The Colonial/ Postcolonial Gaze: A Feminist Analysis of Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem


Nazrana Haque

Nazrana Haque is currently pursuing M.A in English from the University of Delhi. Her areas of Interest include Gender Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Women’s Writings, Partition Literature.



Malek Alloula’s book Le Colonial Harem(1981) translated as The Colonial Harem(1986) is a postcolonial narrative that studies colonial French photographs of Algerian women in postcards. During the colonisation of Algeria from 1830 to 1962, the Algerian women were made to pose for photographs, either clothed or semi-naked. For Alloula, this exercise of the French male colonial fantasy was a violation of the Algerian women’s body and space. In Orientalism, Said talks about the way the colonisers generated a body of knowledge about the colonised, that represented them as inferior. The French photographs of the Algerian women in different settings, costumes and poses are also a part of the oriental discourse, which portrayed them as highly sexualised and uncivilised. Alloula exposes the hypocrisy of the French male colonisers, as more than a creation of a pseudo-knowledge about Algeria, it was a means of satisfying the colonial male sexual fantasy. However, Alloula does not foreground the perspective of the Algerian women and there are gaps in his narrative, leading to a double-objectification of women. My paper shall analyse the limitations of the visual representation of the photographs in Alloula’s narrative, which makes the Algerian women victims of the colonial as well as postcolonial gaze. I shall further analyse the appropriation of the tropes of the veil and the harem in the French photographs and study the subversive aspect of the trope of the veil in the Algerian freedom struggle. Alloula’s text does not provide an alternative discourse to the depiction of the Algerian women and neither does it allow the women to reclaim their narrative. Thus, this paper shall also study some of the alternative feminist visual and literary narratives, by Algerian artists and writers, as they explore the Algerian women’s experience of  the French colonisation of Algeria.

Keywords: French colonisation, veil, harem, postcolonial narratives, visual culture.


Le Colonial Harem (1981) by Malek Alloula, originally published in French and translated  by Myrna Godzich and Wlad Godzich as The Colonial Harem(1986), is a collection of essays that analyse the photographs of Algerian women in French postcards during the French colonisation of Algeria (1830-1962). These photographs are dated from 1900 to 1930, and Alloula reads these photographs as an exercise of French men’s sexual fantasy of colonised Algerian women. As the French colonisers unveiled the Algerian landscape, Alloula sees these photographs as a testimony of the unveiling of the Algerian women. My paper shall study The Colonial Harem by Alloula, in order to problematize the French male colonial gaze and possession of the body of the colonised Algerian women in the photographs. Furthermore, Alloula’s project of revisiting these French photographs of the Algerian women as a postcolonial visual narrative, represents the Algerian women as mute victims. I shall draw upon visual cultural theory in order to undertake a gendered analysis of the way Algerian women are represented in the colonial photographs, and in Alloula’s postcolonial narrative. I shall interrogate the way Alloula’s narrative disempowers the colonised Algerian women, and explore alternative visual and literary postcolonial feminist narratives where women reclaim their  agency over their body as well as their voice in the postcolonial archive.

     Said’s Orientalism, talks about the Orient as an European invention, “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”(1) and was manifested in the corpus of Oriental knowledge that the colonizers generated.  This Oriental knowledge has been in circulation even today, and there is a proliferation of stereotypes against the people of the erstwhile colonies. Alloula in The Colonial Harem, criticises this Oriental knowledge that the French colonists created through the photographic representation of Algerian women- either with clothes or stripped from the upper body, as a reinforcement of the colonial stereotype of the uncontrollable sexuality of the East. He exposes the pornographic intent of the photographs, concealed under the pretext of the French male colonisers’ curiosity to gain knowledge about Algerian population and its culture. Barbara Harlow in the introduction to The Colonial Harem says , “The postcards . . .  no longer represent Algeria and the Algerian woman but rather the Frenchman's phantasm of the Oriental female and her inaccessibility behind the veil in the forbidden harem” (xiv). Alloula mentions the dual purpose of his book, “first, to uncover the nature and the meaning of the colonialist gaze; then, to subvert the stereotype that is so tenaciously attached to the bodies of women” (5). However, he seems to be partially successful, as even though he does critique the “humiliation” of the Algerian women at the hands of the French colonizers, he does not necessarily subvert the stereotypes attached to the women’s body. Alloula’s intent of circulating these old photographs in the postcolonial times, does not undo the oppression of these women.

My essay is divided into 4 sections - the first section, “Visual Representation of Women”, analyses the gendered representation  of women, especially in the context of photographs; the second and third sections,  “The Harem”,  and “The Veil”, deals with two important tropes associated with Algerian women and the way it has been appropriated by the French colonisers  in  the photographs and; the final section,“Feminist Criticism and Alternative History”, deals with the feminist criticism of the French male coloniser’s gaze as well Alloula’s revisitation of the photographs, and explores alternative feminist postcolonial visual and literary narratives that give voice to the colonised Algerian women.

Visual Representation of Women

Photography as an art is based on power relations and as Frosh points out ,“certain people are made visible to others through the agency of a third party: photographers. This mediating function does not, however, guarantee symmetrical power relations between photographer,viewer and viewed . . . varying degrees of control over the production, distribution and iconography of the images . . . gives photographers themselves a degree of power over those they photograph (44).In this context, the French male photographer, already at a privileged position of being male coloniser, now wields greater power over the Algerian women he photographs. The French photographer has a voyeuristic and active presence, as he directs the setting and pose of the women in the photographs. The pictures of the veiled women and the pictures of the harem taken from outside reveal the voyeuristic gaze of the photographer (See fig.1 and fig.2( a) and (b)), while the representations of the semi-naked women show the photographer as the director of the photographs (See fig. 3 and fig. 4) .The veil and the harem(which I shall explore further in the next sections) are hindrances to the photographer, and he has to unveil and penetrate the inaccessible feminine space of the harem in order to capture these women in his camera.

Fig 1. Scenes and types. Moorish women taking a walk*



                         Fig. 2 (a) Moorish women at home       



Fig. 2 (b) Scenes and types. Moorish woman.

Source: Trans. Godzvich, Myrna and Wlad Godzvich .The Colonial Harem by Malek   Alloula.1986.

*The captions of the photographs are taken from Alloula’s The Colonial Harem. 

     Frosh says that photography blurs the distinction between the private and public space,“its spectacular power is central to the structuring and negotiation of the public and the private as experiential categories in a society where publicness and visibility are closely interwoven” (45) . The harem, and the veil, which Alloula sees as “mobile extensions of an imaginary harem”(13)  prohibits the photographer’s gaze. Meyda Yegenoglu argues :

The desire to penetrate the mysteries of the Orient and thereby to uncover hidden secrets (usually expressed in the desire to lift the veil and enter into the forbidden space of the harem) is one of the constitutive tropes of Orientalist discourse. An obsession with a "hidden" and "concealed" Oriental life and with the woman behind the veil and in the harem has led to an overrepresentation of Oriental women in an effort to evade

the lack posed by a closed "inner" space (“European Ladies in the Harem” 73).


     Alloula mentions that by making Algerian women pose for him in the photographs, he takes revenge for denying him “any access and [questioning] the legitimacy of his desire” (14). The photographer creates his own harem in the photographs by creating the setting of an Algerian harem, in terms of props within his own studio and hires Algerian women to pose for him scantily clad or semi-naked. Visual culture is gendered and as Mulvey mentions, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure . . .  women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-belooked-At-ness” (19).  Thus, the French photographs are not just representations of the orient by the colonisers, that is circulated as pseudo-knowledge about the colonised, rather a fulfillment of the French male colonisers’ sexual objectification of colonised Algerian women. These photographs represent Algerian women decked up with traditional jewellery and dresses but are made to reveal their breasts (See fig. 3 and fig.4 ).


Alloula finds the photographs overtly sexual, almost pornographic, but it is concealed in the way that the photographers try to make the background realistic and the captions that it carries along with it. There is no reference to the women’s bodies whatsoever, and seem like the depiction of facts about the Algerian culture. These photographs were a part of the French postcards, an official document, which is easily available and circulated mostly for private conversations, the photographs play an ambiguous role in becoming a source of information as well as a means of personal sexual entertainment.  Coombes and Edwards in the book review of Alloula's work are critical the medium of photography itself, "It is symptomatic of the seductive quality of the photograph, of its status as simultaneously public witness and 'aide memoire' for the intensely private experience of recalling the phantasm of the colonial imaginaire that these books, more often than not, reinstate such mythologies as much as they disrupt them” (510). Thus, even though Alloula used the photographs to expose the French colonial violation of Algerian women, the “sexual appeal” of the photographs seem to betray his purpose.

Fig. 3:Young Moorish woman



Fig. 4:Southern Algeria. Dance


Source: Trans. Godzvich, Myrna and Wlad Godzvich .The Colonial Harem by Malek   Alloula.1986.

The Harem  

Alloula mentions that the harem is the site of French colonial curiosity, as it has figured as an important trope in the travel accounts of the Turkish, Levant and Moghul empires (95). Harems are female spaces, usually part of Islamic culture, where wives, concubines, mothers, unmarried sisters, and even children of the man of the house would live together. The space of the harem was a private space, that protects women from the male gaze. The harems were a site of excessive sexuality and as Sarah Rogers, mentions, “For the West, the harem became a spatial embodiment of the various politically charged oppositions underpinning the colonial enterprise: male/female, visibility/invisibility, East/West, and tradition/modernity” (38).  If we read the harem in the context of the Foucauldian nexus of power and knowledge, which employs  Bentham’s idea of “Panopticon”(146),  the power relation between the coloniser and the colonised seems to be reversed. In Alloula’s book, the French male colonists who have power over the colonised Algerian women, are unable to gain access to the harem, and the surveillance of the space is impossible (See fig. 2(a) and (b)). These are photographs that are taken from outside the harem, and Alloula remarks, the way the Algerian feminine world “threatens him in his being and prevents him from accomplishing himself as the gazing gaze” (14). The harem and the women within it had to be appropriated by the French photographer to exhibit his power over the inferior Algerian population.

Best talks about the way the harem titillated the French male coloniser’s sexual curiosity, “To see an enclosed society of women embodying both eroticism and paudeur(modesty). Their sexual services reserved for one man, must have seemed the fulfillment of a maculine ideal” (876).  Since the French male coloniser could not access the harem from within, he shows the harems as prison, and the bars on the picture reveal this (See fig. 2 (a) and (b)). The sexuality of the semi-naked woman is inviting yet she is not directly accessible from outside (See fig. 2(b)). So, the photographer creates the setting of the harem, and “all the women called out one by one, who can only comply with the call (that is what they are paid for), are required by the photographer to dress and adorn themselves . . . they are made-up, covered with gold, to be infinitely beautiful and desirable, dreamy and distant, submissive and regal” (Alloula 49). It retains some cultural aspects such as jewellery, outfits and dresses which suggest the existence of  a “feigned realism” (Alloula 19).

He hires as models, a few Algerian women, who as Alloula mentions “ impersonate, to the point of believability, the unapproachable referent: the other Algerian woman, absent in the photo” (17).  The photographs are thus a double appropriation of the Algerian women’s space and body. In the absence of a counter-discourse that could challenge the colonial  depiction of the Algerian women and their society, these photographs on postcards served as information, where the purpose of women in the harem was seen as only sexual. “The emphasis on the mistreatment of Muslim women by Muslim men lent the colonial project an air of nobility; rather than a garb for power and resources,the colonial enterprise could be recast as a progressive project that will advance the societies they invade and occupy and ultimately improve the standing of women” (Ali 34). Alloula in his postcolonial narrative does claim that the photographs generated pseudo-knowledge about the way Algerian harems functioned, the various relationships, activities etc, but does not offer an  alternative discourse  that challenges these representations

The Veil

The veil is another important trope of Algerian femininity and a barrier preventing the gaze of the French male coloniser.  Yegenoglu talks about the politics of the veil, “ the veiled woman is not simply an obstacle in the field of visibility and control…the loss of control does not imply a mere loss of sight, but a complete reversal of positions: her body completely invisible to the European observer except for her eyes, the veiled woman can see without being seen”(Colonial Fantasies 40). Alloula also mentions this, “the photographer feels photographed; having himself become an object-to-beseen,he loses initiative: he is dispossessed of his own gaze”(14) (See fig.1). There is a desire for the colonisers to reveal the “phantasm” behind the veil, not just for the fulfillment of their sexual fantasy but to reinforce their domination over the colonised. Frantz Fanon talks about the way women were taken as the “theme of action”. “ Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret, breaking her resistance, making her available for adventure. Hiding the face is also disguising a secret . . . There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession” (44). Alloula critiques this objectification of the Algerian women and the appropriation of the veil by the colonisers. The photographer makes the veiled women, who were initially unavailable for him, pose for his camera with the veil (See fig. 5). The photographs that Alloula catalogues shows the gradual unveiling of the Algerian women by the French photographer. In fig. 6, the woman is not “unveiled” ; rather the veil is drawn aside to reveal the face as well as some part of her body.



Fig 5:Algeria. Moorish woman in city attire.


Fig 6: Kabyl woman covering herself with the haik.



Fig7(a):Beduin woman.                                       

Fig 7(b): Scenes and types. Young woman.


Fig 8: Scenes and types. Reclining Moorish women.


Source: Trans. Godzvich, Myrna and Wlad Godzvich. The Colonial Harem by Malek   Alloula.1986.


Alloula says that the photographs became an anthology of different variants of bosoms,  “the viewer gets to know a large variety of bosoms: first the Beduin, then the Kabyl, then the

'Uled-Nayl, and so on”(105) (See fig.7(a) and (b)). This was the kind of oriental knowledge that was circulating  within the French colonial discourse. It  reduced the Algerian women to their bodies, as their bosoms became their identity. Within the space of the French photographer’s imaginary harem, the French coloniser is free to fulfill his sexual fantasies, thus exploring sapphism or lesbianism too (See fig. 8) .Such explicit photographs essentialized the stereotypes of the East’s immoral and uncontrollable sexuality, while veiling the coloniser’s own sexual desires.

Feminist Criticism and Alternative Discourse

The French colonisers seem to take pride in unveiling the mysterious and hidden body of the Algerian women, and the oriental knowledge that they generated. However, Alloula in countering the colonialist gaze in his book, seems to have done a similar exercise of exposing the Algerian women and her body to a wide reading public, without allowing the women to reclaim their narrative or space. The Algerian women seem to have now become the victim of a double gaze- the male coloniser and the male postcolonial subject. Lazreg says, “Alloula dug up the colonial pictorial archives and ‘violated’ Algerian women once more by making titillating pictures available to a wider audience than the original. His narration cannot transcend the contemporary thirst for the eroticization of any woman’s body” (190).

Alloula focalises on the way the Algerian women are depicted in the photographs,  but does not go beyond what is represented.  Shloss says, “The deepest source of his [ Alloula] anger seems not to derive from concern for the women who are the subjects of these photographs, but from "the absence of ... male society... its defeat, its irremediable rout". The women are mute objects in the French photographs as well as in Alloula’s book. Alloula presumes that the French violated these Algerian women by making them pose, but this presumption is problematic, given Alloula does not provide a background of these women and Algerian women in general. He mentions that the semi-naked women were lower class Algerian women (17), who were made to pose in exchange for money. However, there were many other pictures that showed veiled women as well as fully clothed women, who might not have been lower-class women. Moreover, the dominant discourse might see this exercise as a violation of women’s body, equated to a rape, but posing veiled, unveiled or semi-naked alone or with another women, might have been an outlet of self-expression for some women. Nawal El Saadawi, says in the context of Arab women, "Segregation and the veil were not meant to ensure the protection of women, but essentially that of men. And the Arab woman was not imprisoned in the home to safeguard her body, her honour and her morals, but rather to keep intact the honour and morals of men"(206) . Thus, in this context, since we do not hear the voices of these women at all, Alloula’s contention that these photographs were a violation of the Algerian women can be questioned. The veil and the harem, both patriarchal constructs, might have been barriers and some women might have had to conceal their lesbian relations too. The French photographs provided them probably provided them with a sense of freedom and sexual expression. However, these women and their lives are not focalised by Alloula and there is a gap in his narrative.

The agency of the colonised Algerian women seems to have been jeopardised in Alloula’s act of “writing back to the empire”. “Evoked as the embodiment of the Algerian nation, the Algerian woman signified the sacred, domestic space which was to be protected and reclaimed from French colonial imposition. The intimate pact between modernization and colonialism has often been viewed through the prism of vision and power” (Rogers 38). There seems to be an appropriation of the Algerian women’s violated body, within the discourse of the decolonising mission. Alloula remarks, “ I must have been the object of the colonial gaze” and calls his act of writing the book, an act of exorcism (Introduction xiii).  There is an appropriation of the colonised Algerian women’s experience by  Alloula, and there is no space for them to assert their own voice and challenge the oppression. The Algerian women’s violation is seen by Alloula as the violation of the Algerian nation, and his act of writing in an exorcism that he should undertake.  This idea is not very different from the colonial rhetoric that feminises the colonised nation and sees the coloniser as a masculine power. As Yegenoglu mentions, “ In the struggle over capturing or preserving the essence of the Algerian culture, women came to symbolize, both for the French and for the Algerians, the embodiment of this essence. Hence the struggle over this authentic essence was fought over women's bodies; it was onto her veiled body that both French colonialism and Algerian patriarchy projected their fears, desires, and policies” (137).

Fig 9:Scene from Battle of Algiers (1966)



 Fig. 9 depicts a scene from the Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie Battle of Algiers, where a veiled woman conceals arms . The trope of the veil might have been a patriarchal trope, yet Algerian women used it to subvert colonial power, when they concealed arms and ammunition to fight the colonisers. Barbara Harlow also mentions this in the introduction to the book  This portrayal is very different from what Alloula portrays through the French photographs. The veil had dynamic connotations from colonisation to the decolonising movements. As Fanon mentions :

The veil was worn because tradition demanded a rigid separation of the sexes, but also because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria. In a second phase, the mutation occurred in connection with the Revolution . . . The veil was abandoned in the course of revolutionary action. What had been used to block the psychological or political offensives of the occupier became a means, an instrument. The veil helped the Algerian woman to meet the new problems created by the struggle (63).

 Alloula provides a very narrow understanding of the veil and does not see the active role that women played in the freedom struggle and not merely passive victims to oppression. There is a need to generate an alternative narrative history for the Algerian women, one that not simply exposes the victimisation by the French colonisers but also asserts the women’s agency over their own body and identity. Algerian women were active in the struggle against French colonisation, a large number of women joined the National Liberation Front, an armed guerrilla band, yet this history has been erased.

 Houria Niati, an Algerian woman painter, problematized the French painter Delacroix’s painting of “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment”(1834) and recreated his painting after a century and named  it “No to Torture”(1982) (See fig. 10( a) and (b)). Niati reworked Delacroix’s painting in an abstract form, where the sensual poses of the women remain, but the faces are crossed or  prison bars are painted, suggesting the torture that the Algerian women were subjected to during the French-Algerian war.  Removing the figures' clothing and jewellery, Niati builds up the figural bodies with thickly applied paint, and indicates a sense of corporeality through roughly defined color transitions” (Rogers 38).  Harlow also discusses alternative feminist narratives and mentions contemporary women writers such as Fatima Mernissi's Fadela M’rabet, and Assia Djebar. The works of these writers, Harlow states “addressed not only to the former occupiers Algeria but also to those responsible for the present condition of the Algerian woman, often referred to as the second of 'two colonialisms'” (xxii). The perspective of Algerian women during the Battle of Algiers, has been focalised in Assia Djebar’s novel, L’amour, la fantasia (1985), translated as Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. Djebar, an Algerian woman author, weaves together her own experiences of growing up in colonial Algeria with the oral accounts of Algerian women who participated in the Algerian freedom struggle from 1954 to 1962. Djamila Débêche, another Algerian woman author, was known for her writings on Algerian women. Her novel, Aziza (1955), created furore and was branded as an anti-nationalist text as it was considered to be supportive of French colonialism. Débêche’s novel explored the conflicts of tradition and modernity in Algeria through the female protagonist’s perspective, and critiqued the institution of marriage as oppressive for women (Youcef 160).Thus, Algerian women writers, as well as artists have drawn out alternative histories of Algerian women in their works, that depict women’s condition in both colonial and postcolonial Algeria, and need to be included within the canon of Algerian postcolonial writings.


Fig 10(a): Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834)

           Fig 10(b): Houria Niati, No To Torture (1982)

Source: Sarah Rogers, “Houria  Niati’s "No To Torture": A Modernist Reconfiguration of Delacroix’s' "Women of Algiers in their Apartment"”. 2002.

The representation of Algerian women in Malek Alloula’s book, might be seen as a decolonising project, as it is able to expose the French male colonisers’ dehumanising sexual fantasy, validated by the colonial civilising mission. Yet, it fails to provide a counter-history to the French colonisation through Algerian women’s perspective. We are not led into the social background or the psyche of the women, and their experiences of posing for these photographs are not foregrounded. Imagining the Algerian women’s body as the body of the Algerian nation, again objectifies women, ignoring their victimisation, desires and the active role that they played in the French-Algerian war. Hence, alternative postcolonial feminist archive needs to be generated that not only challenges the coloniser’s narrative but also establishes the colonised women as active agents of their body, identity and representation.




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