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Self-Similarity and Its Perils

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Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 6)


Vom Bruck tackles head-on what is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous subject in the anthropology of Islam: the covering of women’s bodies and the religious rationale that accompanies such practices of ‘veiling’. In North Yemen, photos of women, especially those of the elite, are carefully guarded against unwelcomed male gazes in the same way that women protect the boundaries of their physical bodies by covering them. Islam, however, does not exhaust the types of significance injected into photographs of women. The viewing, use and potential abuse of such photographs also feature in other strands of social life in which different sets of relationship (political, kinship, economic) are enacted.


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  1. 1.

    The best known work on this subject is Alloula (1986); also Simpson Fletcher (1998); Lemke (2004: 35–38, 214–220; for a critique of Alloula, see Ferrié and Boëtsch 1995). Some authors have explored contributions by non-European photographers (Graham-Brown 1988; Sheehi 2007).

  2. 2.

    The first photographs were taken by Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904) who took pictures of the Tihama in 1856. He was followed by Turkish officers who often prioritized buildings such as schools and army barracks over people (Wolf-Dieter Lemke, personal communication 2009).

  3. 3.

    In Yemen photography might be seen in the framework of a more systematic focus on recording which began in the twentieth century, involving measures such as codification of shari‘ah law, registration of legal documents and changes in schooling (see Messick 1993). In the late 1950s Yemeni Imamate, the police cadets, aeroplanes and tank assemblages photographed by Ahmad ‘Umar al-‘Absi (b.1898) were to propagate its efforts at reforms and modernisation. Several decades earlier, Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid had similar ambitions (Lemke 1999: 246–7). Towards the end of WWI al-‘Absi worked with an Indian who had a studio at his house in Aden. In the 1940s al-‘Absi took pictures of the Sultan of Lahj and later of Imam Ahmad. He was the first Yemeni photographer who ran a studio in Aden and later in Ta‘izz. After 1962 his son ‘Ali became the personal photographer of the first republican presidents ‘Abdullah al-Sallal and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani.

  4. 4.

    Politicians’ use of their own photographs and statues became commonplace after WWI in Turkey and Arab nation-states (for example, Wedeen 1999; Navaro-Yashin 2002). This was for the dual purpose of strengthening bonds of loyalty with their subjects and reinforcing control by way of their omnipresence. On the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi ruling dynasty could not resist having their portraits publicly displayed in spite of ‘Wahhabi’ aversion to image production (only God can produce a human). In Yemen, the ubiquitous display of politicians’ images in public and private places has been indicative of changing styles of rule in so far as these men have in person been far less visible and accessible than their predecessors. With respect to the Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi’s ‘disembodied career’ and final moments, Igor Cherstich (2011) writes: “When trying to understand what happened, it is important to remember that filming and photographing the colonel’s battered body was not only an exhilarant act of rage. For many Libyans it was also touching the intangible” (emphasis mine). According to Cherstich (personal communication 2011), “it is quite ironic that the body was finally buried in a secret location. It is almost like Libyans traced the body of the ghost (and killed it), and then (once al-Qaddafi finally gained a body) got rid of it.” The camera captured that process, documenting a gruesome spectacle.

  5. 5.

    On those metropolises, see, for example, Baron (2005: 82–101) and Sheehi (2007). Dostal (1983: 257), studying the San‘a market in 1971, listed only two photography workshops. However, it is likely that some were located in what became the new parts of the city after the revolution of 1962.

  6. 6.

    Some women had their picture taken before embarking on pilgrimage to Mecca. However, visual identification was not required by the authorities until later in the twentieth century (compare Baron 2005: 85).

  7. 7.

    It is noteworthy that the wedding took place in the southern city of Ta‘izz, located in close proximity to Aden and less conservative than San‘a.

  8. 8.

    The majority of women whose families have been living in San‘a for several generations or who have moved there from the northern parts of the country since the 1970s endorse this practice (vom Bruck 1997; Moors 2007). Among those are self-identified neo-Salafis as well as Zaydi-Shi‘is. Regarding the latter, the first Zaydi Imam of Yemen, al-Hadi, is said to have ordered women to cover their faces (cited in Mundy 1983: 535, n.47). Some of the women who adhere to Zaydi precepts refer to this edict when rationalising the covering of their bodies. However, there is much debate about this issue. For example, one elderly Zaydi woman contended that those who insisted that women must cover their faces had come under the spell of ‘Wahhabi’ doctrine. Some male Zaydi scholars argue that no madhhab (School of Islam) prescribes the face-veil. Interpreting Imam al-Hadi’s edict in an historical context, they suggest that he ordered women to cover their faces because he found his contemporaries’ religious commitment wanting.

  9. 9.

    Photographs of women who do not cover their faces in public may be seen by outsiders, provided that other parts of the body are concealed. Photos of women politicians and other public figures, who wear the hijab, appear in the media.

  10. 10.

    Particularly during periods of heightened political tensions, unsolicited photographing may arouse strong emotions. For example, turmoil began in neighbouring Saudi Arabia after police videotaped Shi‘i women pilgrims at Jannat al-Baqi‘, a graveyard near the Prophet’s mosque in Madina, in February 2009. On their men folk’s request to either destroy or hand over the video material, several arrests were made and pilgrims were injured (Matthiesen 2009). On the problematic of photographing women in public spaces in Saudi Arabia, see Okruhlik (2004).

  11. 11.

    Radfan Tours, personal communication 2008.

  12. 12.

    Irrespective of the obstacles, photographers have succeeded in photographing women in order to sell their images as postcards (e.g., Pascal Maréchaux; Acacia Tours), or to display them at exhibitions. In 2012 World Press Photo assigned a first prize (Contemporary Issues) to Stephanie Sinclair for her photo of two young couples in Hajjah province entitled ‘child brides’ ( Whether the girls were made aware that their photo would appear in the internet remains unclear. In a recent interview one of the first San‘ani women photographers, Bushrah al-Mutawakkil, talked about the challenge of photographing women (, 2 February 2009). Photos taken of Yemeni women by explorers such as Hermann Burckhardt (1857–1909) are displayed at the National Museum of San‘a. On the issue of sensitivity among ‘Western’ subjects to perceived violations of privacy through the display of their photographs, see Phillips (2010). Referring to the case brought by the American citizen Abigail Roberson against Rochester Folding Box Co. in 1900 for using her unauthorised picture in advertising, she discusses the shifting boundaries of what is considered an “encroachment on privacy” in ‘Western’ culture. She concludes that “our culture appears to be accommodating itself to the fact of surveillance and no longer considers voyeurism the danger it was in the past” (Phillips ibid., 14–15).

  13. 13.

    The link proposed by Sheehi (2007) between photographic production and the process of embourgeoisement in fin de siècle Beirut cannot easily be established in northern Yemen. Soon after cameras became more widely available, photography became a much cherished pastime across the social hierarchy, and those who formed a nascent ‘middle class’ were far less concerned about the adoption of foreign practices than their peers in Cairo, Damascus, and Constantinople earlier on.

  14. 14.

    See also Gadamer’s discussion of the “simultaneity” of an object and its representation, implying that mediating devices of every kind have been rescinded (1990: 132).

  15. 15.

    However, conceiving of photographic images as products of a type of agency which are treated as “person-like” (Gell 1998: 96) is not to argue that the bodies represented “somehow have the status of living bodies” (Freedberg 1989: 12). As it was phrased poignantly by Gell (ibid., 103), “as social persons, we are present, not just in our singular bodies, but in everything in our surroundings which bears witness to our existence, our attributes, and our agency.” As I was told by an elderly Yemeni male friend, “a photo may cause desire – but a photo I cannot hug, I cannot kiss, I cannot smell.”

  16. 16.

    However, the ‘awrah might be defined idiosyncratically; see n. 8.

  17. 17.

    However, during the period of intermittent war in Sa‘dah (2004–2010), images of female victims of landmines and bombardments were published on dissident websites – presumably because they are not thought of as causing desire and because they serve propaganda purposes.

  18. 18.

    Such considerations correspond to the notion of photos as manifestations of ‘extended’ personhood. In the absence of a living spouse, close male kin must limit the channels of access to their mahram even after their death and thus guard their photographic images (mahram are those in a degree of consanguinity excluding marriage).

  19. 19.

    Sontag (1979: 24) describes the act of taking pictures as ‘a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape’.

  20. 20.

    While here the emphasis is on improper moral conduct which might result from looking at a picture, medieval Christian writers such as the Italian Cardinal Giovanni Dominici (d. 1420) were concerned about its capacity to stir desire for the person portrayed. The Cardinal recommended that people not decorate their bedrooms with images of persons they could not possess (Freedberg 1989: 12).

  21. 21.

    Sayyid Muhammad al-Mansur (in vom Bruck 1997: 187–8). Gell conceives of eye-contact as “the basic modality of ‘second-order intentionality’, [that is] awareness of the other (person) as an intentional subject”. Of all body orifices, Gell says, eyes signify intentionality most immediately (1998: 120, 136). Al-Mansur’s notion of agency implies intentionality which according to Gell (ibid., 125) precedes enactment. It is given momentum through ocular communication which, when occurring between non-mahram cross-gendered subjects, must be repressed. Discussing such interaction Sayyid Badr al-Din al-Huthi (d. 2010) admitted that a woman may also be attracted to a man’s face, arguing that if women’s face covering were to be made mandatory, then men should also be obliged to cover their faces (Yahya Badr al-Din al-Huthi, personal communication 2010).

  22. 22.

    According to Meneley (2007: 231), in the western town of Zabid women adhering to neo-Salafi ideology even object to women’s wearing lipstick in front of their brothers – who are close mahram – lest they stir desire in them.

  23. 23.

    Those men did not object to a woman’s passport photos being taken, provided she was covered by the hijab.

  24. 24.

    Presumably the rebel fighters who paraded the family photos of the deposed Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in the streets of Tripoli after raiding his compound in the summer of 2011 intended to humiliate him and to encourage scornful commentary.

  25. 25.

    There is also fear of the anonymous male gaze in the form of hidden cameras. Assumptions about their presence at saunas and massage parlours keep many women away from such establishments. A recent case in Saudi Arabia indicates the seriousness with which violations are viewed. After it was discovered that she had concealed a cell phone equipped with a camera, a 13-year old school girl was dismissed from her public school programme. She later attacked the headmistress and was sentenced to 90 lashes and 2 months in prison (apparently the sentence was suspended). The use of such phones is banned in public schools lest photos taken of girls will be posted on the internet (Saudi Information Agency, 19 January 2010).

  26. 26.

    Thus, a woman may let a close woman friend have her daughter’s photo which she will give to the mother of a young man who has expressed interest in marrying the girl. Usually the man is shown the girl’s photo without her knowledge. This is a sensitive issue causing ambivalence. Some argue that their daughter is ‘not for sale’, but if a suitable suitor asked to be shown the girl’s photo, they would be likely to grant his request for they are keen for her to get married.

  27. 27.

    Weddings are celebrated separately by men and women. However when they take place at hotels, occasionally the groom enters the women’s party before it ends and the couple present themselves to the cameras.

  28. 28.

    Imam Yahya’s reservation was not religiously motivated. According to Sayyid Muhammad al-Mansur (personal communication 2007), Zaydi ‘ulama have never issued fatwas against photography. He recalled that when someone wanted to take the Imam’s photo, he would ask ‘what for do you want to take my picture?’ Al-Mansur elaborated that ‘he did not consider having his photo taken to be useful (mufid).’ Hünefeld (2010: 88–89) suggests that the Imam’s request not to have his picture taken served to increase the excitement about his appearance in public. ‘Perhaps the absence of a photograph of him made him more present than would have been the case had his picture hung in every subject’s house’ (translation and emphasis mine). According to the daughter of one of Imam Yahya’s senior officials ‘my father did not like to be photographed. They usually took pictures of him without him being aware. He would have conceived of being photographed as an act of vanity. We do not have any pictures of my grandfather. Very few people had a camera. Nobody thought of this kind of thing. Life was simple. We would live, die and that’s it (laughs).’ An elderly friend noted that when his father photographed people during the time of Imam Ahmad (1948–62), some of his friends objected from a religious point of view. ‘My father argued that a photo was only a piece of paper rather than a figure like those shown at Madame Tussauds’ (compare on this issue Baron 2005: 84). Muhammad ‘Ali, who ruled Egypt in the early nineteenth century, regarded photography as the ‘work of the devil’ (Graham-Brown 1988: 60–61). Whilst ruling in the 1990s the Taliban, whose doctrine is akin to ‘Wahhabi’ ideology, decreed that no image of persons could be displayed in public places such as shops, hotels or taxis. However, photographs continued to be taken clandestinely at studios (Cole 2003: 788; Devji 2008: viii).

  29. 29.

    This might explain why a few days before the election of ‘Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi as president in February 2012, Salih once again ordered his portraits to be removed from all government buildings and public squares and replaced with those of the country’s new leader. After Salih had signed a transition agreement in November 2011, his portrait continued to be ubiquitously present around the capital. (In spite of ceding formal authority, Salih was allowed to retain his title and certain privileges until new elections were held.) In defiance of the agreement, soon after signing posters depicting him and his eldest son Ahmad, who had been groomed for the succession, appeared in public places.

  30. 30.

    In this context, consider also the series of photos authorised by Qazi Muhammad Amin, one of the Afghan Hizb-i Islami leaders. All photos show a stern-looking man sporting a beard, photographed before a plain background or addressing a crowd (Edwards 2002: 222–3). Followers of the founder of the Yemeni neo-Salafi movement Muqbil al-Wadi‘i (d. 2001), who was educated in Saudi Arabia, repudiate photography altogether. No photograph of al-Wadi‘i exists. Students who register at the Dar al-Hadith, a college in Sa‘dah province, are advised that they are not required to provide photographs. In Salafi magazines the faces of fighters who fought against Zaydi-Shi‘i rebels alongside the Yemeni army in Sa‘dah were blurred (Laurent Bonnefoy, personal communication 2011).

  31. 31.

    Media stations based in Beirut, Cairo and Dubai present hitherto unfamiliar images of (publicly visible) enchanting females. LBC of Lebanon is widely seen as avant-garde, and the Rotana channels owned by Saudi Prince Walid b. Talal combine musical entertainment with what is often regarded as provocative exposure of women’s bodies (see Hammond 2008: 345; Mellor 2008).

  32. 32.

    Elderly women, in particular, express their dismay at what they consider women’s immodesty, and feel vulnerable towards other women’s disparaging comments about their younger relatives. When at a tafritah an elderly woman criticised the ‘shameless’ outfit worn by the daughter of one of her peers who was sitting nearby and overheard her, she said ‘this is not my daughter.’ Debates about women’s self-display at the tafritah have become politicised and no longer focus primarily on the arousal of male onlookers. In Zabid, some younger women who oppose any form of adornment discourage women from wearing the transparent dresses conventionally worn at the Zabidi tafritah and more recently in San‘a (Meneley 2007: 231; see n. 22). Some Salafi-inspired San‘ani women reject the imaging of persons altogether, but some approve of it within the family. They are among the clientele of ‘women-only’ studios (below).

  33. 33.

    Note, however, that photographs of women’s scantily clad bodies which are displayed at the suq of Damascus (Halasa and Salam [2008: 126–153]) are not available.

  34. 34.

    Desire for film star-type self-images may also be linked to the distress caused by men’s comments on female TV announcers appearing on channels such as Al-Jazeera. (He asks ‘mush hiya jamila [isn’t she beautiful]?’ a rhetorical question which is answered by a suppressed ‘na‘m (yes)’ by his wife, whereupon he confirms ‘jiddan (very [beautiful indeed]!’) Readers might also remember the scene in Mir-Hosseini’s film Divorce Iranian Style (1998) where a judge, seeking to reconcile a couple, tells the wife she must make herself beautiful for her husband. She responds that she can show him photos proving that she used to do so.

  35. 35.

    These are also tied to expectations of gifts. Men must give their wives jewellery after the birth of a child, and are said to be motivated to do so by virtue of being enchanted by them. As Meneley (1999: 71) has pointed out, women’s desire for jewellery and fancy clothing provided by men reflects their wish for public recognition of their value and virtue by husbands and male kin, which determines their value in wider social terms (compare Moors 1998: 219).

  36. 36.

    Bridal dressers tend not to be concerned about exposure to the camera.

  37. 37.

    Girls learn foreign dance styles by watching television.

  38. 38.

    By that time she had not yet met the groom.

  39. 39.

    See in this context Appadurai’s (1990) insightful analysis of praise as a complex evaluative and interactive act.

  40. 40.

    In the context of the Palestinian intifada, Jean-Klein (2000) explores reciprocal forms of self-articulation within cross-gender discursive formations involving mothers, sons and sisters. One of the merits of her analysis is to demonstrate empirically the correlative forms of such processes within historically specific discursive formations without losing sight of the distinct features of self-positioning in a highly charged political arena.

  41. 41.

    The celebration of Valentine’s Day is a very recent phenomenon and observed by few people. Like in Saudi Arabia, it is frowned upon as a frivolous Western import. Qat sessions are normally gendered; few couples chew alone unless they are too old to leave the house.

  42. 42.

    For example Barthes (1993: 70), while mourning the death of his mother, wrote that his ‘grief wanted a just image, an image which would be both justice and accuracy – justesse: just an image, but a just image.’ (On Barthes’s reflections on photography and realism, see Freedberg 1989: chap. 15.)

  43. 43.

    Men who come to the studio hardly ever ask to be shown catalogues of models, although an album containing images of Indian film stars is available.

  44. 44.

    By placing emphasis on representation in relation to enchantment, my purpose is not to reduce its effect to purely visual gratification.

  45. 45.

    Of course a number of anthropologists have written about specific embodied practices which do not enter discourse wholly (for example, Bourdieu 1977; Csordas 1990; Good 1994). However, few deal with gender issues.


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I am grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for enabling me to conduct research for this project (2007–2008). This chapter was written in fond memory of Alfred Gell. I am fortunate to have had such a solicitous and inspiring teacher and friend. His sympathetic, uncondescending engagement with his students was a model for all of us to emulate. I am grateful to Wolf-Dieter Lemke, Daniel Miller and the two editors for taking the trouble to read and comment on an earlier draft of the paper.

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vom Bruck, G. (2012). Self-Similarity and Its Perils. In: Marsden, M., Retsikas, K. (eds) Articulating Islam: Anthropological Approaches to Muslim Worlds. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 6. Springer, Dordrecht.

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