A Bit of History – WordPress.com: Junk history is embodied perfectly in a recent viral meme that portrays a nineteenth-century Persian princess with facial hair alongside the claim that 13 men killed themselves over their unrequited love for her. While it fails miserably at historical accuracy, the meme succeeds at demonstrating how easily viral clickbait obscures and overshadows rich and meaningful stories from the past.
Princess Qajar Image credit: imgur.com
WheeBuzz: Beauty is one thing that every woman wanted to have, no doubt these days people are going under knifes to get that attractive and charming look. If someone asked you what is true beauty what will be your answer? Does your answer include mustache? Well, there was a princess who changed the whole definition of looking beautiful. Instead of starving herself, she opted to look full. Not just that, the princess had a bushy and fushed unibrow, also she had a very clear mustache on her face which defined as a beautiful sign at that time.
Princess Qajar Image credit: A Bit of History – WordPress.com
Well, the lady we are talking about is none other than – Princess Qajar herself. She was the daughter of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar who was the ruler in the year of 1785. The king Naser al-Din Shah wanted to change the stereotypes thoughts of being women beautiful. He didn’t believe that for women to look beautiful and attracted, they really need to look thin or follow the steps of old thinking. Naser Al-Din Shah was considered as one of the most powerful rulers who ruled for 47 years on Iran at that time. The king was very fond of beautiful women; he also had the largest Harem at that time
Image source: WheeBuzz
Princess Qajar is an example that you don’t need to look as other or there is no need to follow what people are following. Beauty is what you feel from inside. It doesn’t depend on what you wear, it depends on how much confident are you and how you carry yourself.
A Bit of History – WordPress.com: Not everybody has been convinced over the “Princess Qajar” meme, which claims that this Persian princess with an apparent mustache was considered an ideal beauty in her day and that “13 young men killed themselves because she rejected” them. Framed in this way, it’s unsurprising that few have expressed their doubts based on the lack of sources or citations of any kind, focusing instead on the princess’ appearance.
Princess Fatemeh Khanum “’Esmat al-Dowleh” (1855/6-1905). Inscribed: “Khanum ʻIsmat al-Dawlah daughter of Nasir al-Din Shah, wife of Dust Muhammad Khan Muʻayyir al-Mamlik,” and dated mid/late 19th century. Part of the collection of the Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies (ع 3-5216). Courtesy Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran. This is the image that features in the junk history meme. Source: A Bit of History – WordPress.com
This is, of course, exactly the kind of reaction desired when creating a meme in the hope it will go viral. Facts and sources be damned, even if it comes from a so-called “educational/history” page. They won’t make it go viral like sensational claims that bank on internalized misogyny and blinkered concepts of beauty.
Then there’s the sad truth that few will bother to check the facts for themselves. Those who do often run up against similar misleading factoids, creating a jumble of confusing and unreliable junk history that obscures good sources and information. For instance, well-meaning individuals commenting on this meme are often quick to claim that the subject in the photo is a male actor portraying the princess. Others go further and state that not only is it an actor, but the portrayal was done to ridicule the princess, whose “real” picture they include in the comments. Neither claim is accurate.
Princess Zahra Khanum “Taj al-Saltaneh” (1884-1936). The 12th daughter of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar, and half-sister of ‘Esmat. Dated 1909 or 1910, by Ivanov (Roussie-Khan). Courtesy Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran. Taj is sometimes suggested as the “real Princess Qajar” in response to the ambiguous and misleading meme. Source: A Bit of History – WordPress.com
Princess Zahra Khanum “Taj al-Saltaneh” (1884-1936). The 12th daughter of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar, and half-sister of ‘Esmat. Dated 1909 or 1910, by Ivanov (Roussie-Khan). Courtesy Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran. Taj is sometimes suggested as the “real Princess Qajar” in response to the ambiguous and misleading meme. Source: A Bit of History – WordPress.com Image credit: buenamente.net
The historical reality of this junk history meme is, like all history, complex, and deeply rooted in a period of great change in Persian history that involved issues like reform, nationalism and women’s rights. At its core, however, is a story of not one, but two, Persian princesses who both defined and defied the standards and expectations set for women of their time and place. Neither one, incidentally, was named “Princess Qajar,” though they were both princesses of the Persian Qajar dynasty.
Princess Fatemeh Khanum “’Esmat al-Dowleh” (1855/6-1905). Iran, Qajar dynasty. Source: Pinterest
The primary figure in this history is Princess Fatemeh Khanum “‘Esmat al-Dowleh” (1855/6-1905), a daughter of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar(1831-1896), King of Persia from 1848-1896, and one of his wives, Taj al-Dowleh. The photograph circulating is indeed ‘Esmat, not an actor, and was taken by her husband circa the mid- to late-19th century. This information alone, readily available online and in print, contradicts the claim that ‘Esmat was “the ultimate symbol of beauty… in the early 1900s.” Since the photo of ‘Esmat was taken years before then, and she died in 1905, it’s a stretch to make her an icon of a period she barely graced.
The only part of the meme that has a grain of truth to it is that there was indeed a period in Persian history when ‘Esmat’s appearance – namely, her “mustache” – was considered beautiful. According to Harvard University professor Dr. Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Many Persian-language sources, as well as photographs, from the nineteenth century confirm that Qajar women sported a thin mustache, or more accurately a soft down, as a sign of beauty.” But, as Dr. Najmabadi clearly points out, this concept of beauty was at its height in the 19th century. In other words, the 1800s, not the 1900s, as the meme claims.
‘Esmat, a product of her time, place and status, was no exception. In Dr. Najmabadi’s book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, she relates an anecdote of a Belgian woman’s encounter with ‘Esmat at the Persian court in 1877: “In her description of ‘Ismat al-Dawlah, Serena observed that ‘over her upper lips she had soft down of a mustache which gave her a manly look.’” This does not mean, however, that ‘Esmat stood out as a symbol of this type of beauty. In fact, as will be addressed, her image may have held far greater power.
Image credit: PikView
Unfortunately, not only does the “Princess Qajar” meme boil down this deeply-nuanced element of cultural history into junk history clickbait, it also makes it worse by adding the sensational claim that thirteen men killed themselves over their unrequited love for her. Naturally, there is no source given to support this claim, which appears to be pulled from thin air. Were it true, it would seem like worthy material to include in even the shortest legitimate biographical information about ‘Esmat, but it doesn’t appear anywhere.
Image credit: WheeBuzz
There are, however, at least two good reasons to disbelieve this claim. First, ‘Esmat was probably married when she was around nine or ten years old. Second, the marriage was very likely arranged while she was living among the women of her father’s harem. It seems highly unlikely that she had the opportunity to meet any man not her relative, never mind beguile and reject thirteen suicidal lovers. Later, as a married woman in patriarchal Persia, it’s equally unlikely that she was being courted by amorous suitors.
It hardly seems necessary at this point to question the motivation of the meme’s creator in connecting such a dubious and sensational claim to this image. If it wasn’t already, it should be blindingly obvious that it has almost nothing to do with actual history, and everything to do with eliciting an overwhelming emotional response on social media. The fact that the means to the end was the exploitation of a woman’s appearance is hardly a surprise. That it is insidious and damaging, both to history in general and women’s history in particular, is beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The focus on historical women’s appearance without the benefit of context and analysis is, and always has been, a highly successful way to shift the narrative away from their accomplishments and diminish their impact on history. Whether or not ‘Esmat or any other woman was or is considered beautiful or not is of little consequence, which is why patriarchal history has focused so much on it. Starting and ending the conversation about a woman on the subject of her appearance almost guarantees that it will be all most people remember about her. In ‘Esmat’s case, keeping her anonymous by giving her the generic appellation, “Princess Qajar,” ensures that those who wish to know more will not have much to go by.
Not that the creator of the meme did any actual research to create the meme. That would have taken effort, skill, persistence, and an actual desire to preserve and perpetuate good history. Had they done so, there’s no question that the resulting meme wouldn’t have gotten the volume of response that makes a meme go viral. But it would have contained far more interesting information than what they have invented and/or distorted. They would have discovered, for instance, that ‘Esmat was one of the most photographed women at her father’s court, and it wasn’t because she conformed to contemporary ideals of beauty.
Three generations of royal Qajar women: ‘Esmat (center), her mother, and her daughter. The inscription reads: “Taj al-Dawlah wife of Nasir al-Din Shah, ʻIsmat al-Dawlah, Khanum Fakhr Taj.” Part of the collection of the Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies (ع 3-5215). Courtesy Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran. Source: A Bit of History – WordPress.com
As the second daughter of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar, ‘Esmat was trusted enough by her father that she was given the responsibility of serving as the host for female foreign guests to the court. Against tradition, she learned to play the piano and became a photographer with a private studio in her home. More significantly, there are instances of her using her influence with her father, such as when she convinced him to let her husband back into the country. Like other royal women at her father’s court, ‘Esmat appeared to be a competent woman with a fair amount of agency.
In fact, the appearance of ‘Esmat and other women of the harem may have held a power far greater than that of merely attracting a multitude of suitors. Art historian Dr. Staci Gem Scheiwiller has argued that the large number of photographs of the women of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar’s harem “had the ability to demonstrate a development of a female revolutionary consciousness.” The sheer volume of photographs of ‘Esmat would have put her visually at the front and center of this social and cultural revolution.
At the literal front of it was the other princess of the Qajar dynasty who has been mistakenly associated with the unfortunate meme because of the vague “Princess Qajar” reference: Princess Zahra Khanum “Taj al-Saltaneh” (1884-1936). The 12th daughter of Nasar al-Din Shah Qajar, and half-sister of ‘Esmat, Taj was a feminist and a nationalist who supported a cultural and constitutional revolution in Persia.
According to Dr. Najmabadi, Taj “…articulated some of the most eloquent arguments put forward by women for unveiling as a first necessary step toward women’s participation in education, paid work, and progress of the nation.” And Dr. Scheiwiller highlights a key passage from Taj’s published memoirs, Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914: “When the day comes that I see my sex emancipated and my country on the path to progress, I will sacrifice myself in the battlefield of liberty, and freely shed my blood under the feet of my freedom-loving cohorts seeking their rights.”
In their own time, ‘Esmat and Taj were not defined by their appearance. Their accomplishments were not the result of either setting or copying cultural standards of beauty. They were women of merit and substance whose stories deserve to be told and perpetuated in a respectful and meaningful way, not diminished and ridiculed.
In writing of the women of the Qajar court, like ‘Esmat and Taj, whose pictures hold so much historical meaning and significance, Dr. Scheiwiller poignantly wrote, “The photograph of oneself was able to transform one from being meaningless, whose story would not be told, to one of a face etched in time.”
It would be a travesty to sit back and let a fatuous meme mar the true beauty and historical importance of these women and their images.
NOTE: ADDITIONAL HISTORY
historykey.com: Another Kind of Harem: Surrounded by 100 Women with Mustaches
When you think about a harem, everything you have in mind would be gorgeous. The same for us, but we had the chance to discover that this kind of expectation is not a strict rule and that some strange exceptions could redefine the harem concept.
Our today’s story is connected to a special harem. We must say that every man has his own tastes when it comes to women, but we must say that some of those preferences are easier to accept than others. Usually, a harem is not related to ordinary people, so let us unlock for you the story of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the king of Persia from 1848 to 1896.
Naser al-Din Shah Qajar © Image Source: xubux.com
The lucky man?
Naser al-Din Shah was almost a reformer for the Iranian monarchy, considering that he was the first Iranian royalty to formally visit Europe, during his kingdom that lasted for almost 50 years. In fact, king Naser was a sensible soul. He was very interested in arts, being a talented painter and a skilled ink pen drawer. He also wrote poetry and was interested in history and geography.
The Iranian King had also another interest, something that is directly related to the harem story: photography.
Naser was extremely interested in photography. He had the occasion to take some pictures while he was a child and to better discover and understand the photographic process during his visits to England. So he considered a must to practice photography also back home, in Iran. Considering that King Naser was also a patron of arts, he decided to establish a photography studio, the first one in Persia, located in the Golestan Palace.
In order to achieve his goal, King Naser turned to Antoin Sevruguin, a Russian photographer who had a photo-atelier in Tehran, recently opened in 1870. Shortly, Sevruguin became the “photo-man” from the Gulistan palace, gaining the “court photographer” position and covering all sorts of subjects. The Russian photographer did a great job by creating a collection of images coming out of Iran, and for that, he was awarded with an honorary title.
Now, with a court photographer at his disposal, King Naser only had to order some pictures. The Russian photographer could only shoot King Naser or his male relatives because to photograph women’s faces was strictly forbidden.
King Naser and Russian photographer Antoin Sevruguin preparing a photo-shoot Source: historykey.com
Being a king, you can change the rules
Considering that Naser was a king and a photography passionate, he took a unique decision: he allowed the court photographer to photograph his harem, which consisted of about 100 women. Everything seems legit. If you are a ruler you can also break the rules, right? This special concession, made possible the first glimpse into a king’s harem, a special one.
The court photographer, Antoin Sevruguin, started to shoot portraits and scenes depicting part of the harem, revealing King Naser’s tastes and preferences related to women.
Besides being a gesture of power, breaking the Shiite law related to photographs depicting women’s faces produced a very important document, considering that before this situation there was not another record of that type.
On the right, Anis al-Doleh, Naser’s wife Source: historykey.com
From the pictures, we can note how a harem looks like, and observe that the relations between the women seem to be friendly and relaxed. Several scenes are recorded, a picnic or daily activities, and in all the photographs we are able to see that the women are well treated and taken care of, far away from being slaves or something like that.
Part of King Naser’s harem Source: historykey.com
Also, another aspect could be observed, a more aesthetic one: almost all the women forming the harem have a mustache or facial hair. We can state if that was some sort of tradition or just King Naser’s preference.
In some of the pictures, the women are wearing some sort of ballet tutus, which would be most likely unusual for the Iranian customs, but there is an explanation for that.
In 1873 King Naser visited St. Petersburg, following the invitation of Alexander II, he had the occasion to see the ballet, which seems to have impressed him very much. Once back home, he introduced the tutus in the daily life of his harem, so that’s why some of the pictured women are wearing an adapted version of the ballet tutu.
Part of King Naser’s harem wearing ballet tutus © Image Source: xubux.com Image Source: historykey.com
Some say that the ballet thing would be more likely a legend, but what we know for sure is that Naser himself printed the photos realized by Antoin Sevruguin. He kept the resulted images in dedicated albums, which are still located in the Golestan Palace, which became a museum.
After almost 50 years as king, Naser al-Din was assassinated while he was praying in the shrine of Shah-Abdul-Azim. His killer was Mirza Reza Kermani, a follower of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an opponent of King Naser. The gun used in the assassination was a very old and rusted revolver. If Naser al-Din had worn a heavy overcoat or if been shot from a longer distance most likely he would have avoided death. After being shot and shortly before his death, King Naser declared that ”he would rule differently if he will survive”.
He was buried in the shrine where he was assassinated, in Rayy, Tehran. The funeral was scheduled six months after his death and it was a very important event, lush in many aspects. His tombstone was made in marble, reporting Naser’s full effigy and considered a sculpture masterpiece from the Qajar period. The tombstone is kept in the Golestan Palace Museum in Tehran.
Naser al-Din Shah’s Tomb Stone Source: historykey.com
Princess Qajar of Iran Image credit: choualbox.com
Image source: XuBuX
Anis al-Doleh or soulmate of State. Source: XuBuX
Harem at the picnic. Source: XuBuX