Young women in Palestine hold onto their heritage and identity by having Palestinian designs as henna tattoos painted on their bodies.

Ahead of Eid al Fitr, a group of Palestinian girls have waited in a queue for their turn to have their henna tattoos painted by an artist in one of Gaza’s markets.

Thousands of Palestinian girls like to have henna tattoos painted on their bodies ahead of special occasions, and many of them choose to have symbolic henna tattoos that represent their love and belonging to Palestine.

“Countless numbers of girls ask me to paint henna tattoos that are related to our Palestinian heritage and culture,” Palestinian henna artist Somaia Shaheen told TRT World.

Girls ask for designs such as the map of historical Palestine, the Palestinian flag and Kufiya patterns, or mix an olive tree with the shape of the Dome of the Rock. Other girls choose to write Palestinian related words or a line of poetry.

“I see the love of Palestine in women and girls of all ages; they are happy and proud to have henna tattoos that represent Palestine and resistance. The trending henna painting these days is the olive tree leaves. I painted such designs for many girls this week.” Shaheen added.

“Olive tree leaves represent Palestine as well as peace. And girls keep asking for such paintings on their arms. Also, the word Filisteeniya [meaning Palestinian woman] is a preferred design for many girls.”

What is Henna?

The henna tree (Lawsonia inermis) is well-known in Palestine. It produces something locally called “henna dates,” which have a special smell.

Henna material used for painting is a powder made out of henna tree leaves. It is sold in local perfume stores and can be prepared at home by crushing henna leaves and mixing them with water, then adding dyes to give them colour.

According to historian Nasser al Yafawi, henna painting is part of Palestinian heritage. It was first used by the Phoenicians in the Levant in 1500 BC, especially in Lebanon and Palestine.

“Phoenicians tattooed their hands and faces with henna as part of pagan rituals. Later on, henna became a part of women’s ornamentation.”

Yafawi said that henna tattooing has always been part of traditional rituals for Palestinian weddings. The bride’s hands and feet are painted with henna to resemble a mural on the night before her wedding, in what is called “henna night.”

Tattoo alternatives

The art of henna goes back thousands of years in Christian and Muslim traditions, and the practice symbolises good luck, health and sensuality. 

When Islam came to prominence, beginning in the seventh century, inked tattooing was no longer allowed.

Palestinian Bedouins used to have inked tattoos as a tradition meant to identify tribes, show marital status, or enhance beauty. We may encounter some old Bedouin women in Palestine with tattoos on their faces.

The inked tattoo practice faded in recent decades because many of the faithful consider it a forbidden practice in Islam.

Henna’s popularity grew in Palestine in recent years, and it has become an alternative to inked tattoos.

Instead of having a permanent image, pattern, or word on the skin created by using needles to put colours under the skin, nowadays, people prefer henna tattoos, which last for a few weeks.

“With henna tattoos, the design doesn’t last forever, and women have the option to have new designs or renew current designs on their bodies.” Shaheen explained, “I don’t do ink tattoos, and generally, it is not requested by our community as many consider it harmful for the skin.” 

Henna and weddings

“There is a tradition before any wedding. Brides have henna parties where the bride and groom’s families gather and paint henna. Not all of them use Palestinian designs for weddings but various shapes and patterns,” Shaheen said.

This henna party usually takes place the day before the wedding. The party doesn’t only include skin decorations with henna but also some traditional songs and dances. Henna artists give guests the traditional temporary tattoos.

As for men, they usually have their own party on the same night, where they sing different songs and dance dabke.

Karima Zurub, a Palestinian mother from Rafah, said: “Henna night is a tradition we inherited a long ago, and we keep it. During the night before the wedding, we clap, sing, press henna in the groom’s hand and paint beautiful patterns for the bride.”

Zurub added: “Henna night was popular among those families who were expelled from their lands in 1948 during Nakba, but this tradition has moved to most of the Palestinian families.”

READ MORE: What is Nakba? The day when Palestine's ethnic cleansing began, explained

Stealing Palestinian traditions

Last December, Israel hosted the Miss Universe pageant sparking criticism, especially when contestants appeared wearing Palestinian embroidered dresses.

“Dressing Miss Universe nominees in traditional Palestinian dress, claiming that this is part of the Israeli occupation state, is an attempt of theft of our Palestinian identity and it is a failed attempt that represents the occupier’s effrontery,” Lana Hijazi of Palestinian Heritage Wear Society said

Henna artist Somaia Shaheen noticed that Miss Universe participants didn’t only wear Palestinian dresses but also had henna tattoos painted as if it were an Israeli tradition.

Shaheen said: “I felt angry watching our traditions be stolen like this. But, seeing new young Palestinian girls eager to paint Palestine-related henna gives me hope that the new generation is holding onto our heritage and culture.” 

READ MORE: Palestinian embroidery: From a symbol of resistance to UNESCO heritage