Images of Algerian Women in Colonial Postcards
by Amel Tafsout
Images mostly from author’s collection.
Originally published in Belly Dancer Reader 2 in 2014,
republished here by author’s request in January 2021.
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When I started working in the U.S, I was very surprised to find pictures of Algerian dancers on refrigerator magnets in various American dancers’ homes. This fascination with the exotic image that these postcards represent for Westerners seems to be quite common. I often wonder if these dancers have the information about how these Colonial postcards were made. They usually portray an Algerian “Mauresques” or “Desert women” of the Nayliyat or city girls posing with a tambourine or a cigarette between their fingers.
Beauty and Culture
Differences in taste within differing cultures become more obvious when considering other factors relating to the beauty of a woman. Western travelers’ accounts of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century described traditional attire, jewelry and make-up of Algerian women as “barbaric”. For the Western male society, semi-nudity is sensual and provocative, while in Oriental norms, it is immodest and tasteless. The breast for Western eyes is charged with sexuality while in the Orient, a woman’s breast is for feeding babies. A woman’s hair, ankle or neck, and knees draw more attention from an Arab man than from a Westerner. Orientals would reject models chosen by painters as beautiful dancers as bony. Being well-fed was something everyone aspired to in the 19th century in Algeria; and only the rich could afford it, so the more opulent a woman was, the more she was considered beautiful.
Visions of the Orientalist Painter
Furthermore, Orientalist painters illustrate a certain Orient close to their own vision. Since a painting is a static picture, in order to denote harmonious movement of the body, the painter added the presence of the accompanied music by showing musicians, knowing that the viewer’s attention would focus on the dancer. Even if he never met the dancer, he was able to easily find Oriental dance costumes in fashion magazines to dress his character. The painter would uncover the hands, the bosom and everything else he could on the dancer. His goal was to suggest the sexuality contained in belly dance as opposed to the dances in Europe such as ballet, couple dances in salons, or folk dances.
The Purpose of Colonialist Postcards
Between the turn of the 20th century and World War I, postcards became the mass media of communication and were collectible objects for the first time in French history. A significant portion of the millions of postcards produced annually in France displayed Algerian “views” and “ethnic” types. For 30 years, the French colonials photographed Algerian women, calling them “Fatma” and displaying their images on postcards that were sent back to France with casual or incidental messages. However, colonial postcards had complex origins. Since 1830 the French presence in Algeria had relied on capitalist involvement in tourism.
Top of page image:
Neurdein Frères and Jean Geiser Postcards
By the turn of the century, the French government was funding Neurdein Frères, (or Neurdein Brothers (ND), in English) – ND images for travel guides and historic records because tourism expanded the colonial infrastructure and the postcards’ publicity stimulated private investment. ND covered Algeria extensively. ND studios sent photographers to the colony to take pictures. ND processed and edited the images in Paris and then marketed them to businesses in Algeria. Because the postcards were bought, sold and postmarked in Algeria, the role the French company took in their production was suppressed. The cards were misunderstood by the French to originate from the colony and to reflect the sensibilities of the indigenous population.
Neurdein Frères 1905 catalog divides the postcards into two main categories: “views” of major cities and “types and costumes” of Algerian people. The catalog lists 1320 views and 201 types. The ND travel souvenir books begin with panoramic overviews, move to the sites, and end with a picture of a smiling young woman. The cards express the difference and a separation between Europeans and Algerians. Photographers like the Swiss Jean Geiser between 1900 and 1930 brought large numbers of photos of scantily clad or naked Algerian women into the European market. The women in the photos are not named. The postcards have impersonal captions like “Woman from the Maghreb”, “Woman from the South”, “Woman from Algiers”. A dozen of them at most have names like “The beautiful Fatima”. The Oriental women remain general; a surface on which an image is projected.
In contrast to the views that can be sorted according to the land and the life within the city, the types exclusively depict Algerians. Physiognomy used physical features as a guide to individual character and class. The ND ethnic types categories take individual subjects and their clothing to represent traits of an entire race. This labeling by work and ethnicity erases social interaction, turning Algerian society into an historical series of categories served up for novelty and local color.
In his paper “Going Postal: On Colonial Algeria”, Leonard R. Koss explains:
“The insatiable thirst on the part of nineteenth-century photographers and their consuming public for supposedly “real” images of elsewhere is, without a doubt, a manifestation of a larger cultural paradigm in which the world, like its images, are subjugated to the hegemonic appropriations of European military and economic expansionism” (1)
According to Koss, the majority of circulating Colonial postcards of Algeria were not the result of the work of traveling photographers, but rather that of photographers like Jean Geiser, who had established himself in Algeria, where, in 1874, he opened his own studio in Algiers. He became the most well known colonial photographer in Algeria in the second half of the nineteenth century due in great part to his dominance in the field of postcard photography.
In images of the harem, eroticism is expressed by pronounced differences in racial representation. In “Mauresques” the women seem to look out, inviting us with their tambourines and tea ceremony to join the activities of the harem. Though all are labeled “Mauresques”, the dark women are more fully clothed, sit relatively upright, and gaze at the viewer with blank expressions. The light-skinned woman raises her eyebrows, suggestively glances at the viewer, and reclines with her legs spread apart and shirt drawn back to reveal her breast. The woman, physically closer to European conceptions of beauty, can offer herself for sexual exhibition.
Leonard Koss writes:
In recognizable sub-categories generically designated as “Femme arabe”, “Mauresque,” and “Bédouine,” pejoratively reductive appellations like “Belle Fatma,” ”Aïcha,” and “Khédija,” or specifically identified with a group like the Ouled-Naïl…the exotic North African woman. (2).
The Real Message of the Postcards
According to Alloula, in “The Colonial Harem”, the real message of the postcards, was neither casual nor incidental, but was instead a sign of conquest – of Western designs on the Orient, of violence. He provides an important interpretation of the images. He reproduces postcards of dancers and “harem women” and arranges the images into a narrative so that the models are progressively more unveiled. Beyond doubt, many of these images are tawdry, and Alloula has arranged them in an increasing order of degradation, ending his book with what he calls an ”anthology of breasts”. He writes:
“…The bust, at least freed from the garments designed only to be removed, offers itself either with arrogance or with submissive humility” (3).
The captions establish a complicity which duplicates soliciting by an invitation of the kind: ”Want to party, honey?” or ”Oh! Is it ever hot!” or ”The Cracked Jug.” The ordinarily hidden is made brutally visible; the private is perverted and made public. The model, Alloula tells us,
“…presents three distinct and yet closely related advantages: She is accessible, credible, and profitable. This is the three-legged foundation upon which will come to stand the whole of the enterprise pursued so relentlessly by the colonial postcard” (4).
Alloula explains how the model ends up representing all Algerian women. He writes, ”The model, in selling the image of her body…sells at the same time…the image of the body of Algerian women as a whole…” (5).
Alloula defines the postcard as “an immense compensatory undertaking”. He explains that, imprinted on the cards, Algerian women are reborn but at the same time, “They are available and consenting, welcoming and exciting, submissive and possessed” (6).
As Algerian women are offered “body and soul” they are used as trophies of ‘war booty’, he writes: ”These raided bodies are the spoils of victory, the warrior’s reward.” (7). In other terms, Algerian women are a surrogate for political and military conquest.
Alloula’s motive in writing this book and in compiling these images is to send back these postcards to the French photographers, and to confront French colonialism. Barbara Harlow, who wrote the book’s introduction, explains that for Alloula it is a ”challenge and riposte” in order to reclaim a lost sense of honor as he writes:
”What I read on these cards does not leave me indifferent. It demonstrates to me…the desolate poverty of a gaze that I myself, as an Algerian, must have been the object of at some moment in my personal history.” (8).
I agree with Alloula’s statement, as I understand that his intention is to put the postcards in their socio-political contexts so that he can reveal the hidden goal of the French colonials in order to destroy the Algerian spirit. As an Algerian woman, I wonder whether Alloula’s anger comes from his concern for the women who were photographed.
I believe that the challenge Alloula returns to the French, the cultural dialogue he initiates, remains male-centered and concerned with women as property and as symbolic marks of (dis)honor or status for the men in their families.
If Algerian women were vulnerable and disgraced by their original display on colonial postcards, they are once again exposed by their display in this book. Their images leave them still silent and newly imprisoned by the very text that purports to liberate them.
In her book “Images of Women”, Sarah Graham-Brown explains:
“The figure of the woman as an erotic and exotic object…can be seen in the reclining, almost naked African woman posed against a studio backdrop representing ‘the jungle’; in the Japanese ‘geisha’ girl with her robe slipped from her shoulder…in the odalisque with her semi-nudity, her jewels and her water pipe. All these studio photographs use pose…to suggest sensuality, sexual availability or primitiveness.” (9).
Images of Dancers
Alloula devotes a chapter to “Song and Dance: Almehs and Bayarderes”. As he mentions it rightly, this chapter follows the ‘rituals of the harem’, what he means is that it continues the phantasm on the exoticism of Orientalism. Alloula highlights that the dancer and musicians do not perform on stage or in front of an audience. He writes:
“As an exercise of the body, dance gives it a physical outlet. It rouses it from vegetative torpor to maintain it as a body-for-pleasure…Through movement, dance prolongs and perfects the erotic delirium…This feast of the body is first of all, a show for only one individual, the viewer-voyeur, namely the photographer.”(10).
Wanting to possess the Algerian land, French colonists first claimed the bodies of its women, using sex as a surrogate for an extension of another larger usurpation of culture.
During the 1980s, post colonial scholarship set out to unmask the colonial agenda in these postcards by linking non-political Orientalist iconography to the French colonial project.
Alloula compares the unveiling of Algerian women with the French colonial conquest of Algeria. He examines photography as an export of cultural appropriation, racism and Eastern exoticism. He writes:
“The postcard…becomes the poor man’s phantasm: For a few pennies, display racks full of dreams. The postcard is everywhere, covering all the colonial space, immediately available to the tourist, the soldier, and the colonist. It is at once their poetry and their glory captured for the ages; it is also their pseudo-knowledge of the colony. It produces stereotypes in the manner of great seabirds producing guano. It is the fertilizer of the colonial vision.” (11)
Entering the Woman’s Private Space
The models and the backdrop against which Algerian women were photographed (often an image of nature) appear typified and simplified in these studio photographs. Alloula provides evidence that the models used in these photographs are not actually real “harem women”. Most of them are in fact victims of war, orphans and prostitutes who were required to pose for the photographer’s lens. The author doesn’t focus on the biographies of the models or their reasons for posing for the camera; instead he directs his criticism against the West. He analyses the view of the voyeur, who is not moved by ethnographic considerations, but by a passion for money and power.
The postcards were sent as evidence of the exotic; they were trophies. In terms of morals, a system of double standards was prevalent: It was acceptable for the women of the “department” (as Algeria was a French department at that time) to strip off, while photos of naked French women from the mother country were strictly forbidden.
The only photographer-painter who claims to have actually been in a harem is Eugene Delacroix. He created a scenes of inside the harem, most bombastic, called “Women of Algiers in their apartment”.
The walls of the harem delineate women’s private space and the images invite us to transgress these limits. In doing so, the postcards violate private, cultural and religious boundaries. Imprisoned by the photographer’s eye these women reclaim their historicity through the pages of Alloula’s book. Alloula uses so-called “harem postcards” to highlight all of the issues of the power structures between the ruler and the ruled, the Empire and the Colony.
Mailing the Postcards
When postcards were exchanged through mail, the images were linked with the tourist’s text. As tourists both men and women bought ND cards at kiosks and newspaper stands and exchanged the cards with either members of the same sex or opposite sex. By purchasing a card and writing a message on the back of the image, a French tourist marked or commemorated his presence at that place. The sender also asserted his position as someone with the money and leisure time to travel.
The small message space was intended for simple greetings, and because the postcard was not private, it was used for general communication. Postcard messages were abbreviated. An absence of descriptive messages characterizes images of Mauresques, Ouled Naïl dancing girls and the harem. Postcards showing topless women often have no message, stamps or postmark, suggesting either they were never sent and instead were kept by the purchaser or they were sent in an envelope. None of the messages comment on the images; most contain only brief salutations. A postcard of a “Jeune Mauresque” exposing her breast is signed ”bonjour lointain”, with a signature on the front and back of the image. Despite such acts of possession, the sender of the harem picture could not be understood to be saying “I was here and saw this”. Even though it is difficult to determine what hidden message, if any, was conveyed.
A similar silence surrounds images of Algerian women in guidebooks from the same time period, such as “la France africaine” showing an ND images of a “Mauresque d’Alger”. The woman is unveiled, but clothed, wearing lots of jewelry. The guide Joanne lists cafes with Ouled Naïl dancers but does not describe them, indeed, one travel account calls an Algerian woman’s dance “indescribable”. It is the pictures that promise most about what would be found in Algeria. Images of women smoking and exhibiting their bodies were not discussed, presumably because such a reference to sexuality was not appropriate in a guidebook. The truth is that tourists would never see Algerian women exposed as they are in these pictures. The postcard image shows what cannot be described. The ND and Geiser’s images of Algerian women were acceptable because it was another culture that appeared to be transgressing French morals. The image on the card introduced eroticism into social exchange.
Exotic Attraction and Racism
Although the collectors of postcards were male, collecting them was often represented as a feminine activity. The cards must have been produced to some extent with a female audience in mind. Many of the cards were addressed to Mademoiselle. Women frequently kept postcards in albums. Postcard collecting provided women with opportunities to engage in social exchanges with gentlemen callers and to display their creativity, their education and tastes. Therefore, colonial postcards expressed ambivalence about Algeria for the female viewer. Articles about Algeria were rare but representations of the Middle Eastern ‘Orient’ were very popular. Like postcards, the stories in women’s magazines could be used to travel imaginatively to different places, to safely live out exotic fantasies.
In Femina magazine’s article “Femmes du desert” Mme Jean Pomerol suggests a fascination with Algerian beauty rituals. She wrote:
“(The woman in the Sahara) has long, long periods of leisure…She uses them to adorn herself…and what adornment…Flowing draperies, attached by an abundance of barbarous jewelry…Henna on her hands that become a mahogany color…Make-up in her cheeks, applied without any intention of imitating nature…Muslin veils trailing on the ground…” (12)
The article seems to encourage French women to try exotic beauty rituals as their own private escape, but then, as to reaffirm the superiority of the colonizer, adds that these women only bathe once a week because of water shortages. The images may provide women an outlet for an erotic fascination but that fascination remains tempered with ambivalence. In the colonial postcards in the article in Femina magazine, Algerian women are presented to French women as both dirty and exotic. In the article, elaborated dresses and bejeweled dancers on a camel wear costumes like those of the women in the Mauresques postcards. This attitude of simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from the subjects, allows the women to experience both identification and distance.
However, collecting postcards of Algerian women was a rarely sanctioned occasion for women to view and display images of other women in exhibitionist and provocative poses. Yet French women identified with the erotic sexuality that Algerian women represented. This identification could have taken a form for women collectors, such as assuming an exotic identity and participation in Arab misery. For French Bourgeoises, Algerian women were representing the free expression of erotic sexuality.
The colonial postcards’ images reflected the interest of the commercial tourism industry and the French colonial government. They appealed to viewers because they reinforced bourgeois attitudes about race, work and gender. The silence around the images in guidebooks and in the personal messages written on the cards indicates viewer ambivalence about the images and evoked other interpretations of them.
The Algerian War of Independence
The Algerian independence war (1954-1962) for both France and for Algeria was a traumatic experience. It was like the Vietnam War for the Unites States. The difference is that the French are still living in amnesia, as it is very hard for them to confront the loss of Algeria. As Leonard Koss explains, there are only a few photographic documents available about the Algerian war.
The French photographer Marc Garanger is one of the few French photographers to publish a photographic book of Algerian women as a tribute to them. In 1960, Garanger was a 25 years old draftee who worked professionally as a photographer for ten years. He landed in the region of Kabylia, in the small village of Ain Terzine, South of Algiers. He was selected as the photographer of his regiment.
The photo historian and poet, Carole Naggar, writes that Garanger’s commanding officer decreed that the villagers must have identity cards: “Naturally he asked the military photographer to make these ID cards,” Garanger explains:
“Either I refused and went to prison, or I accepted. I understood my luck: It was to be a witness, to make pictures of what I saw that mirrored my opposition to the war. I saw that I could use what I was forced to do, and have the pictures tell the opposite of what the authorities wanted them to tell.” (13)
The women that Garanger portrayed came from neighboring villages. Either Amazigh Berber or Arab Algerians, they had never before come into contact with Europeans. When Garanger arrived, there was a detachment of armed men with machine guns across their shoulders, an interpreter, and the commander. The women would be lined up, and then each in turn would sit on a stool outdoors, in front of the wall of a house. Without their veils, their hair and their tattoos were exposed. Their lined faces reflected the harshness of their life. The stiffness of their pose and the intensity of their gaze showed their resistance. Garanger explains:
“I would come within three feet of them, they would be unveiled. In a period of ten days, I made two thousand portraits, two hundred a day. The women had no choice in the matter. Their only way of protesting was through their look.” (14)
“It is this immediate look that matters, when one discharges a condenser, a spark comes out: To me, photography involves seizing just that instant of discharge. In these sessions, I felt a completely crazy emotion. It was an overwhelming experience, with lightning in each image. I held up for the world a mirror, which reflected this lightning look that the women cast at me.” (15)
Fifty years after Algeria’s independence was proclaimed, Garanger’s contested portraits have not lost their impact. When he went back to Algeria in 2004 to meet those he had photographed, he found that the pictures he had taken were often the only ones that the women ever had of themselves, and they welcomed his return. As Carole Naggar notices: “He had become the keeper of their memory”. His portraits were exhibited in Algiers at the Muséed’ArtModerne, from April 20th to August 30th 2013.
An online commentator called Gohedrick wrote on Apr 24, 2013 these pointing true words:
“These photographs add still more faces to the cruelty of war. The women no doubt felt stripped naked and exposed to leering male eyes. The assault on their privacy and dignity was no doubt a horrific experience to them. These photographs can possibly be viewed without remorse of conscience today only because these women are anonymous and have gone ‘where fierce indignation can lacerate their hearts no more.’”(16)
I agree with the above commentator as I personally remember as a child the same situation, when the French soldiers came to our home to take pictures of my mother, grandmother and aunties. It was a real panic for the female members of my family as the tradition for women is to always wear a headdress; but the soldiers forced them to take their scarves off to be photographed in order to get an identity card. The reason for the identity cards was because Algerian women were forced to go vote for the new president as Algeria belonged to France at that time. The women never had a picture taken before that day and I still remember the look in my female family members’ eyes and the resistance to these invaders who seem to take their soul.
In conclusion, it is an irony to realize that today, collectors of Colonial postcards of Algerian women sell each postcard for a very high price, not because they are aware of the violation of their private space or they are concerned about them, it is because of greed and money as these postcards became “vintage” and everything “vintage” is so trendy! In the Middle East dance scene, there are only a few dancers who can see beyond the girl in the postcard. Obviously as some dancers would perceive it, thanks to these colonial postcards and the painting of the Orientalists, the costumes and jewelry can be seen, but what about the models, the girls who were orphans and were abused and badly treated by the French photographers? In these postcards the women rarely smile. To me they look unhappy and oppressed and their look transcends their resistance to Colonialism.
I would like to conclude with Alloula’s statement:
“A ventriloquial art, the postcard, even – and especially – when it pretends to mirror the exotic, is nothing but one of the forms of the aesthetic justification of colonial violence” (17)
Timeline of French Colonialism in Algeria
By Amel Tafsout
1830 to 1962 – French Conquest of Algeria
1848 – Algeria was annexed as three French departments
Post 1848 and post 1881 – During the nineteenth century there were two waves of French immigration. Consequences: The Algerians were systematically pauperized. Traditional patterns of land ownership were dismantled and French settlers were allowed to buy or confiscate land. The French faced much opposition in Algeria.
1832 – The superior of a religious brotherhood,Muhyi ad Din, launched attacks against the French. In the same year, his son,Abd al Kader led the jihad. He quickly gained the support of tribes throughout Algeria.
1839 – Abd al Kader controlled more than two-thirds of Algeria. His government maintained an army and a bureaucracy, collected taxes, supported education, undertook public works, and established agricultural and manufacturing cooperatives to stimulate economic activity.
1847 – Abd al Kader was obliged to surrender.
1954 – French Algeria was a society rigidly polarized along racial lines, economically, politically and culturally. France maintained colonial rule in the territory that has been described as “quasi-apartheid”. There were one million French settlers and nine million Algerians. The relationship between Algeria and France, French and Algerians, was a racist, colonial one, based on violence.
Nov 1, 1954 – The Algerian war for independence started with the insurrection organized by the National Liberation Front (FLN).
July 5, 1962 – Algeria became independent.
1954-1962 – One million and a half Algerians died.
1954 – 200,000 Algerians living in France. Of those 150,000 were working, the majority in the building or steel industries.
The National Liberation Front (FLN) organized the Algerians in France, in order to ask them to finance the war through a well-organized system of collectors.
The unconventional, often illegal andhuman rights violating counter-insurgency measures applied by the French military against the FLN, namely torture, forced disappearances and illegal executions, were widely regarded as militarily successful, but also to have significantly weakened the French position due to the ensuing moral and political controversy.
September 30, 1956 – The Battle of Algiers began, when three women, including Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif, were involved in the struggle.
Women fulfilled a number of different functions during the Algerian War. The majority of Algerian women who became active participants did so on the side of the National Liberation Front (FLN). The total number of women involved in the conflict, as determined by post-war veteran registration, is numbered at 11,000, but it is possible that this number was significantly higher due to underreporting.
Image 14: Beranger’s pix
Image 16: Beranger
1. Koss, Leonard. Going Postal: On Colonial Algeria. Case Western Reserve University, 2012. Web. June 2, 2014, 1.
2. Koss, Leonard. Going Postal: On Colonial Algeria. Case Western Reserve University, 2012. Web. June 2, 2014, 13.
3. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 106.
4. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 18.
5. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 118.
6. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 122.
7. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 122.
8. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 34.
9. Graham-Brown, Sarah. Images of Women. 1st. London: Columbia University Press, 1988, 40.
10. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 86.
11. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 4.
12. Pomerol, Jean.”Femmes du desert.” Femina, March 1933, 25
13. Garanger, Marc. Femmes Algeriennes de 1960. Paris: Atlantica, 2002, 2.
14. Garanger, Marc. Femmes Algeriennes de 1960. Paris: Atlantica, 2002, 3.
15. Garanger, Marc. Femmes Algeriennes de 1960. Paris: Atlantica, 2002, 4.
16.Gohedrick, Unknown. “Women Unveiled.” Time Lightbox. April 24, 2013, Reader’s Comment.
17. Alloula, Malek, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, c1986, 120.
- Further References:
- Nagger, Carole, Algerian, Algiers, anthropology, France, historic, MarcGaranger, Muséed’ArtModerne, Jackbrown 1Apr 24, 2013
- Nagger, Carole. “Women Unveiled: Marc Garanger’s Contested Portraits of 1960s Algeria
- Saïah-Baudis, Ysabel. Haram : Itinéraire des femmes orientales. French. Paris, Editions du Chêne, 2003. Print.
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