The surprising Middle Eastern origin behind hen nights

A hen night conjures up images of a bride-to-be surrounded by her friends drinking prosecco, having a joyous time dancing and savouring her last days of freedom before settling into married life. A night out in the town with the girls has become somewhat of a tradition in the Western world, including in the UK, USA and Australia.

When something becomes the norm, it is easy to forget that clichés often have a meaning and story behind them. So, few know that this tradition was inspired by the Middle East. The word ‘hen’ has nothing to do with a female bird, but it stems from the Arabic word ‘henna.’ Henna is a dye that has been used as temporary body art for centuries.

Having a henna ceremony has been the pre-wedding custom in the Middle East for centuries and there are so many reasons why a bride-to-be and her bridesmaids would wear it.

It was a ritual to paint on a bride-to-be to purify any evil within her and to keep the evil eye and bad spirits away. It was to help invite good fortunes her way.

Applying henna onto a woman was used as an opportunity for a bonding session for the women of all ages in attendance. It was a time for a bride-to-be to ask any questions about sex, marriage and general existential subjects openly and honestly. The themes of camaraderie, fun and openness are still reminiscent today in a game of truth or dare but perhaps a lot more PG (and elegant) in those times.

Although nowadays having a hen night out would more likely mean getting a fake tan, originally the bridesmaids would use henna as body art. They would paint beautiful floral patterns onto their hands and arms in a bid to make themselves more attractive and charm a mate. The idea was that they would send out a signal and communicate to men that they are single and available. This was after all the days before Tinder and swiping left.  

It has now been firmly adopted by the Western culture to mark the transition of a woman’s relationship status and it’s now an industry worth £275 million annually. Hen nights became more prevalent in the western world in the 1970s, which saw the invention of the pill that proved to be reliable, attitudes towards women’s expression of their sexuality became more relaxed and sex before marriage became accepted.

The sexual revolution of the 1970s has influenced how hen nights are celebrated today; with some choosing to spend their last night of freedom in strip clubs, going pole dancing or clubbing. The 1970s encouraged free-spirited and sexually liberal behaviour from women.

Debauchery but without the stigma; it is now somewhat expected behaviour for a hen night out to be on the town with the girls. This level of freedom without the shame and disgrace directed towards the bride-to-be and her circle would never have been the case just 50 years ago.

Today hen nights are a blessing to consumerism too. From the cheap accessories for the hen do such as the veil, to the sash that says ‘bride-to-be’, to the alcohol that flows throughout the night. Nowadays, some even prefer to go on holiday abroad for their hen do, and party in popular social resorts in Ibiza, Magaluf and Amsterdam.

The central theme of hen nights both historically and recently, however, is female bonding. Whether that’s through parties or holidays or more low key gatherings such as spas, dinners or wine tasting.

A hen night is something that has been around for centuries and shows no sign of becoming obsolete in an ever-changing and fast-moving world. Its influences on our culture and economy are undeniable. Inspiring a time where girls bond, have fun and open up to each other is just another underrated contribution that the Middle East has had on the world.

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