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Surma women with lip plate - Ethiopia

Piercing and lip plates are a strong part of the Suri culture. These traditional adornments are worn by almost all the adult Suri women. Ear labrets are worn by women, but also men.

When a Suri woman is about to be married, usually in her teens (around 14 or 15), she disappears from village life to live in her family hut. The gap between her front lip and the flesh below is pierced and gradually stretched. In the beginning a hole is made in the lip with a wooden stick. The strecth continues as successively bigger discs of clay or wood are accomodated by the disfigured lip. Generally the two lower front teeth are pulled (or knocked) out to aid the process. The final size of the plates determines how many cattle the woman will receive as a dowry, so the more stretched her lip the better, and the more the more cattle the woman is worth. Some women have stretched their lips so as to allow plates up to 20 cm in diameter. Having a lip plate is considered a sign of beauty. The origins of this tradition are unknown. Sometimes the lip is broken by the pressure of the lip plate. This is a very big problem for girls because men will consider them as ugly, and they won't be able to marry anyone in the tribe apart from old men or ill people. Although it is seen as a sign of beauty nowadays, it is said that the disfigurement began as a way to prevent slavers from seizing Surma women. Over the last few years, a growing number of young Suri women refuse to have their lip pierced. The increasing exposure and opening of the Suri to other cultures is the main reason of this trend. Indeed, some Suri teenagers have the opportunity to study in Addis Abeba, and once back in their village, they tend to try to change customs and traditions.

Mursis have the same tradition, as Mursi women also wear lip plates ; whereas Nyangatom, including men, wear smaller lip plates.


© Eric Lafforgue

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Taken on July 5, 2010