Algeria's tattoos of beauty

Algeria's tattoos of beauty


Among the Chaouia people of the Aures mountains, a woman’s beauty used to be judged by her tattoos. The women I met are now old, their wrinkles and fading tattoos telling of a lifetime of experience, but they talk as if they’re still 20 inside.

"It was the rule, it was fashionable too,” said Fatma Tarnouni, 106. “To be beautiful, you had to be tattooed, so I did it."

My own grandmother had a tattoo on her hand so meeting these women reminded me of her. It felt like I was going back in time when I heard these stories.

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Aisha Djelal, 73, was tattooed when she was 25. She wanted to be more attractive than other girls her age by using body art, a decision she regretted later in life.

Some believers told women including Djelal that, by allowing the tattoos, they had committed a sin according to Islam. To make amends, many have donated treasured possessions to the most deprived women they know.

"I've given away all my silver jewellery after turning the offering seven times on my tattoo while I was crying,” said Aisha. “I feel like every tear has washed away a bit of my tattoo.”

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Djena Benzahra, 74, was forced to have a tattoo when she was 9 years old by her mother, who wanted her to look beautiful. All the girls her age were tattooed, her mother said.

“I still remember, it was so painful and I was crying, refusing to be tattooed,” Djena said. Today even if her tattoo looks small she regrets allowing her mother to do it, because religious people around her have told her that she has committed a sin.

"To ask forgiveness from God, I've given away all my silver jewellery after turning the offering seven times on my tattoo.”

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

"I did it because all the girls my age were tattooed,” said Fatma Haddad, 80, tattooed aged 18 by a local woman. Today she regrets that decision and has given away her silver jewellery to make amends.

“At that time we were very young, even if we didn’t have extensive knowledge about the religion, our thoughts were far from committing a sin,” Haddad said.

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Fatma Badredine, 94, was tattooed aged 13 years old by a nomadic woman from the Sahara region.

"I had to endure excruciating pain just to look pretty,” Badredine said. "I wanted to have the tattoo removed but my doctor advised against it, my age doesn’t allow it.”

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

"In my case it was different,” said Khamsaa Hougali, 68. “My stepmother advised me to get tattooed to bring luck after the sudden death of my first three children. My cousin and sister-in-law tattooed me. I had the feeling that God would give me the children I wanted and save my marriage.

It was not acceptable to be a wife without having children. Believe it or not, but what I know is, that after being tattooed I had six children and they are still alive."

Hougali doesn't regret the tattoo, despite been told by religious people around her that she has committed a sin. "I just followed the tradition of my ancestors and it was for a good purpose as it saved my marriage.”

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Mazouza Bouglada, 86, was tattooed aged 7 by a nomadic man from the Sahara region. She was advised by her mother to get tattooed. The more she got tattooed the more she showed off.

Even if she still remembers the pain, she felt beautiful once it was done, Bouglada said. She was very proud of her stars on her cheeks. Her eldest sister had been tattooed before her and she wanted to imitate her.

Bouglada said she has now given away all her silver jewellery to atone for the sin that believers told her she had committed.

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Djemaa Daoudi, 90, was forced to have a tattoo by her husband just after their wedding when she was 15 years old because it was a fashion. A local Berber woman tattooed her. Today Daoudi regrets being tattooed.

“Even if it was not my decision at the time to be tattooed, to ask forgiveness from God, I've given everything I consider precious, like my silver jewellery and my wool, as alms,” Daoudi said.

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

A local woman tattooed Fatma Benyadir, 75, when she was 12 years old.

"I did it without telling my parents. All the girls my age were tattooed,” Benyadir said. “I had to endure excruciating pain, the anger of my parents later, just to look pretty.”

Benyadir regrets being tattooed and has given away her silver after rubbing it on her tattoos, which gave her the feeling that she was removing them.

. Batna, Algeria. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Khadra Kabssi, 74, was tattooed aged 21 by her cousin following Algeria's independence from France.

"I wanted to be beautiful for the independence of my country and all the girls my age were tattooed," Kabssi said. "At that time we were very young, our thought was far from committing any sin. I just wanted to feel pretty.”

Today she doesn't regret being tattooed, despite being told by religious people and friends around her that she will endure punishment after her death.

"I don't believe what they are saying at all," she said. “If the snake, as they said, wants to eat me then he is free to do it. I will be dead, I'll feel nothing.”