Tattoos: The Quiet Rebels of Arab Feminism


"Tattoos are my quiet rebellion...

...against a life that has never fully been my own."

I have a lot of tattoos. And if we’re being honest, I’ve even got tattoos which should have been given a bit more thought at the time.

I’ve got tattoos on my arms, hands, back, and side. I’ve gotten those tattoos in kitchens, tattoo parlors, and everywhere in between. There are the ones designed to commemorate transformative moments in my life and those which were simply pretty. But when I got my last tattoo just over a month ago, I got it because I needed to know that my body was mine.

I was walking down the street, hands stuffed in my pockets and mind racing with anger and sadness. With no destination in mind, my eyes were searching desperately for a place to pop into and retreat from the world. Just as I started making my way to my usual coffee shop, the sign hanging over my head stopped me in my tracks: Tattoo.

Without a thought, I walked in and emerged an hour later with a new tattoo on my hand—one of the few spots on my body that could not be covered. There was no hiding it now: I’m most definitely not a good Arab girl.

The good Arab girl is one who endlessly strives to minimize her own body’s significance. Her clothing is modest, her eyes constantly avoiding others’, her voice soft, and her laugh even stifled. She moves through the world invisibly so that her "womanhood" is preserved, thus maintaining the pristine and sacred family honor. She exists despite herself.

It’s not that women can’t be or want modesty and inconspicuousness—it’s that having those characteristics enforced upon herself by others doesn’t constitute a free woman. A woman’s love for herself, strength in nature, and control over her own are lost when societal standards define her purpose in the world before she is even born.

The archetype of a good Arab girl is one which saturated my entire upbringing, following me into adulthood and infusing shame into my every action. The moment I was born onto this earth, my body as flesh and blood was no longer simply that. Instead, I was transformed into an abstraction. As my body was now the vessel which contained the family honor, my control over it was forfeited.

My last tattoo was an impulsive decision and happened to come immediately after a particularly difficult conversation with myself about the ever-growing exclusivity of individuality and honor. In other words, how the hell could I be myself while conforming to good girl stereotypes for the sake of peace with my family? When the needle started marking my skin that afternoon, it dawned on me that tattoos are my quiet rebellion against a life that has never fully been my own.

The irony is not lost on me that I’m a women’s rights activist who checks her feminism at the door for the sake of keeping family in her life. Compromising the parts of myself which make me who I am is one of the most difficult things I have yet faced. Reconciling my feminism with my nationality is a journey that I’m just only beginning.

In the meantime, each of my tattoos (and all of the ones to come) are a testament to the rebel against gender inequality I want to be. And while women’s rights to their own bodies are still in question, I’m still fighting in all of my quiet ways to answer that question with a chorus of defiant women ready to take back their own. The war may not have been won, by I can tell you that each of my tattoos has, at least, won their battles in the fight for Arab feminism.

Yasmeen MjalliComment