Has Rihanna sparked a henna renaissance?

Now that a singer in Los Angeles is posting pictures of the body art, Arab women have gotten a little envious

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You know how Rihanna tattooed her hands with henna? It soon caught on with Hollywood celebrities and then became a hit with young people. With pictures of the intricate adornment splashed all over Instagram, we were all wanting henna tattoos.

Henna, also known as mehndi among Southeast Asians, is commonly done for weddings and other big celebrations, including Eid. But in rural areas in both the Arab and Asian worlds, henna is a much bigger part of traditional culture: it is a sign of a woman’s pride and a display of her femine appeal.

henna shutterstock
henna shutterstock

So now that a singer in Los Angeles and many western bloggers are splashing pictures of the body art all over their Instagram pages, Arab women have gotten a little envious. Check your social media feed: now many Arab women are set on displaying their national pride with new, Hollywood-approved henna designs. Many are also spicing it up furhter with nail art, diamantes and urban chic jewelry.

People of many cultural backgrounds go about their daily lives decorated with intricate henna designs. Traditionally, henna is applied by hand out of a special paper cone. Some artists use stencils, easily available at Southeast Asian stors and salons, for more intricate patterns, but the more talented apply it freehand.

Brides in India and Pakistan customarily have a mehndi ceremony, normally attended only by female family members and friends, where all the women get their hands and feet covered with henna tattoos. The idea is that henna applied to the bride-to-be will bring her good fortune in her new, married life.

The most popular designs, particularly in India, are inspired by nature—flowers and leaves—but henna tattoos come in all kinds of motifs.In India, flower bud designs symbolize the new adventure the bride is about to embark upon, showing that love will cultivate her marriage.

In contrast, Arabic designs tend to be less complicated.

If you want your own henna design, you can easily make a paste and do it yourself. The shade you'll end up with varies, but usually it will be a reddish hue that gradually fades over a period of days, depending on the henna used.

Black henna also exists, but it is quite controversial because it has a toxic dye called paraphenylenediamine (PPD) added to make it black. PPPD can cause allergic reactions, and in serious cases even permanent scarring. Salons in the UAE have banned the use of black henna because of the potential adverse reactions, but in Saudi Arabia it is still permitted to use the dye.

Henna, a natural dye that usually comes as a powder, is also used to dye or color hair. (Older people use it to cover up grey hair!)

If you want to avoid the hassle of applying the henna yourself, you can also easily find temporary henna tattoos in various designs and colors. We even know some men who use them!

These temporary tattoos are usually inexpensive, and can be found easily in salons, but the quality varies. Generally, tattoos lack color quality and fade quickly.

On the upside, nowadays you can get a henna tattoo anywhere—not just on your hands and feet. Since permanent tattoos have religious implications, these temporary designs are a great substitute for Muslim women all around the world.

Apart from its aesthetic appeal, henna's attractiveness lies in its deeper cultural associations. Today worn as jewellery, it enhances conventional beauty and underlines an often-unseen dimension of one's individuality.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Sept. 6., 2014.

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