Bridal Henna Designs Definations
The bride's henna ritual was the principal rite of passage for women in Yemen. This ritual was an important stage in preparing the bride for her new life, as she changed from a girl-youth into a man's wife, became separated from her family, and went to live in her husband's home. It expressed a rigid gender separation and a non-egalitarian system in which femininity was shackled in structural inferiority.
After immigrating to Israel and becoming exposed to a western society with egalitarian messages, Yemenite women became less dependent and subservient and more empowered. However, they also maintained traditional thought patterns. The change in their status, as well as the mixed trends towards change and preservation in communal tradition, influenced the performance of the henna ritual in Israel, and it became syncretic.
During the last few decades, as part of the process of Mizrahi young people return to their roots, the custom of holding a henna ritual has been revived among young Yemenite Jews in Israel, mainly as a symbol of their ethnic identity. Today, however, the ritual is characterized by a breaking of the social order and hierarchy. It is focused on the couple, and its importance as a female rite of passage has diminished.
The ritual is a planned event, with rules, accompanied by symbols that transmit recognized meanings. It presents us in a concentrated manner with the sociocultural experience, diverse relationships, and social hierarchy that characterize the context within which it takes place, and with the participants' beliefs and ideologies. (1) Two intertwined dimensions exist in every ritual. On the one hand, it comprises a means for maintaining social order, increasing social cohesion, and strengthening the main values of the society, and it legitimizes statuses and roles on the basis of those values. On the other hand, via collaborative social consent, it enables the introduction of new elements that are appropriate to changing circumstances. (2)
Wedding ceremonies, in which members of a couple are transformed from being unmarried to being married, are rites of passage, (3) rituals by which people pass from one status to another. They become aware of their new obligations and rights and obtain approval for their new identity. Van Gennep discerned three principal stages in the rite of passage: separation from the prior social world; transition; and incorporation into the new conditions or statuses. According to Turner, (4) transition is the critical stage in which the cultural border is crossed. The characteristics of the liminal beings are therefore necessarily ambiguous; they are "betwixt and between." In the liminal condition, the definition of social roles and statuses is vague, as expressed in a plenitude of contradictory symbols.
Among the lengthy wedding rituals practiced among Jews in Yemen were the henna rituals held for the bride and groom during the wedding week, in which the palms of their hands and feet were covered with a material extracted from the henna plant. This article will focus on the bride's henna ritual, with the aim of examining its symbolic gender significance in traditional Yemenite society, in which femininity was characterized by structural inferiority, and the changes that occurred in the ritual after the immigration of the Yemenite Jews to Israel, from the 1950s to date. Economic and social processes in Israel, as well as feminist messages issuing from the West, expanded the world of Yemenite women and empowered them in both the private and the public spheres. This has led to a decline in the importance of the henna ritual as a rite of passage and to changes in its performance, its accessories, and its symbolic significance.
My research is based on observations, participant observations, video recordings of henna rituals that took place in Israel from the 1970s through the present, and in-depth interviews. During 2003-2004, I interviewed approximately thirty Yemenite women living in different parts of Israel--in urban neighborhoods and in ethnically homogeneous and heterogeneous settlements. The interviews were conducted in Hebrew and in Yemenite (a type of Judaeo-Arabic), a language I speak. Some of the women were interviewed at home and others in old-age centers. Approximately half of them were born in different regions of Yemen and immigrated to Israel in 1949-1950, when they were between 13 and 30 years old. Now aged 70 to 90, they had married either while still in Yemen or soon after their arrival in Israel. Some of these older women were professional dressers and singers who had learned the art from their mothers and grandmothers in Yemen. The younger women, born in Israel, were aged between about 20 and 50. Most had at least a high-school education and engaged in various professions.
Distances of time and place pose methodological difficulties to reconstructing a culture largely by way of ethnographic fieldwork. Older interviewees have a tendency toward forgetfulness and idealization of the past, and they may also be influenced in their descriptions of how rituals were performed in the past (in Yemen or in the first decades in Israel) by the way in which they are performed today. Nevertheless, these primary oral history sources comprise an important social and cultural text.
In composing this study, I have also drawn upon the research of other scholars, including an important store of photographs (mainly in black and white), observations, interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Israel from the 1970s through 2000, focusing mainly on the musical repertoire of women's ritual singing during the henna ritual.
THE HENNA RITUAL OF THE BRIDE IN YEMEN
Weddings in Yemen were not a single ritual, but rather a string of rituals that lasted for about a month before the wedding day. (5) Because of the dispersion of the Jewish communities in Yemen, and the difficulties of travel between them due to topographical conditions, unique styles evolved in the different regions, including differences in dress, songs, dancing, and the duration of the ceremonies.