrets being tattooed. “Even if it was not my decision at the time to be tattooed, to ask forgiveness from God, I’ve given everything I consider precious, like my silver jewellery and my wool, as alms,” she said.

Djemaa Daoudi, 90 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

A local woman tattooed Fatma Benyadir, 75, when she was 12 years old. “I did it without telling my parents. All the girls my age were tattooed,” she said. “I had to endure excruciating pain, the anger of my parents later, just to look pretty.”She says she now regrets being tattooed and has given away her silver after rubbing it on her tattoos, which gave her the feeling that she was removing them.

Fatma Benyadir, 75 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

“In my case it was different,” said Khamsaa Hougali, aged 68. “My stepmother advised me to get tattooed to bring luck after the sudden death of my first three children. My cousin and sister-in-law tattooed me. I had the feeling that God would give me the children I wanted and save my marriage. It was not acceptable to be a wife without having children. Believe it or not, but what I know is, that after being tattooed I had six children and they are still alive.” She doesn’t regret the tattoo, despite been told by religious people around her that she has committed a sin. “I just followed the tradition of my ancestors and it was for a good purpose as it saved my marriage.”

Khamsaa Hougali, 68 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Khadra Kabssi, 74, was tattooed at the age of 21 by her cousin following Algeria’s independence from France. “I wanted to be beautiful for the independence of my country, and all the girls my age were tattooed,” she said. “At that time we were very young, our thought was far from committing any sin. I just wanted to feel pretty.” Today she doesn’t regret being tattooed, despite being told by religious people and friends around her that she will endure punishment after her death. “I don’t believe what they are saying at all,” she said. “If the snake, as they said, wants to eat me then he is free to do it. I will be dead, I’ll feel nothing.”

Khadra Kabssi, 74 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Additional reporting by Reuters.