Women and Henna: an Intricate Cultural Dance

If you happened to be a woman in Egypt fifty years ago, you might have slept through many thousand unremarkable nights, yet at least one would have probably stood out in your memory. Laylat al-hinna: a night of poetry, beauty and magic, during which your female relatives and friends would have woven a red shield against the Evil Eye into your skin.

Dawn would have found your feet and hands covered in beautiful lace-like patterns, often so dense as to look like brick-red crocheted gloves or socks. These protective designs would have accompanied you over the threshold of marriage, and marked you as a newly-wed bride for weeks to come, before slowly fading away.

The color that seeped into your skin was from a plant’s crushed leaves, a plant blessed with the strange power of leaving a permanent, yet temporary stain on hair, nails and skin: henna (Lawsonia inermis).

Henna has a long tradition of use in places where it grows naturally; according to Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD, suggestive finds in the Mediterranean area hint at henna use as far back as the Bronze Age period.

This tree/bush with fragrant flowers reminiscent of a myrtle, can only grow in environments we would describe as stressful (desert-like), with prolonged dry spells and warm temperatures. As is often the case, it’s the toughest conditions (high heat and low moisture) that best reveal its colourful secret: lawsone, a molecule most concentrated in the young leaves, that shows a predilection for lifelong binding to keratin whenever it gets the opportunity to do so.

Young leaves with high lawsone content. Image © Roy Jones

This is why henna leaf, powdered and mixed with some acidic liquid to make a paste, has been used for millennia to stain one’s hair and nails, as well as skin in particularly keratin-rich areas (eg. hand-palms and feet soles), in colours that range from orange to dark reddish brown. When the dyed cells are naturally shed (eg. skin) or cut (nails, hair), the stain disappears: permanent, yet temporary.

Lawsone doesn’t much care about who the owner of its beloved keratin is; whether human, horse or donkey, male or female, the dye molecule just does its thing. However, in most cultures, henna traditions are predominantly associated with women, regardless of religious affiliations: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, and animists have used henna in their bridal rituals if naturally available.

Until very recently, I had never truly wondered why.

I knew women (and children) are considered especially vulnerable to the evil eye in many cultures, so I assumed perhaps they needed extra protection… or maybe men shunned wearing temporary designs on their skin?

But then I stumbled across an apparently insignificant detail that shifted my perspective and sent me back in time, connecting me to another plant story I had believed totally unrelated until now.

Egypt in the 6th century BC was a place of magic for the Greeks. It was also a place noted for its inhabitant’s attitudes towards certain plants, at least according to historian Herodotus and his mention of the Egyptians’ dislike of broad beans (Vicia faba).

Fava beans soon became one of the most reviled plant foods in the ancient world.

It wasn’t the Egyptians who gave the beans their bad name, though, but a legendary vegetarian philosopher said to have spent many years in Egypt before founding a school of mystic-mathematical thought — lending his name to a famous theorem involving triangles. I’m referring, of course, to Pythagoras of Samos.

Like many other religious leaders throughout history, Pythagoras left no written documents; all we know about his teachings and doctrine was written many years after his passing by people who never met him. His avoidance of beans, though, was striking enough to be mentioned not only by his followers, but also by figures such as Aristotle or Pliny the Elder. Vegetarianism has been advocated by different religious traditions across the world, but plant food prohibitions are rarer and usually much harder to explain.

So, the question on everybody’s mind for centuries has been: why fava beans?

Fava beans. Image © Aina S. Erice

There have been many theories to date, yet one in particular would see this avoidance as pointing at a genetic disorder that might’ve affected Pythagoras: a condition commonly known as favism, and technically described as G6PD deficiency.

People suffering from such a condition have a dysfunctional enzyme (G6PD) in their blood cells. This, experts agree, isn’t to the liking of the parasites responsible for malaria, which means sensitive individuals have increased chances of survival in malarial environments… such as the Mediterranean at the time in which Pythagoras and the Egyptians lived.

Yet there’s a bloody annoying trade-off —literally bloody, because coming into contact with certain substances can cause the blood cells of a G6PD-deficient person to break down, causing haemolytic anemia. One of these substances, as you might’ve guessed already, is fava beans.

So, if Pythagoras indeed suffered from favism, avoiding broad beans would’ve been a pretty sensible decision. However, they aren’t the only plant substance that spell trouble for G6PD-deficient people: henna can also trigger haemolytic crises in susceptible individuals.

I haven’t yet given you one crucial detail though, and it’s this: whereas other genetic conditions make no distinctions between genders, this one does. As with haemophilia, G6PD-related anomalies are what’s known as X-linked traits, essentially meaning ‘bad news for boys’: out of seven people that suffer from this condition, six are male.

This makes such substances significantly more dangerous for boys than for girls in communities where such disorder is relatively common. In henna’s case, the most vulnerable period is early childhood, as children have much thinner skin than adults so it’s easier for henna components to flow into the bloodstream.

Henna Blossom

What I’ve always wondered is: did they know?

Was Pythagoras really G6PD-deficient and figured out the causal connection between broad beans and health problems? (And if so, shouldn’t he have said something about women being generally exempted from this dietary prohibition?)

Did the cultures that used henna in medicinal and ritual ways notice that some boys (and a few girls) would develop jaundice, pallor, and sometimes even die following the application of henna paste to cure any of several complaints, and infer that both things were related?

I doubt we’ll ever know about the first one, but the answer to the second —as far as I know— is no.

There exists an intriguing study though, that presents suggestive evidence for a connection between henna use and the incidence of G6PD-deficiency rates in two different religious groups across the Maghreb, the Levant and the Arabian peninsula. I found the data fascinating: imagine two communities living as neighbours, yet the likelihood of carrying this genetic disorder is astonishingly different depending on which one you are born into: 30-60% (Jews) versus 1.8 to 8.5% (Muslims). One big ritual difference? Jewish communities use salt to rub their children for protection and blessing after they’re born, whereas Muslims usually use… henna. Which would, of course, be likely to cause an acute and often fatal haemolytic crisis in a susceptible infant —usually a boy. After centuries of such ‘accidental removals’ of sensitive individuals from the population, one would expect the incidence of G6PD deficiency to be lower than normal, which is exactly the case.

In spite of this, traditional folklore doesn’t make a direct connection between henna and those children’s death (don’t mothers use it safely on themselves, after all? Why shouldn’t it be safe for their offspring?). A boy’s demise might’ve been more easily explained as the fault of a demon, or the Evil Eye’s.

And yet, henna is predominantly used by and associated with women and bridal rituals: the result of an intricate dance between culture and nature, maybe?

We’ll probably never know if Pythagoras suffered from favism, nor if he saw —much less used— henna either, whether in Egypt or elsewhere. Being an adult male, it would’ve been unlikely to cause him serious trouble anyway.

However, had I been his wife, I would’ve kept the henna (and the beans) safely away from him all the same. When in doubt, no red beard for Pythagoras.

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.

Post images by Roy Jones and Aina S. Erice.

Header image of henna dyed hands by Burakalici, sourced from Wikipedia Commons.