Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860-1950 (Quartet, 1988).
The invention of photography in 1839 coincided, Sarah Graham-Brown observes, with a vigorous phase of European global expansion. Egypt and Palestine were among early testing grounds for the camera, which rapidly made its appearance throughout the Middle East.
Yet despite the ostensible veracity of the new medium, photographic images of the region and its women were, this book argues, as subject to manipulation and distortion as other forms of representation. Examining both Western and indigenous photographs of women up to 1950, and measuring them against other forms of historical evidence of the changes taking place in women’s lives over almost a century, the author reveals the limitations of these images as “photo-documentation.”
They more often encode patterns of power and dominance in the region in which rival representations of the status of women have played a symbolic role. These contesting images bear an uncertain relation to the real identity or individuality of the women they purport to depict.
Using early nineteenth-century photographs by European travelers, missionaries and anthropologists (including several women) as her starting point, Graham-Brown illustrates how they — like contemporary paintings and accounts — often embody the Orientalist assumptions of their originators. Destined for the tourist market as postcards and pornography, or for illustrated magazines or ethnographic studies, these photographs reproduced a finite set of visual cliches: Biblical scenes (spuriously suggesting the timeless nature of Middle Eastern society); anonymous “native types”; women veiled in public or languid prisoners in the harem’s “gilded cage.”
Chapters on seclusion (“The Seen, the Unseen and the Imagined”) and dress examine the meaning and reality behind popular images of the veil and the harem. Patriarchal forms of control over women’s visibility and sexuality varied according to time, class, wealth, region and level of urbanization. Yet these differences are eclipsed in archetypal photographs intent on exploiting Western fantasies of a monolithic exotic and erotic Orient. The resulting distorted representations, the author argues, concretize unequal relationships not only between Westerner and Oriental, but between man and woman, photographer and subject.
Yet this book does far more than extend Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism further into the realms of photography and feminism. Chapters on “Working Women,” “The Spread of Education,” “Women in the Public Eye” and “Campaigning Women” provide a detailed, illustrated social history of women in the Middle East, and the patterns of change they experienced during the height of European influence in the region. There are also individual portraits of such figures as Huda Shaarawi, leader of the Egyptian Feminist Union, Halide Edip, her Turkish counterpart, and the Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthoum.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Sarah Graham-Brown’s argument is its extension to cover the problematic ways in which indigenous images of Middle Eastern women have responded to the dominant Western aesthetic and ideological codes of representation. These images, she argues, have been mobilized as symbols in nationalist struggles against colonial powers in the region. In Atatürk’s Turkey, Reza Shah’s Iran or Nasser’s Egypt, photographs of women unveiled, in Western dress, apparently participating in public life, could be held up as emblems of the progressive nature of the state. Yet these propagandist images often obscured a lack of real change in the vast majority of women’s lives, within family or gender relations.
An alternative nationalist position saw women as crucial repositories of indigenous cultural tradition. In Algeria, where the French authorities forcibly discouraged the use of the veil, its retention became a nationalist tenet, with women serving as emblems of nationhood. Yet the dispute was not one over women’s emancipation. Since the colonial attack on the veil was a deliberate challenge to indigenous male authority, the fight was in fact over who was to control women.
Copiously illustrated with black-and-white photographs from a range of archives and private collections, and beautifully produced, Images of Women provides an impressively wide-ranging and accessibly written thematic social history of women in the Middle East. While it imparts a vital understanding of how to read and interrogate the photographs it presents, its cogent thesis goes beyond the treatment of photography. What emerges is a far-reaching critique of prevailing codes of representation of women and their social status in the Middle East, and of the power relations that lie behind these images.