Can Halal Tattoos Win Over Conservative Egypt?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Temporary tattoos allow Muslims — especially women — in Egypt to stay on the right side of religion.
By Youssra El-Sharkawy
- Tattoos have long been taboo in Muslim-majority Egypt. But temporary tattoos have now received religious sanction as halal.
- That’s leading to growing demand for these tattoos that last 18 months, and penetrate only the top layers of the skin.
For years, Rania Samir felt insecure about her body because of a six-inch scar across her belly marking an old cesarean surgery. She would see photos of women covering their scars with tattoos but felt she couldn’t do it. “Tattoo is haram (forbidden by Islam), so I thought I’d never do it,” says Samir, 28, a mother of two.
“I wanted something halal (allowed) and I did find it.”
So are more and more Egyptians. Tattoos have long been viewed as taboo in Muslim-majority Egypt. Islamic scholars have argued that needles penetrating the skin to inject ink or dye is haram as it causes unnecessary self-harm and involves changing God’s creation. But a growing number of tattoo artists are wooing customers by offering to cover body scars, burns or unwanted marks with temporary tattoos, promoting them as halal.
That claim has received a religious stamp of approval. Last August, the Cairo-headquartered Dar al-Iftaa, one of the Islamic world’s leading religious institutions, proclaimed that tattoos done by microblading are halal because they’re on the surface of the skin. This February, it repeated that fatwa — a religious edict.
When you see [that] many places promote halal tattoo, then [you know] it’s real.
Rania Samir, 28-year-old who has a temporary tattoo.
Since the fatwa, artists are witnessing a surge in customers seeking halal tattoos. Artist Simo, owner of Simo Tattoo Studio in Cairo, says his clientele has increased by 50 percent after he started offering halal tattoos in addition to his regular work. Rowayda Imam, owner of Beauty Nails and Lashes Salon in Cairo, who started tattooing three years ago, says that her customers have increased from one or two a week to four in a day. Dalia Badr, a freelance tattoo artist based in Cairo, says she has now started getting orders from other parts of the country too. Egypt’s size — it is the largest Arab nation — and its cultural influence mean that this trend could soon also emerge in other nations in the Middle East.
These tattoo artists are also adapting to the coronavirus pandemic. Since early March, they’ve been wearing masks and offering them to customers. Some, like Simo, pointedly inform customers about how they sanitize their studios. Badr says that because most clients like to have tattoos on their back, near the navel or ankle, artists can maintain a little distance. When clients ask for a tattoo on their breast or on the top of the body, she insists clients wear masks — like she does — and suggests small drawings that take less time.
That visible boom in halal tattoos helped convince Samir too. “When you see [that] many places promote halal tattoo, then [you know] it’s real,” she says. “In addition, Islam scholars themselves said it’s halal. So, I had no fears and I felt excited.”
As a concept, tattoos aren’t new to Egypt. In fact, according to a study published by Journal of Archaeological Science in 2018, the world’s oldest figurative tattoos were discovered on two mummies from Egypt’s Predynastic (c. 4000-3100 BCE) period. It’s only in Islamic Egypt that tattoos became forbidden.
Halal tattoos are changing that. Microblading, where a tiny needle penetrates the skin to a depth of only 0.08-0.15 mm, leads to tattoos that last up to 18 months. Other artists say that they use a type of ink that lasts up to five years. It can also be removed easily using a laser.
“It also depends on the skill of the artist to draw only on the first or second layer,” says Imam of Beauty Nails and Lashes Salon. “If you go deeper, then the tattoo becomes permanent and haram.” When clients visit her, she shares the video of the halal tattoo fatwa to make them comfortable. Imam works only on women.
Some traditional tattoo artists call the idea of temporary tattoos a scam. The skin’s layers can only be seen under a microscope, so it’s impossible for a free-hand tattooist to know “if he is tattooing the first or second or the fourth layer,” says Dale, co-owner of the Alexandria-based Tattoo Alexandria Art Studio: Dale and Alex. Dale has been tattooing people for 14 years.
Dermatologist Wafaa Alam Eddin says that tattoos on the top layer of skin typically won’t last more than a few weeks — like henna. Any tattoo that lasts longer has likely penetrated to the second layer — the “dermis” that carries nerves and blood vessels. This layer may cause harmful infections if the ink mixes with the blood, says Alam Eddin.
But Simo, owner of Simo Tattoo Studio, insists that temporary tattoos are legitimate. “Many clients come to me to do retouches with microblading…if it is permanent, they won’t need any touches,” says Simo, who, like Dale goes by a single name.
Simo, who opened his studio in Cairo five years ago, is seeing a growing demand for temporary tattoos particularly from women. Badr, whose clients earlier were limited to Christians, young people and the wealthy elite, says she has seen her halal tattoos attract broader audiences too.
Three years after Samir got a tattoo that covers her scars, it has faded but is still visible. And her tattoo dreams are getting bolder. “Maybe I’d get [a] tattoo every few years,” she says.
- Youssra El-Sharkawy, OZY Author Contact Youssra El-Sharkawy