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Traditional Tattoos and Femininity

Tattooing has been a part of ancient traditions across the world, for men and women alike. In several cultures, including Pakistan, it has also been a symbol of feminity. This blog explores ethnic tattoo practices in women, from the Japanese archipelago to North America.



The Ainu


Lip tattoos for Ainu women held deep significance, repelling evil spirits, marking maturity and readiness for marriage, and ensuring life after death. Starting as young as five or six, Ainu girls received tattoos on their arms and hands with curvilinear and geometric designs to protect against evil spirits. The braidform pattern was particularly meaningful, symbolizing ties used in burial rites.


Until recently, facial tattoos were a key part of Ainu identity. Exclusive to women, tattooing was done by grandmothers or aunts, linking the practice to matrilineal kinship. The last fully tattooed Ainu woman passed away in 1998.


As early as 1799, the Ezo Shogunate banned Ainu tattoos, in an effort to assimilate the Ainu. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission declared the custom outlawed entirely. Ainu women continued tattooing, viewing it as essential for marriage, and as a religious custom.






The Sindhis


Tattooing is a part of the ancient traditions of the women of Sindh’s Hindu communities. It includes the Kachhi, Jogi, Mewasi, and the Rabari. These tattoos symbolize identity, beliefs, and significant life events.


Mewasi women adorn their foreheads with a moon and star between their eyebrows, representing the third eye of goddess Shiva. This significant tattoo marks a girl's journey into womanhood and marriage.


Jogi women proudly wear the ‘Makhhari’—a large locust tattoo on their foreheads. This symbol, along with tattoos of snakes and scorpions, is believed to protect them from deadly creatures.


Kachhi Kolhi women often have a small cross tattoo, known as ‘Ronkhri,’ on their cheeks. This subtle yet powerful symbol is a mark of their cultural identity.



The Pakhtuns


Tattoos are also a traditional practice amongst Pakhtun women. The Sheen Khaal, a natural blue-green tattoo, has long been a marker of beauty and protection against the evil eye. This traditional art is both a cultural emblem and a personal adornment.


These tattoos, placed on the cheeks or chin, are created using single needle pricks in a spiral or a pattern of 3 or 4 dots. The nomads of what was known as the Sarhad region, such as the Ghilzai's, often also used patterns made of lines on the forehead. However, this ancient practice is beginning to die out.


Many young women now opt for temporary Sheen Khaal tattoos instead, reflecting changing times and preferences. The decline of Sheen Khaal began during periods of displacement, first with the Soviet invasion and later during the American occupation of Afghanistan. These turbulent times disrupted traditional practices. The rise in religious extremism, and the belief that tattoos are haram, or forbidden, in Islam also led to the practice being abandoned.




The Baloch


There is also a tradition of tattoos amongst Baloch women, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Usually, in the form of dots, people get them done when they have ailments because they are believed to have healing powers.


The Sheen Khaal was also popular in Brahui tribes but is now rarely practised by younger women, due to the rise in religiosity.



The Arab Bedouins


Tattooing among both men and women is an integral part of Bedouin culture, especially in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. These tattoos serve multiple purposes: they ward off evil forces, provide strength, and protect the wearer in battle. Common areas for tattoos include the face, ankles, wrists, and other body parts. Some Bedouin tribes believe tattoos can cure ailments. Dots on the side of the head or above the eyes are said to heal aches and pains.


Tattoo traditions vary among tribes. In some communities, a Bedouin girl's tattoos are chosen by her mother based on desired traits. A dot on the nose symbolizes the hope for a long life. Tattoos also serve as a system of tribal identification. Learned Bedouins can often determine a person's tribe by their tattoos.



The Kurds


Facial tattoos, or deq, are a significant cultural tradition among the Kurdish people in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. These tattoos, often resembling a beard and primarily focused on the chin, are especially prevalent among mature women aged 60 and above, symbolizing beauty. For younger women, the designs are more minimalist, typically forming a simple dot on the cheek or chin.


The tattoos are traditionally created at home using a sewing needle to puncture the skin, followed by filling the puncture with soot to leave a dark black mark. The symbols in deq tattoos often draw inspiration from nature, depicting plants, stars, and animals, with meanings ranging from strength to productivity and fertility.


Tattoos between the eyes aim to ward off the "evil eye," while a moon symbol on the face is sometimes added after converting from Yazidism to Islam. A V-shaped symbol on the chin indicates tribal identity, with its size reflecting the family's size.



The Amazigh


Tattooing in North Africa is an ancient practice, pre-dating Islam, and remains relatively common among Amazigh women in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. For these women, tattoos mark different life phases and often start at a young age.


The placement of the tattoos holds specific meanings: a vertical line on the chin signifies engagement, while a mark at the tip of the nose could indicate either marriage or the death of a child. Tattoos also symbolize a girl's transition into womanhood, with groups of girls of similar age often getting tattooed together. Beyond chronicling major events, these patterns protect against evil spirits and are considered a sign of beauty. Tattoos on the hands and body are associated with health and healing, with designs on the neck and abdomen symbolizing fertility.


Common motifs in Amazigh women's tattoos include symbols of the sun, the eye of a partridge, a chain, and flies. In Berber culture, the partridge represents grace and beauty, with its eyes symbolizing the omnipresence of danger. Tattoos are reserved for women and symbolize femininity.


According to legend, Amazigh women covered themselves with tattoos to deter the sexual interest of French soldiers. Despite this rich history, the practice is fading due to increasing religiosity and the spread of Western fashion. Many women now opt for henna, a natural dye that fades over a week or two, as an alternative to traditional tattoos.



The Native American Tribes


Yidįįłtoo, a 10,000-year-old Gwich’in tradition, served for emotional healing, warrior status, and tribal identification. The width and spacing of chin tattoos distinguished the nine Gwich’in groups in interior Alaska.


Gwich’in tattoos often feature three lines on the chin, cheeks, or corners of the eyes. These lines mark a girl's rite of passage into womanhood, traditionally given during her first cycle to symbolize her new responsibilities.


Inuit kakiniit, an ancient tattoo practice, was nearly lost when the Catholic Church banned it a century ago, deeming it evil. This led to shame and secrecy around the tattoos.


Traditionally, Inuit tattoos were sewn into the skin using thread made of caribou sinew soaked in seal oil and soot, and poked with a bone needle. These tattoos told a woman's story—her family, origins, achievements, and community role were all displayed on her face.


 

Sources:


Middle East Eye. (n.d.). Traditional face tattoos of the Middle East: Amazigh, Bedouin and Kurdish women. Retrieved from https://www.middleeasteye.net/discover/middle-east-face-tattoos-traditional-amazigh-bedouin-kurdish

Krutak, L. (n.d.). Tattooing among Japan’s Ainu people. Retrieved from https://www.larskrutak.com/tattooing-among-japans-ainu-people/

Sapiens. (n.d.). Native American tattoos: A new perspective on ancient traditions. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/biology/native-american-tattoos/

Dawn. (2023). A vanishing art: The fading tradition of tattoos among indigenous cultures. Retrieved from https://www.dawn.com/news/1787857

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