In Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains, an ancient tradition is fading. The distinctive tribal tattoos that indigenous Amazigh women acquired in a coming of age ritual are slowly disappearing as their bearers age and die.
Strictly observant Muslims and women who want to be modern have shunned the practice, which dates to pre-Islamic times. Today, the tattoos largely are found on older Berber women who farm in rural areas.
Amazigh tattoos, whether simple or elaborate, usually consist of lines, dots, triangles and circles. Girls get their first ones during puberty; those who tolerate the pain are considered mature enough for the adult responsibilities of life in the rugged mountains.
The ink work is done for more than adornment. The imagery tells stories of tribes, ties to the land and families. The designs go on chins, cheeks and between the eyes, and extend to forearms as women mark milestones like marriage and motherhood.
Today, as tattoos etched decades ago grow fainter on the faces of women grown old, so, too, have they waned in social acceptance. In Morocco, wearing “ouchem” now is generally seen as outdated or religiously incompatible. Some women have tried to remove theirs while others continue to bear and defend their traditional marks.