An Ode to Our Bedouin History of Feminine Energy
As both a woman and a Palestinian, much of my personal journey has been unraveling what it means to exist in a world which attempts to oppress you either for being a woman (hello patriarchy) and for being a Palestinian (hello Israeli military occupation). For women in Palestine the reality is (but isn’t limited to) a wildly complex intersection of colonization, occupation, corrupt politics, and patriarchy. Under that intersection, life for Palestinian women has undergone a violent metamorphosis so that life for me looks different from that of my mother’s and even more so than that of my grandmother’s. The expression of femininity and matriarchal power has changed over these last generations leaving me with only a few threads of the matriarchal tapestry of my ancestors. Now I need to start following those threads.
About two years ago, a friend’s Instagram post caught my attention and lingered in my mind ever since. It was a photo of two young women from Huwara (a village nestled in the northern hills of Palestine), taken in 1926 by a photographer named Maynard Owen Williams. After taking in the stunning colors of the herald green grass and the luminescent rose-colored shawls, I noticed that one of the women had what looked like tattoos on her chin. I was in near disbelief, having grown up in a pretty conservative household where I learned that tattoos were most definitely haram.
Shocked, confused, and excited, I immediately showed the picture to my mom and received a very nonchalant “ah, yes. That was very common back in the day. My grandmother had them too.”
Everything changed after that.
I became obsessed with a tradition which had somehow eluded the last three generations of women, dwindling more and more with each one so that I had no knowledge of it. To this day, every time I bring the topic up with anyone—saying “look! did you know that our ancestors did this?!”—they reply with a squinty-eyed look of skepticism. And I don’t blame them because we had all been raised in a world in which culture and religion were expressed differently than it has been ever before.
Having done immense research for a book she’s putting together, Yemeni-Egyptian photographer and artist Yumna Al-Arashi explains:
I spent around a year doing research on these tattoos, it wasn’t just going to take pictures of these women with tattoos on their face, it’s about showing the effects of capitalism on the region and the effects of institutionalised religion and how that has deeply affected women of the Middle East/North Africa.
…I learnt that they represent the depth of women’s power in the region. They represent agricultural symbols, the connectedness to the stars, sun and moon – they understand how to read the sun and moon to therefore grow crops. There are also symbols of protection from Jinn (evil spirits). The men didn’t have these tattoos, so the women were the ones who carried the power to protect everyone and control the driving forces of our life - food, spirituality and sensuality. You had women who were covered all over, purely for beauty, as that is what men searched for. They said that they would never marry a woman unless she had the tattoos.
…We as women are the ones that suffer the most from capitalism. We’ve lost our power and respect in lands because we can no longer operate. We’re magical creatures. We love the land, we know how to work the land, we carry life, that’s our connection.
In this interview, she also explains—just as several other feminist scholars of the region, like Harvard’s Leila Ahmed—that because it has been institutionalized, Islam as has changed into something nearly unrecognizable and untrue to its true essence thanks to campaigns held by Saudi Arabia over the last few decades. Out of my own desire to learn more, I returned to my mother’s village and began asking about tattooing traditions. While many reminisced in memories of their grandmothers, many others scoffed at the tradition. One man admitted that it was true that this had been a tradition, but told me very sternly “they were not educated back then, they did not know religion.”
While this may be the conception, the reality is far different from that. Our ancestors were educated in the way of the land, in the relationship between people and the earth as its provider, in the feminine power yielded in communities all across the MENA region. Tattooing was a celebrated practice, intimately done between women for a variety of reasons like to mark a woman’s marriage or the birth of a first child. It was done in the faith that an ailment could be healed. It was done as a manifestation of the feminine relationship between the stars, the moon, and the land.
Over time, under the pressure of changing social practices and the pressure of institutionalized religion, the practice has dwindled into near-extinction. This could almost be symbolic of the way in with the patriarchy, for centuries and in nearly all communities across the globe, has attempted to suppress the feminine. It’s no secret that we hold a power so fierce and for this reason we have always been viewed as both a threat but also as objects of desire. And so, over generations the feminine spirit has been preserved in small but powerful traditions such as the circles in which women sit together and grind wheat, in harmony and like a song. Or in the simultaneous delicacy and wilderness of henna painting. Or in the songs and poetry orally weaving its way from mother to daughter. Or in the tattoos of our great grandmothers.
This collection, shot in Jericho, is a testament to our roots. Under the sun which beat down on us like a soft drum and in 46 celsius heat which sent us into the bliss of near delirium, we came alive with our matriarchal past. We took off our shoes and ran through the dessert, little bedouin children running along with us. We laughed as the the makeup was quickly replaced by sweat and gave way to the beauty of our own skin. We stood on the edge of hills and stared into a horizon which has overlooked a long and rich history between the earth, the sky, and our mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, and so on.