Search Target

Photography and the Politics of Representing Algerian Women

Jennifer Abbate

Photographs of Algerian women functioned as a medium of representation during the Algerian War. In some cases, French soldiers forced Algerian women to unveil for portrait identifications, which violated local Algerian customs and religious practices. Collectively, French colonizers used photography as a mechanism to display colonial power, which Algerian women physically and psychologically (defined as how these women mentally responded to a threatening situation) struggled with and, accordingly, we can trace visual modes of resistance in these photographs. In the early twentieth century, women struggled to fight colonial power because French patriarchy controlled how images represented Algerian women in the harem, thus creating a negative and false replica of Muslim culture. Opposed to early twentieth-century depictions of the "idle" Arab women of the harem, the violent events of decolonization presented certain spaces from which to actively resist French colonialism. As I will explore in this essay, the medium of French military photography became a site of opposition against colonial domination, particularly when French military officials forcibly unveiled Algerian women in front of the camera.

The act of unveiling became an iconic symbol of French domination because it symbolized how French colonizers attempted to destroy Algerian women's identity, which linked these women to Algerian culture. However, visual evidence portrayed clear resistance against colonialism and pushes the viewer to feel compassion for Algerian women. By confronting the ways in which French colonizers used a specific form of violence, which targeted the bodies and minds of Algerian women, these photographic images portray women's political resistance to French colonialism during the Algerian War.

Contrary to Mark Garanger's example, the scholar Malek Alloula analyzed photographic postcards of Algerian women, which staged erotic images of the "off-limits" harem of the early twentieth century. In Alloula's collection The Colonial Harem, the author points out that the postcards no longer represent Algeria or the Algerian women, but the "Frenchman's phantasm of the Oriental female and her inaccessibility behind the viel in the forbidden harem". Unlike Marc Garanger's work, these postcards are uniquely analyzed because they distort the truth of Algerian society. However, both photographic images relate to the larger setting of colonial power and portray the effects colonialism had on Algeria at different time periods.

In the example of the postcards, the power relations between the colonizer and the colonized are visually represented in photographs because the European male is able to project his fantasies onto the passive, photographed female. Therefore, prior to the process of decolonization men attempted to visually manipulate the portrayal of dominance in many of the photographs constructed by European men – the postcards, for example, represent the "erotic" nature of colonial society by depicting Algerian women (paid prostitutes) in various states of undress. Historian Laura Mulvey defines the active male figure as the ego ideal of the identification process, meaning, in this case, the "superior" French imperialist is able to define the creation and representation of a particular vision. Alloula argues that photographic imagery first and foremost represents the photographer's desires. The images French colonizers created represented specific fantasies of French colonialism and also provided French colonizers with a sense of conquest and mastery over Algerian women, and hence the entirety of the Algerian colony.

Although the act of unveiling is complicated because it produces different meanings in different contexts, French colonizers believed unveiling Algerian women symbolically established French power. The French-Martinican psychologist, Frantz Fanon argues that the white veil unifies the colonial perception of the feminized Algerian society and also represents indigenous women's purity and thus their need for protection in the public sphere. Historically, the veil covered the body to discipline, protect, reassure, and comfort Algerian women as they partook in the public sphere. French colonizers, on the other hand, believed the veil symbolized a "backward" society; therefore, in photographic images the French removed the veil to symbolically show their superior power. As Fanon claims, "With each [unveiling], the French authorities were strengthened in their conviction that the Algerian women would support Western penetration into the native society." This explains why the act of unveiling Algerian women became a strong symbol of European domination. For the French, unveiling expressed the willingness to give up Algerian identity and change Algerian habits under the control of French occupation. It also symbolized a French victory over Algerian society from one end of the colonial period to the other.

French colonizer's replicated this colonial fantasy in many of the postcards displayed in The Colonial Harem. Photographers intentionally represented unveiled Algerian women as eroticized and sexualized creatures because the French imagination illustrated Algerian women as a subject population that required liberation. Alloula explains,

The officials of the French administration in Algeria committed to destroying the women's originality, and under the instructions to bring about the disintegration at whatever cost, French administration directed their military to concentrate their efforts on women wearing the veil.

Alloula further demonstrates that French colonizers destroyed Algerian women's originality by "creating the colonial spirit in picture form." Algerian women became erotic symbols to the colonist when their veil disappeared from sight, which signified to the French, a sexualized depiction of the human body prohibited by Muslim tradition and also French possession over Algerian women.

The photographs illustrated in The Colonial Harem inspired colonial discourse, which explains how French representations determined power relations. Photography is able to manipulate the viewer because of the forced realism the imagery suggests. For example, Alloula examines how the images represent Algerian prostitutes as "ordinary" Algerian women. These women are directed to pose in photographs that stage the joys of sapphism and exhibitionism, which objectify Algerian women collectively as lazy, idle, and sexualized in the harem. The photographs are deliberately taken to create a vision of a feminized society that the French nation can exploit and possess. However, this contaminates the collective identity of Algerian women because all Algerian women are now representations of these images.

Despite living in different periods of colonialism, similar types of false representation helped Algerian women unify and establish respectable agency, or how women actively contributed to fight colonialism through the process of decolonization. A distinction needs to be made between urban Algerian women fighting in the National Liberation Front (FLN) and rural Algerian women in the process of decolonization. As Marnia Lazreg explains, "Urban women comprised twenty percent of all women involved in the war and generally chose to join the FLN, while rural women were forced to give refuge to members of the FLN either out of compassion or fear." However, according to Lazreg 77.9 percent of the total female population that participated in the war was comprised of rural women. The FLN also stratified labor according to gender; women in civilian services, where women primarily took care of food supplies, medical materials, cooked, fund raised, and transported weapons. And although very few women served as soldiers engaged in combat, rural women's involvement still remained dangerous because French military raped, tortured, and killed any civilian who supported the FLN group.

Rural women became active victims while not finding active leadership in armed revolts. Fanon claims that "until 1955, combat was waged exclusively by men, but as it became more difficult for men to wage the war the FLN felt it was necessary to involve women." According to the FLN, women's roles generally consisted of providing moral support to fighters and resisters among other minor duties. Sometimes, decolonization permitted Algerian women to display agency by allowing women to feel they had the power to resist French control. In this sense decolonization liberated Algerian women; portrayed in photographic images taken by French military. Lazreg argues,

Images of Algerian women in the early twentieth century remained revolutionary because it was a chance to take charge of one's life, and finally break in deeds and not in words the structural and discursive silence imposed upon them for more than a century.

French colonialism denied Algerian women basic political and economic rights – as often did the process of decolonization. Thus, women used their bodies to translate their emotions into political expressions of resistance. Although decolonization gave Algerian women a means to fight for freedom, photography functioned as the visible mechanism for women to display different forms of anticolonial agency.

Marc Garanger, a Frenchman born in Normandy, served as a photographer in the French army from 1960-1962, where he composed Algerian cartes d'identite (national identity cards) that forced women to unveil. In this case, photography allowed Algerian women to expose how colonial aggression affected Algerian society, specifically the native women. According to historian Karina Eileraas, the images produced by Garanger opened up a space for identification with racial and sexual politics rooted in colonial imagery. This further demonstrates how Garanger's identification cards became a useful tool for women to politically fight against French colonialism. In a sense, Garanger allowed Algerian women to "pose" in such a way that enabled Algerian women to use their bodies as a mechanism of communication. The visual imagery portrayed in Garnager's photographs captured the verifications of colonial power while also allowing illiterate women, in particular, to consciously engage in anticolonial activities. Garanger's images created a powerful mechanism for rural women to actively demonstrate women's opposition to French colonialism.

Visual imagery functioned as an important system of resistance because photography constantly reinterprets the past, thus becoming a "collection of spectacle" meaning that past events become history and shift into a symbol of representation. In the collection of portraits taken by Garanger, women position their bodies and facial expressions in ways that communicate opposition to French colonialism. For example, in images 4 and 6, the women show clear expressions of unhappiness. Taken together, women's unhappiness cannot be mistaken as individual reaction to the forced photography.

There are photographs that distinctively represent clear defiance, but other images seem to capture the humiliation these women physiologically struggled with. Military objectives expected women to meet the cameras eye, which opened up a mixed variety of ways women silently communicated against colonialism. For example, in many images women gazed directly at the camera with their eyes wide open and lips tightly pursed, which generated a spirit of disgust, dismissal, and confrontation. However, in others women expressed the opposite emotions, such as mortification and dishonor, about the forced unveilings. Algerian women portrayed negative expressions that justified the acceptance of foreign control and "rape of the colonizer" as the French forcefully unveiled them.

These photographs that forced Algerian women to unveil became a form of physiological violence because Algerian women are ordered to perform a specific test against her religion and culture. Muslim culture insists that there should be some type of physical barrier that separates women from men in the public sphere. A Muslim Algerian woman, raped by French soldiers during the war, Djamila Boupacha, explains, "The man who is not my husband is not allowed to see me." Therefore these photographs that forced women to unveil became a form of physiological violence because Algerian women are ordered to perform a specific task against their religion and culture. Boupacha argues, "Being ordered to see women without the veil absolutely carried a thrill for the French military to watch women physically feel humiliated and inferior. The connections Algerian women had to Muslim culture are why these photographs become strikingly provocative and appealing. There are photographs that distinctively represent clear defiance, but other pictures seem to capture the humiliation these women physiologically struggled with, once again meaning how women mentally responded to threats of violence.

The French military tried to physiologically weaken and destroy the identity of Algerian women by attempting to threaten women's morale. I characterize this as "physiological torture" because French colonizers forcibly attempted to establish power over the mind and body of Algerian women. French administrators defined a precise political doctrine that claims, "If we [the French nation] want to destroy the structure of Algerian society and its capacity of resistance, we must first of all conquer the women in which society hides behind." French colonists needed to convince themselves and their victims that they held invincible power, thus French colonists aimed at dehumanizing Algerian women by forcefully removing their veils and exploring their bodies. This symbolized an attempt by French military to destroy the pride Algerian women felt towards their nation.

Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote a preface to Henri Alleg's famous book, The Question, claims, "French military desperately tried to humiliate Algerians, to crush their pride and drag them down to an animal level. To kill the spirit means to establish power mentally and physically among the Algerian race." The physiological torture Algerian women experienced in all the staged photographs simply expressed the desire for France to powerfully dominate over their colonized resistor. However, physiological torture also drove Algerian women to produce a powerful agency against the photographic mechanisms of colonial power, different than the colonial postcards from the early twentieth century.

Marc Garanger constructed individual portraits of Algerian women that are strikingly in appearance because the images show how angry these women are opposed to the "passive" images seen in Alloula. French military used the identification cards to gain knowledge against the FLN movements while also humiliating Algerian women. Unlike the women in Alloula's images, Algerian women purposely posed to silently resist colonial violence. Marc Garanger's official duty to the French nation actually offered a useful tool that helped Algerian women record their visual communication against French violence. Driven by the spirit of revolt, Garanger exploited photography's capacity to shape the national imagery and he purposely tried to create images that would question authorizing functions of the colonial gaze.

Garanger opened up a space for Algerian women to communicate with the public. Unlike the photographs seen in Alloula, Garanger does not ask nor does he direct these women to pose in a specific manner. The dark gazes the Algerian women showed shocked Garanger as he understood the violence played upon them. The identification cards created a powerful agency for these women because the pictures portray their emotions of refusal from French colonizers. Garanger understood that the Algerian women became critical agents of photographic representation. Instead of complying with French fantasies of colonial rule, Algerian women refused to be appropriated by the French colonizer, which is shown in these photographs. Women's agency is most visible here because these women take ownership of their bodies to create a silent statement against such a powerful nation. The women successfully publicize their resistance against French control and their gazes become more than digital art; rather turn into political memory that signifies a control over French desires. Even as events of decolonization allowed women to display visual agency through the images taken by Garanger, women also became subject to "physiological torture" in Garanger's photographs because of the unwanted and uncomfortable exposure unveiling created.

Identify cards became a mechanism for French imperialists to find a way to maintain a powerful grasp over Algerian identity. The photographs taken of unveiled Algerian women demonstrated a final attempt to establish superiority over Algerian natives. However, Algerian women used the photographs to their advantage and visually communicated resistance against the French while also publicizing to the world the violent struggles Algerian woman faced. The photographs captured the reality of hatred and humiliation these women encountered while opening up the opportunity for women to fight for independence.


Alleg, Henri. The Question. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Eileraas, Karina. "Reframing the Colonial Gaze: Photography, Ownership, and Feminist Resistance," 118:4 (2003): 807-840.

Evans, Jessica and Stuart Hall. Visual Culture: the Reader, 1st ed. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 1999.

Fanon, Frantz. Algeria Unveiled. A Dying Colonialism. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Garanger, Marc. Femmes Algériennes: 1960. Biarritz: Atlantica, 2002.

Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Raphaëlle Branche, "Sexual Violence in the Algerian War," in Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe's Twentieth Century, ed. Dagmar Herzog. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

Last Updated: 8/12/16