• January 21, 2015

The Last Tattooed Women of Kobane

Last fall, photographer Jodi Hilton visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, across the border from Kobane, Syria. There, she encountered women who displayed the last of a fading art form—deq facial tattoos. I interviewed her about her experience photographing the women who bear these disappearing symbols.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Amina Saleh, 60, from Kobane, at a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. A mother of six, she got her face tattooed when she was about ten years old.

COBURN DUKEHART: Where did you encounter these women and what made you want to photograph them?

JODI HILTON: I had been working in a Turkish border town across from Kobane, photographing U.S. airstrikes, border villages, and fighters’ funerals, when I got the idea to make this portrait series. I made most of the photographs in the refugee camps in Suruc, but I also made [a] few in a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan—another place where Kobane refugees were finding shelter.

I have long been fascinated with the regional facial tattoos, called deq. I had seen them in Turkey amongst both Arabs and Kurds, especially in the province of Urfa, but it wasn’t until the conflict in Kobane that I realized the tradition naturally extended across the border to Syria. On both sides of the border people are connected by language, tribe, and ethnic identity, so it makes sense that they also share other cultural attributes.

I was curious about particular aspects of the deq tradition, like why they are almost exclusively found on women above the age of 60. Why and when did people stop the practice? Also, I wanted to understand the lines and shapes and why they are commonly placed between the lips and chin. To my eyes, the tattoos resembled a sort of unkept beard, but in the past they were considered the height of beauty.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Amina Abdel Majid Suleyman, about 70, from Kobane, at Rojava refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey. She is the mother of seven children and cares for two grandchildren whose mother died. “I was tattooed as a baby, probably when I was about six months old,” she says.

COBURN: Can you tell me a bit about the history of these tattoos?

JODI: It’s difficult to find historical facts about the Kurdish deq tradition. We can surmise, however, that the tattoos are not exclusive to Kurds or this specific region but are spread throughout swaths of the Islamic world.

Many women reported being tattooed by a “nomad” or a “gypsy woman,” and these traveling tattoo artists may well have dispersed the tradition. But some of the designs are unique, possibly referring to pre-Islamic religions that are, in some way, still in the hearts of some Kurdish people.

The tattoos are made from soot and breast milk and sometimes gallbladder liquid from a sheep or goat. The design is drawn on the skin and then a series of small punctures are made with a sewing needle. Then the mixture is spread over the design, which scabs over and leaves the tattoo. Most are done between the ages of eight and twelve. One woman even tattooed her own breasts, encircling the nipples with a thin round line.

Picture of Syrian refugees with facial tattoos called deq
Badiya Jelal Aqil, 33, and her daughter, Fatma Tamra, 12. “My daughter liked my tattoo and asked for the same,” said Aqil, who fled the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane with her husband and five children to Arbet Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. She says her grandmother made her tattoos, which are three simple dots on her face and three on her left hand. Fatma has just one dot between her eyes.

COBURN: What is the symbolism behind the tattoos?

JODI: Common symbols include inverted Vs; Earth symbols like the sun, moon, and stars; dots and vines, especially on the hands; and, occasionally, animal designs.

An ethnomusicologist named Fethi Karkecili helped me interpret the symbols. Plant symbols, he believes, refer to wishes for fertility, productivity, and strength. The V symbols are tribal identifiers, the size of the symbol corresponding with the size of the family group. One woman I met had twin gazelles on her chin, probably in reference to the animal’s beauty and grace.

An often heard reason why tattoos are mainly drawn from lip to chin is so sweetness can exit the woman’s mouth when she speaks. A tattoo between the eyes offers protection against nazar, the evil eye. A moon next to the side of the eye may mean that the woman or her family converted from Yazidism to Islam but still holds some of the religious traditions.

Some women also shared tattoos in “secret places,” like on the ankle, neck, and even breasts. Mostly the women say that they were made for beautification, but some experts say that truly beautiful women sometimes had heavy tattoos made in order to hide their beauty, to protect them from the evil eye.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Zubeyda Ali, 60, who fled Kobane with her whole family, including ten married children and 25 grandchildren, was tattooed at the age of 13. She has a large tattoo on her left hand and some small inverted-V tattoos on her chin. Her husband, Nuh Shahin, says, “All the men loved girls with tattoos.” They married when she was 13 and he was 20.

COBURN: Did you get the sense that these women were proud of their tattoos? Ashamed?

JODI: Some of the women I photographed were ashamed of their tattoos. They realized later in life that they are haram according to Islam, or they were made to feel old-fashioned by others. But most of the women were happy to speak about their tattoos—a subject other than the war, the dreary life of being a refugee, the pain of having deaths in their families and losing their homes.

One of the women happily shared stories of her husband’s fascination with her tattoos, recounting how he would kiss her tattooed places, including her neck and inner arm. In another case, a woman clearly enjoyed hearing her husband recall how at first glance, he fell in love with his future wife. He found her and her tattoos to be beautiful. Fifty years later, as they share a cramped tent in a refugee camp, he still does.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Adule Ali, about 80, from Kobane. “When I was young, a gypsy woman made my tattoos,” said Adule. As a young bride, her husband was apparently so taken by her beauty that upon seeing her, he accidentally cut his finger off with the scythe he had been using to cut wheat.

COBURN: Is this a dying art form? Are the younger women of this culture continuing the tradition?

JODI: The deq tradition stopped being performed, for the most part, about 50 years ago.

If and when we find women under 50 with deq, the designs are minimalistic—a simple dot on the cheek, between the eyes, or on the chin. Almost all of the women I interviewed were the daughters of tattooed women, but almost none of their daughters carried on the tradition. When I asked why, they mostly told me that it wasn’t “modern” or was “old-fashioned.”

What I’ve come to believe is that globalization, combined with the mainstreaming of Islamic religious beliefs, made women believe that according to Islam, altering the body in such ways is haram.

Picture of Syrian refugee in Turkey with facial tattoos called deq
Adule Imam Sheik Muhamad, 60, from Kobane, with two of her grandchildren. “I didn’t want the tattoos,” she says, “because it was very painful, but when I saw the results, I liked it. In our time, it was said to be beautiful, but not anymore.”

COBURN: What are you hoping that viewers will take away from your photographs?

JODI: I wanted to make these photographs as a historical document, to memorialize the women and their tattoos so that when they are gone we can still remember them. I also wanted to bring attention to something unique about the culture of the people from Kobane, aside from their status as refugees.

Jodi Hilton is an American photojournalist who has been working in Turkey and the Balkans since 2010. She was previously based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and a contributor to the Italian agency NurPhoto. Her work has been published internationally in newspapers and magazines, including in National Geographic (Italy) and National Geographic Traveler. See more of her work at jodihilton.com, read her blog, and follow her on Instagram.

There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Xoser
    August 4, 2016

    “She never really spoke about what exactly happened, but it is understood that she was raped, utilized as a servant, and eventually released. ” Thanks and many awards for MIND READER Angela

  2. Andrew Murashkin
    December 21, 2015
  3. Martin
    December 19, 2015

    It’s Quite scarry how tattoos were used in past and what did they ment. I met a really good and nice professional tattooer that is very well aware of the past and he really explains every part of it while he’s doing your Picture.

  4. T
    May 29, 2015

    My father and his sisters have these tattoos. They tattooed themselves as children, as a symbol of Kurdish identity. He grew up in a village, while my mother’s family were from a city and considered the tattoos a sign of inferiority. It’s interesting the ways religion, culture and class intersect. They were very religious, and tattoos are forbidden in Islam, but they still chose to mark themselves.

    I might do so one day.

    Note: Please refrain from using the g slur to refer to Romani people. ‘Qaraji’ in Kurdish is also a slur.

  5. Xano Xasanov
    April 22, 2015

    I’m proud of to be Kurd!!!
    Armenians pls. you can lie to europe,azeries,turkish but pls dont disturb Kurds.It’s not funny and not game!

  6. last mama scout
    April 17, 2015

    since i´m a child, everytime i saw a old woman with these tattoos i said, when i´m old i´m gonna do that too. my mother always says,that this women made it when their are children…
    i said: on a childface it looks not so beautiful like an grandma face.
    i´m now 37 and still now, when i read article i have the same desire…
    thank you for this gorgeous pics
    at the same time i am very sorry, an i want to apologize as a kurdish woman to the armenian people. i realize that shame is not only for the kurds in the past. now and for many generations its on us to feel sorry and win the trust of the armenians. that this kind tattoo is a bad remind for armenian women makes me feel very sad.

  7. Songül Cakmakci
    March 21, 2015

    I’m a kurdish woman and I am from Turkey, the city of Konya. I can remember that in our village called Gölyazi, there were many women who had these tatoos on the face, maybe there are still some women living, but I’m not sure. I think it will be great to write a longer article with the photos of the women in our region too.

  8. Angela
    February 9, 2015

    Nice story. As a few commenters above already noted, when I first heard it on the radio, I was immediately reminded of another related, yet emotionally opposing story. The documentary is called “Grandma’s Tattoos,” and is about the horrific experiences Armenian women in the Ottoman Empire had during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The documentary tells the story of the filmmaker’s grandmother, who had these same Kurdish tattoos on her hands and face. She never spoke about them, and her grandchildren were always too scared to ask what the strange markings were, which are very foreign and not something that is practiced in the Armenian culture. After deeper digging, she discovered that her grandmother was a survivor of the Genocide, and these tattoos were from when she was temporarily taken in by a Kurdish family. She never really spoke about what exactly happened, but it is understood that she was raped, utilized as a servant, and eventually released. The tattoos were not only a visible mark of shame amongst the Armenian community, instantly labeling her a Genocide refugee, but also a daily reminder of her horrific experiences, memories of which stayed with her until the day she died. Some women were taken in and saved, other were abducted against their will, forcibly converted to Islam, and forced to marry a Kurd and make a family. Today across Turkey and the Middle East, many Turks and Kurds have Armenian grandmothers who never mentioned their original Armenian identity, and only revealed it in old age. The documentary is fantastic, and can be seen on YouTube:


    My point is that with such a story reporting an ancient and celebrated tradition in a positive light, there also exists a mirrored story, one of suffering, humiliation, and genocide; one that recalls painful memories that are better left forgotten.
    Those refugee women were anything but “proud owners of facial tattoos.”

  9. Martha Brinkmann
    February 8, 2015

    I am amazed at all the things I have learned today reading this and other articles on this web site. Thank you for all this new knowledge. I had not heard about the tattoos.

  10. Linda Gonzales
    January 30, 2015

    The facial tatooing among Alaska’s Aleut women was also located on the chin area and hands. The last traditional tatoo bearer died a few years ago but some of the young women are taking it up.

  11. Ana R. Rodriguez
    January 28, 2015


  12. Carole Sarvis
    January 28, 2015

    Thank you for this informative article and the wonderful photos. The character that comes through from these women is amazing.

  13. Guido BAELE
    January 26, 2015

    most of your photos lack emotion

  14. Guido BAELE
    January 26, 2015

    most of your photos lack emotion

  15. abbasi
    January 25, 2015

    you can find tattooed women in parts of Iran as well. Same method to making the tattoo, but patterns little bit different and mostly women tattooed their eyebrows. The culture discontinued almost 50 years ago.

  16. Diamond
    January 23, 2015

    it’s so interesting. I never thought kurdish women did tatooes on faces! It’s amazing! Time flies and gives another stream for new generation with totally different values

  17. Anna F.
    January 23, 2015

    Wonderful article – very informative, much appreciated! The photos accompanying are exquisite as well. Thank you ~

  18. Lalena
    January 23, 2015

    Saw a photo once of a beautiful “Nordic” Ainu girl from around 1900 – she had a dark beard tattooed on her chin to prevent the Japanese men from stealing her. I believe it was a Natl. Geo. magazine photo.

  19. Mehmet K.
    January 23, 2015

    Common mistake made again,
    please refer to Yazidi (That’s a religion)

  20. tux
    January 23, 2015

    It is similaire to the amazigh tradition my grand mother has it and we can found it to on portrait of the princess Kahina the queen of the amazigh who fight against the arab. The amazigh civilization is the root of of north affrican before arabic invasion they was the citizen of freedom.


  21. Ranan
    January 23, 2015

    it is nice trying to uncover the roots of this tradition. I am a kurdish from Iraq, i lived in Baghdad, I would add that I believe that this tradition is never related to Islam, definitely it has deeper roots in the area, and second it is very common in Iraq and the south of Iraq in particular , that’s why I guess it it relates to the Mesopotamia areas,,it is worthy to have deeper studies.
    Thanks for the nice photos

  22. audrey
    January 22, 2015

    little girls taken during the armenian genocide into kurdish/turkish homes had similar tattoos though for them it was a humiliating sign of branding – they were used as servants and concubines, some producing children. they were eventually rescued by an NGO with archives in geneva (to be reunited with their families without the children) but the horror of what they suffered was always ever present by the tattoos on their face (when they looked into a mirror) and hand (looked down and saw their hands). they were sometimes shunned by their own people because they had been with the perpetrators and were no longer virgins. not so beautiful display for them.

  23. Sourav Sinha
    January 22, 2015

    Similar facial and body tattoos were also done in India. I remember my grandmother having such tattooed dots on her forehead, mostly acting as a ‘bindi’. However in wome from aboriginal communities in India, such tattoos are found even now.

  24. Azad
    January 22, 2015

    its fantastic lonag live Kobani long live Kurdistan. Thank yok very much Coburn Dukehart kurs love you 🙂

  25. pam
    January 22, 2015

    Interesting. Found in older native american

  26. Audrey Kalajian
    January 22, 2015

    as a beginner, it would be enlightening to watch this documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwj4e_f_1DI

  27. Yolanda Patterson
    January 22, 2015

    I find it fascinating that women would tattoo themselves in such fashion but I suppose it is also a bit of honor, tradition, a sense of belonging?

  28. Adnan
    January 22, 2015

    About these tattoos.
    How to spread the tattoo.
    Root of the tattoo.
    The meaning of all the patterns.
    300 source photo .
    In short, ” DEQ ” Tattoos ever written about me is the best available source .

  29. Lurline Brown
    January 22, 2015

    your pictures and stories are fascinating please send me more to my email

  30. james
    January 22, 2015

    Very beautiful. This shows how mainstreaming is causing us to lose our traditional ways. I wish they could keep deq going. It’s a great way of expression and to tell a story.

  31. Zrinka
    January 21, 2015

    I noticed similar tattooing in Central Bosnia, near Jajce, Podmilacie when I was on my study of Architecture in University of Sarajevo. Place where I noticed women with tattoos on their hands in shape of snow flakes was Catholic Church of St. John, in June 1970, when was big Feast of St. John of PodMilacije, who was considered Miraculous Saint. I asked tattood women why they had tattoos and the explanation was to be recognized as Catholics after they were kidnapped by Ottomans (today Turkish Muslims). They had, also very intricate needle point work on their white, wide pants on back side on each leg, in the geometrical, square colorful shape.

  32. Bonnie Nevins
    January 21, 2015

    Most interesting….Thank You!

  33. AD
    January 21, 2015

    Check also the documentary Grandma’s Tattoos by Suzanne Khardalian. http://www.grandmastattoos.se

  34. setshone
    January 21, 2015

    For me tattoes on women -should be a choice an adult makes to be effected on her body not to be forced to do it.

  35. Cintra Castellanos
    January 21, 2015

    These women are all still so beautiful..it is always a pity to lose any diversity.

  36. Bruce Hargens
    January 21, 2015

    Could the woman in the second photo be related to either Keith Richards or Steven Tyler?

  37. Zekiye kartal
    January 21, 2015

    In the article is said that only women in Syria/ Rojava have these tattoos and that’s comment among Muslim Kurds. But many Yezidi Kurds in Turkey along Syria border have such tattoos too.

  38. Shina
    January 21, 2015

    these portraits are beautiful! My mother was tattooed when she was very young, I remember she was out playing with her sisters and neighbours and a gypsy woman was around in their neighbourhood. This gypsy woman was going around and tattooing young girls and my mum had one dot on her left hand. She regrets it now and says it was spur of the moment and childish.

  39. Aram Kokoy
    January 21, 2015

    Here is another theory, as a kurd I heard many time form elders that they tattooed their girls and especially the beautiful one to identify them in case of kidnapping and lost. Since majority of Kurds are living in the area that was a major commercial route (caravan) between east and west, there was many cases of kidnapping beautiful girls at the time.

  40. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead
    January 21, 2015

    I feel well placed to appreciate these superb portraits – as a beginner, i am presently struggling with B&W portraits.

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