The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Images of unveiled Iranian protesters inspire. But there are risks, too.

Depictions of unveiled Iranian women may reproduce misogynistic assumptions that the veil is a universal marker for oppression.

Iranian women hold hands as people chant slogans and wave Iranian flags in Washington on Oct. 15. The demonstrations were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, last month after she was arrested by Iran's notorious morality police. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
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In recent weeks, the world has watched Iranian women take to the streets and protest the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of “morality police,” mandatory hijab laws and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Every day, Iranians — inside and outside of Iran — post new images and videos from the protests, and ask the world to amplify the voices of those chanting: “Women, life, freedom!” Brave Iranian women engage in civil disobedience by running errands and dining in restaurants while unveiled.

In response, the United States has expanded sanctions against Iran, and some politicians and pundits have called for even more. Since 1979, however, the severity and wide breadth of U.S.-imposed sanctions have had a deadly impact. Sanctions limit Iran’s ability to purchase essential medical devices, supplies and raw materials needed, for example, to make medicine. Meanwhile, sanctions have helped to create conditions in which ordinary Iranian businesses are unable to compete with state-affiliated companies. Women and working-class Iranians are among the most vulnerable to the impact of sanctions. That means there is a real danger in how the recent images of unveiled Iranian women are being deployed to argue for further sanctions and intervention.

It would not be the first time that depictions of Muslim women have been used to legitimize harmful foreign interventions. In the 19th century, for example, the French deployed images of oppressed Muslim women as a tool to popularize the colonization of Algeria, the confiscation of Algerian land and institutions and the continued war during the Algerian War of Independence. Though the historical and geographical contexts differ, revisiting the history of Algeria reminds us how ideas about emancipating oppressed Muslim women have been seductive for global audiences. States have used such ideas to build popular support for foreign interventions that ultimately harmed the women they claimed to want to rescue. This history reminds us to question such depictions of Muslim women more critically.

Under French rule from 1830 to 1962, Algeria occupied an important role in France’s overseas empire as one of its longest-held colonies and the only colony officially considered an extension of France rather than a colony. From the beginning of the French colonial occupation of Algeria, postcards played an important role in increasing popular support for France’s colonial project.

Photographs on postcards tended to depict Muslim women in two ways: very covered or shockingly uncovered (often with nudity). Some 19th-century postcards depicted Algerian women walking in the streets, in their traditional long white veils (haïks) and baggy harem pants. Others showed Algerian women with their veils opened, revealing their faces, breasts and bodies for the viewer. While images of Algerian women exposing themselves for the viewer were taken in photographers’ studios for pay or under coercion, they were captioned and marketed in ways that suggested they were everyday photographs of Algerian women.

These depictions of Algerian women built on a longer tradition of European art from the 18th and 19th centuries, in which paintings of nondescript homes, harems and slave markets featured Muslim women who were exotic and sexy but visibly constrained by both their physical surroundings (the harem, for example) or the tight control of husbands and fathers. Postcards made these highbrow images legible and accessible to a wider working-class European public. Their cheapness and ubiquity meant they could be circulated widely between Algeria and Europe — wordlessly cementing French fantasies to see underneath the veils of terribly oppressed but also alluring Muslim women.

The European obsession with the oppression of Muslim women extended beyond art and material culture. Claims about Muslim sexuality were used as the legal basis to legitimize the confiscation of Algerian land, wealth and institutions. French officials alleged, for instance, that Muslim family customs, including polygamy, were incompatible with French laws, so French citizenship could not be extended to Muslim subjects. Claims like this also justified separate legal systems for European settlers and Algerian subjects.

Images of subjugated Muslim women remained pivotal to the French colonial project until its gasping final breaths. On Nov. 1, 1954, the Algerian War of Independence began as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) launched 70 attacks on various political and military targets across Algeria. In response, the French army’s psychological warfare bureau launched unveiling campaigns and veil burning ceremonies to demonstrate to international audiences that France was emancipating and modernizing women as part of a broader project. For the French, this was particularly symbolic because they had made the veil into a symbol of backwardness. In cities like Algiers, while many Muslim women no longer veiled, some began donning the haïk in response to these French campaigns as a means of insisting on their right to their own religion and culture. After Algerian independence in 1962, few women still wore the traditional haïk, but it was still celebrated as a symbol of national culture.

The history of how ideas about gender and Islam were weaponized in colonial Algeria remains relevant today. The obsession with the veil as a marker of constraint was neither unique to France nor something only of the past. In October 2001, then-Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) appeared on the floor of the U.S. House in a burqa to call for war against the Taliban to save Afghan women. In November 2001, first lady Laura Bush took over the president’s weekly radio address to frame the War in Afghanistan as a fight to ensure Afghan women could live freely. In August 2017, President Donald Trump decided to recommit more soldiers to Afghanistan after being shown a photograph of Afghan women wearing miniskirts in 1972.

In recent weeks, people all over the world have been celebrating images of Iranian women bravely defying Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. Protesters have been clear, through chants, slogans and graffiti, that they are not protesting hijab or Islam, but rather the imposition of hijab laws and the Islamic Republic itself. One photograph from Iran shows an unveiled woman and a woman in black chador holding hands and raising their fists in the air, facing an Iranian flag, with the caption, “No woman is free until all women are free to choose.” Another graffitied message in Iran references Iran’s own history with forced unveiling by a former imperial ruler and says, “No to forced hijab or Reza Shah’s banned hijab.” Videos show how women veiled in black chadors march among protesters.

Like colonial postcards, while social media facilitates the quick mass consumption of images, it cannot convey important context about both Iran and the longer, global history of representations of Muslim women. The way images of unveiled Iranian women are being consumed risks reproducing the same misogynistic assumptions that the veil is a universal marker for oppression — or potentially even legitimizing foreign intervention, from increased sanctions to warfare. Iranian women, like all Muslim women, deserve to live without their agency constricted, either by an Islamic regime or by foreign intervention.