3 Things I’ve Learned as a Tattooed Palestinian Woman

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"Embracing the things...

...that I actually liked was also transforming the way I would present myself to the world from then on."

Getting my first tattoo at 17 years old was terrifying—not because of the needle part but rather because of the fact that I had done it without my immigrant/Muslim/Palestinian parents’ permission. At that tender age, I had not yet learned the art of being myself—and the art of defending myself despite a world of pressure to be someone my culture deemed acceptable. And let me just put it simply here: tattoos and Muslim Arabs don’t go together.

Having gone through both middle and high school doing everything I could to fit in (and FYI I never made it), getting a tattoo was the number one thing that would do the exact opposite of that. As common as tattoos are in the United States, they are pretty taboo in Palestine. With a tattoo, I had excluded myself from an entire half of my cultural background.

Getting that first tattoo at 17 was perhaps the moment that I had changed the relationship between myself and the world. Embracing the things that I actually liked was also transforming the way I would present myself to the world from then on.

And here I am today (15 tattoos later) as a woman who’s come a long way in both embracing herself and defending herself. I realized that I just didn’t feel like myself when I covered parts of who I was. So, this means that I don’t hide my tattoos for the sake of not offending anyone. As such, I’m here to share 3 things I’ve learned as a tattooed Palestinian woman who dared to be herself:

1. People like Boxes

A lot of Palestinians simply don’t get me. When a girl with American-accented Arabic and tattooed arms is telling you that she’s Palestinian, well, your first reaction is confusion. Then when she tells you she’s from a pre-dominantly Muslim village in the North, well, then you think she’s just lying.

There is a deep-rooted sense of safety in knowing that your culture is safely in-tact and following an explicit set of rules. When a girl comes out and breaks a few of those rules while still claiming that culture as hers, it doesn’t sit well with many people. Because humans have developed specific boxes to categorize everyone, occupying a few of the boxes can present a problem. And unfortunately, the mentality is “you’re either one of us or you’re not.” So, when I take a few different boxes and make a new identity out of them, people just don’t know what to do with me. 

 

2. Skin is Judged for Character

This one may be “duh” but to know something and to experience it are very different things.

My parents, while they accept that this is how I’ve chosen to present myself in the world, still harbor fears about how the world will receive me in return. My mom is convinced I’ve shot my chances at marriage to hell and my dad believes it’s difficult to be taken seriously in the professional world. It’s a common idea that tattoos are inseparable from social failure or that someone with tattoos is immediately less intelligent or capable.

Often times, before I even open my mouth to greet someone, he or she immediately assumes I’m a foreigner just by glancing at my arms. A woman once sat in the empty seat next to me on a bus, took a look at my arms, and promptly changed seats. I felt like the devil-incarnate. Numerous instances like this one made me question everything about myself.

But as I grew stronger in embracing who I am, the realization came that the people who judged me negatively based solely on my skin were probably people I wouldn’t want to be around anyways. A person who can judge another so quickly lacks empathy (you know, that thing we use to connect with other human beings). So, over time I’ve learned that my tattoos act as a filter for those afraid of anyone different from them.

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"Bravery is not... 

...the absence of fear, it’s acting despite that fear."

 

3. There is a Family for the Brave  

There have been moments in which I really felt myself in limbo—never really feeling American (whatever that even means) and never quite feeling Palestinian. But then there are the moments in which I feel so proud to have my ink because of the connections they’ve opened me up to. I’ve had other young Palestinian women approach me at coffee shops, events, or even on the side walk to simply thank me for being so brave to be myself. They understand and know the risk that comes in doing that, especially in a more conservative culture like that of Palestine.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again here: bravery is not the absence of fear, it’s acting despite that fear. There are days I’m terrified to step into the streets (unfortunately, tattoos make for an extra helping of street harassment) but do it anyways. And I walk with confidence because I remember each message or hug of thanks from the young women who are grateful to have even just one more person on team Be Whoever the Fuck You Want.

Yasmeen MjalliComment