The Bride's Henna Ritual: Symbols, Meanings and Changes

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.