Men and women from religious minorities have from ancient times inked their bodies to proclaim their identity. The Copts are one of the oldest surviving Christian communities of the Middle East, and the practice of religious tattooing dates back centuries. It is a mark of defiance, pride and solidarity in the face of adversity.
Iman Nabil Ateya is a 35-year-old woman from Kom el Mahras, Minya, in southern Egypt. She first had the cross symbol tattooed on her wrist when she young. The original design faded, leading her to replace it with another in the same location – an act, for her, of reaffirming her commitment to her faith by ensuring this visual proclamation remains visible. It is commonplace in the Coptic community for body art designs to be renewed in this way, to maintain a symbolic, visual vibrancy.
In recent times, Iman attended the Moulid (a public feast) for a further tattoo to be drawn, a depiction of St Mary; “I ask her for whatever I want, and she answers me”.
Though Iman’s daughter was worried this larger design would harm her mother, Iman took pride in enduring through the pain of the procedure incorporating a modern needle-based machine, though without the numbing anaesthesia usually recommended.
Iman was interviewed by Samia Hanna as part of CREID’s oral heritage project in Egypt.