Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Information About & Descriptions Of Traditional Female Tattoos Among The Chaoui (Algeria, North Africa)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents an excerpt from the 2013 Wake Forrest University undergraduate thesis by Yasmin Bendaas. That thesis is entitled "Chaouia Tattoos: Symbolic Meaning, Contribution to Identity, and Reasons for Disappearance".

This text only excerpt focuses on descriptions of and meanings for various traditional female tattoos among Chaouia women in Algeria, North Africa.

This post serves as a companion piece to this pancocojams post: Chaoui Ethnic Group's (Algeria, North Africa) Rahaba Music & Dance (information & videos).

This post is also part of an ongoing pancocojams series about traditional and contemporary tattoos and scarification. Use pancocojams's internal search engine or click this tag below to find other pancocojams post on this subject.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, educational, and aesthetic purposes.

Note: I feature excerpts of thesis and dissertations that are found on the internet on this blog to raise awareness about the information that is presented in these scholarly works.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Yasmin Bendaas for researching this topic and sharing this thesis online. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in that research.

Thesis Cover Page
PUBLISHED ON September 29, 2013
Chaouia Tattoos: Symbolic Meaning, Contribution to Identity, and Reasons for Disappearance

Yasmin Bendaas

An Undergraduate Honors Thesis submitted to the Department of Anthropology in partial fulfillment of the requirements for graduation with honors.


April 2013 chaouia tattoos

Symbolic Meaning
PUBLISHED ON September 29, 2013

Although I still cannot say what the tradition might have meant hundreds of years ago, I came to understand the significance of the tattoos among the Chaouia of Algeria in the 1930s and 1940s when the current eldest generation of women were often tattooed. The most popular answer I received is that traditional tattoos signify beauty, though I am uncertain if the idea of beauty is tied to any particular symbol. Coming to conclusive symbolic meaning was also especially difficult because some women did not know the name of all the symbols. In fact, some did not know any of the names at all.

Symbols commonly found on the face include shams (sun), ain hijla (eye of a partridge), burnous (soldier’s coat), cinsla (chain), and thabanat (flies). Further, most who knew the name of their tattoos were not aware of a specific symbolic meaning. This lack of knowledge indicates that perhaps the tattooing practice began to fade well before the current eldest generation received tattoos. Still, I identified the symbolic meaning of some tattoos.

Burnous, a tattoo commonly found on the forehead, refers to a coat made of animal skin worn by soldiers (or – as I would discover later – by men for a variety of ceremonious occasions)


Among the twenty women, burnous was the most common forehead tattoo, though other tattoos could also be found on the forehead. It is also one documented by generations of scholars, as is seen in Gaudry’s drawings from 1929…
The shape, again, is derived from an animal skin coat worn by men (seen around my aunt’s husband in picture below). It is a symbol of strength and masculinity. Since these ornamental tattoos mark the faces of women only, it is interesting to note that burnous is not the only masculine figure tattooed.


[The] diamond figure is called ain hijla, literally meaning, “eye of a partridge.” Some women simply called this figure hijla, or “partridge.” The diamond symbol, found around the Chukar partridge’s face, is one that was said by many women to be representative of beauty; however, it may also be viewed as a masculine symbol as the partridge is a commonly hunted bird, and hunting is a task of men. Margaret Courtney Clarke’s description of the partridge symbol within weaving supports an argument for the symbol’s significance of beauty:
In Berber culture, the partridge is considered a bird of great grace and beauty, and is thus associated with the qualities of a good wife. Its sharp eyes are also thought to be vigilant
watchers against danger. [1996:78]

While there were no direct answers from the women regarding the symbolic meaning of the tattoos, they may serve the same purpose as writing: to tell a story. During one interview, the son of an elderly woman mentioned that he believed the symbols behind tattoos do represent a story. Unfortunately, the elderly women could not provide information about that hypothesis because their knowledge about the meaning of the symbols has been lost. Shapes were often not of their choosing as this power rested in the hands of the person giving the tattoos.

It seems likely that the tattoos are telling a story, but surprisingly the story seems to be about a man. Symbols signifying animals, such as camels, gazelles, and partridges, often relate to travel or hunting. The soldier’s coat and rikab (horse stirrups) also relate to masculinity.

However, if it is true that the stories tell a story of a soldier or a strong man then who is he? And why is his story told through tattoos on the bodies of women? Could it be that these symbols are not about a man but are instead symbols attractive to men? These questions remain unanswered during the course of my research.

While all the women interviewed had facial tattoos, only certain symbols appear on the face, and it is important to note that facial tattoos geared towards beautification are not the only tattoos a woman may have. It is common for the women interviewed to carry traditional tattoos on other parts of their bodies, and a difference in placement between two tattoos often results in a different significance. The table below shows the variety of symbols identified on the twenty women, as well as their placement and frequency. Images found of gazelles and scorpions on the arm were much more literal than the ornamental symbols adorning faces. It is also interesting to note that the women identified the tattoo symbols in Arabic, even if they are Chaouia. This Arabic identification of tattoos is likely because of the language of the tattoo-giving adasiya (gypsy) and may shed light on the origins of tattooing within Algeria.


I found that tattoos on arms, hands, legs, and even the breast held a completely different meaning for the women unassociated with beauty, but rather with health (Bendaas 2012). One woman, Janat, had tattoos on her right hand and one above her right ankle. She explained that she received the tattoo when having trouble becoming pregnant and heard that the tattoos promote fertility. After receiving the tattoo, she did have children. Janat was not the only woman I interviewed who received additional tattoos for reasons related to fertility and childbearing. Another woman tattooed her breast after losing several children post-birth. Early childhood death was common during wartime due to poverty and lack of access to medical care. After receiving the tattoo, the woman told me that of 20 children, ten of her children had lived and ten had died (Bendaas 2012).

Other tattoos for healing often related to relieving localized pain, such as pain in the wrist. One woman, Yamina provided a particularly unique example because a murderer made the tattoo on her aching wrist (seen below). She said that after receiving the tattoo her wrist pain healed. The practice of receiving a tattoo from a murderer is noted by Maarten Hesselt Van Dinter who writes, “The Ouled Abderrahman, a Shawiya tribe of the Aurès Plains, preferred to have tattoos applied with a murderer’s knife, and, if possible, by the murderer himself” (2005:192). Though I am unsure that Yamina, who is from M’lila, is of the same tribe Van Dinter refers to, she is the only interviewee who noted receiving a healing tattoo from a murderer, and she is Chaouia. It is possible that this act of healing the pain of others was a form of penance for the murderer.


After hearing so many stories like these, I realized the use of traditional tattoos to promote beauty and health shed light on a practice integral to the beliefs, environment, and needs of the time period. With a lack of doctors, tattoos held a healing purpose. Due to cultural views on beauty, tattoos acted as beautifiers, whereas today, make-up serves the same purpose. In this way, the tattoos captured and reflected the needs and desires of women in the region


Some believe that the tattoos functioned solely to make indigenous women unattractive to the French and consequently protected from rape or any unwanted contact. Many tattooed women acknowledged that this legend is false, as they felt their tattoos were part of a tradition that extended long before the French invasion of 1830. Two women, Roqaya and Duloola, spoke directly to this idea saying that tattoos did not act as protection against the French, and instead to do so they would cover themselves with soot. Duloola said that when the women did this, the French would ask them “You haven’t any soap?” and they would respond that they did not.

Further, most women considered their tattoos as beautiful, directly countering the idea of making oneself unattractive. I do not know what French soldiers thought of tattoos, but it is apparent that tattooing the face was not the measure of protection against rape and instead that covering oneself in soot was. However, the idea that women would need to protect themselves is a significant one, as many considered colonization the rape and forced penetration and control of a nation, particularly in terms of African colonization.

Still, the myth of the tattoos’ protection of women is not entirely unfounded. When examining the tattoos themselves, several prominent symbols are clearly masculine symbols, referring to Algerian soldiers or powerful men – protectors. It is more likely that these symbols embody a more general preservation, not only of women, but also of the land. With tattoos containing literal depictions of nature such as partridges, gazelles and camels, ties to the environment are abundant, and the Aurès has a particular history of defying foreign influences including that of the Romans, the Muslim Arab invasion of Sidi Okba, and finally the French (Bendaas 2013).”
This thesis also includes photographs and drawings.

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