The Forbidden Grace of African Girls

Egyptian photographer, Heba Khamis, recipient of the PHmuseum 2017 Women Photographers Grant second prize, chronicles the gruesome system that eradicates young girls’ innocent beauty in African households. 

© Heba Khamis, from the series, Banned Beauty

In some African households, it’s a daily routine. Right as they get up, before the morning bath, or after the main meal is cooked, the grill still warm. The mothers heat up the utensils - a wooden spoon, a stone. Hot objects serve better the purpose, but cold tools will do too. Applying pressure on the skin, they massage their daughters or granddaughters’ breasts in circular movements, until the roundness recedes, the bosom suppressed. Simply a routine. 

In Cameroon - but also Chad, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and other West and Central African countries - mothers and grandmothers practice “breast ironing” - also known as “flattening” or “sweeping” - to protect their girls from the menaces of men lured by their flourishing bodies. 

Youth rape, teen pregnancy and early marriage are common in the villages around big cities. Puberty blossoms early, making children as young as seven vulnerable. That’s when the practice starts, aimed at discouraging assault by suppressing the girls’ feminine features. 

“Mothers are doing breast ironing to hide the girls,” says Heba Khamis, an Egyptian photographer chronicling the infamous practice since 2016. “From the outside, you feel that the mothers are doing something bad to the girls, but [then] you discover that they just love them and want to protect them,” she explains. 

© Heba Khamis, from the series, Banned Beauty

Khamis first learned about breast ironing from an article on Facebook. Surprised that no photo essay had documented the practice, she decided to do so herself. 

An Egyptian photographer based in Alexandria, she was studying photography in Norway when she flew to Cameroon for a month, sustained by a grant. There she began Banned Beauty, an ongoing photo essay that received the PHmuseum 2017 Women Photographers Grant second prize.

With a degree in painting from Alexandria University, Khamis makes photos that subtly prompt the quiet sort of contemplation that painting allows, encouraging viewers to pause and consider the lives of these girls and their mothers.  

© Heba Khamis, from the series, Banned Beauty

Breast ironing started gaining attention around twelve years ago. As cases of breast feeding issues, disfigurement and cancer began to emerge, Germany’s Association for International Co-operation (GTZ) and the Cameroonian women’s organisation RENATA started surveying young Cameroonians. A quarter of the 5,000 women interviewed had been subjected to breast ironing. Since then, several organisations have been founded to raise awareness and halt the practice. 

Khamis gained access to households through charity organisations and NGOs. Witnessing the practice, she felt both eager but nervous. Mostly, she felt a responsibility to all of the women involved, exposing the same bodies the mothers were trying to hide. “It's your duty to deliver it in the right way, not just show strong, tough images,” Khamis says. “I was aware that I needed to show respect to those mothers and their feelings and their love… that trust they gave me.”

The utensils vary, as does the frequency of the massages: ten minutes daily for some, five minutes twice daily for others. Most use long wooden spoons or stones, but some use black seed wrapped in banana leaves for their thaumaturgical powers. Others, spared the pain by their mothers’ compassion, are corseted in firm fabric.

Usually the practice ends at 15, when the girls become entitled to their femininity. But the damage is done: wounds, diseases, and warped breasts mark their bodies, not to mention their self-esteem. Khamis has met with older victims - in their twenties - who condemn the practice and with the young girls who still endure the custom today. 

© Heba Khamis, from the series, Banned Beauty

Breast ironing is seen as protection against a society steeped in gender inequality, lacking sex education and adequate contraception, and that outlaws abortion. Young girls who experience early pregnancy often drop out of school, compromising their career and independence. Men often refuse to marry young women with a child out of wedlock, due to the stigma. 

For many girls, though, the trauma of breast ironing remains hidden. Because of their young age, some have difficulty articulating their feelings. Asked to portray themselves by drawing, they convey a violated childhood and distorted visions of femininity and their body. Khamis, who has shifted from photojournalism to visual storytelling, includes such drawings in her project, which she hopes to make into a book. In one, Sandra, a 13-year-old girl who has endured ironing since she was eight, portrays herself as bereft of breasts and hands: She might reclaim her femininity one day, but what’s striking now is her perceived inability to oppose social norms, to react, to escape and find an alternative to a gruesome system, an alternative that won’t hurt.


Heba Khamis is a 28 year old Egyptian photographer. In her work, she focuses on social issues that are sometimes ignored, mixing her artistic skills and photojournalistic experience to craft her own style of documentation. Follow her on Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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