London-based photographer Yumna Al-Arashi documents a forgotten community of Muslim women with her project ‘Face’. The series portrays a generation of older women who have worn facial tattoos for centuries as a mark of collective identity.
Intrigued by her great-grandmother’s facial tattoos, Al-Arashi decided to delve deep into the Muslim communities where having such tattoos holds great significance. Traveling to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, the places where this tattoo culture still exists, Al-Arashi’s ‘Face’ portraits tell the story of a repressed history. In small pockets of these countries, it was custom for women to have their faces, and sometimes their hands and other hidden places, tattooed in their early teens. The practice, though painful, was seen as a kind of rite of passage — something that young women went through to appear more beautiful for future husbands.
Though this may seem superficial, the tattoos actually carry ulterior motives: the circles, lines and dots that are so intricately drawn on, are seen to have spiritual power. Women who wear them are considered to be protecting their entire families from evil. The prevalence of trees, plants and flower tattoos is understood as a visual representation of woman’s connection to the earth and planets. Above all else, the tattoos are a physical manifestation of the unity found in these female communities, serving to strengthen feelings of belonging and collective identity.
Al-Arashi’s photography carries great political weight. While the art of facial tattoo among these communities has been dying since the 1930s — or, according to Al-Arashi, since the rise of Islamization and capitalism — these photos provide a documentation of these remarkably strong women. ‘Face’ helps to tell the narratives of these Muslim women, providing an alternative image to the ‘Oriental woman’ that dominates western media.