I remember the moment my Yemeni grandmother scorned my aunts and cousins for making fun of my tattoo. The room fell silent... 

She said that by insulting me, I was also insulting her mother, and all of the women who came before her. Soon after, she shared faded photographs of my great grandmother, who was beautifully adorned with lines and geometric patterns on her face.

“There was a love of individuality that my mother took in pride. I thought it was lost, but now I see her in you.”

My late Yemeni great grandmother was one of the many women who adorned these tattoos, and became my inspiration for this project.

These were largely symbols of a disappearing matriarchal society we hardly ever hear of in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The disappearance of these tattoos has been linked to the spread of literacy, Islamization, capitalism, as well as the importance of style and self identification with religion.

The tattoos often represented women’s power and connection to the Earth with symbols of agricultural living, and planetary reference. They also carried spiritual power, protecting themselves and their entire families from evil djinn (spirits). Once Islamization came about, the woman’s power as well as any symbolism attributed to it, began to disappear.

My goal was to find the last ones left and tell their story.

This project was funded by The Arab Fund For Arts and Culture, and The International Women’s Media Foundation.

 Yumna Al-Arashi - All Rights Reserved, 2018