Culture 

What is beautiful? Really?

Scrolling through my Instagram stories I stumbled upon this one story that got my attention. First, it got me confused, thinking how is this even possible. Trying to learn more about the image, I cross-checked every word of what I read. Though the meme was based on twisted facts, it lead me to know something really important about history and changed my perspective.

Imagine a protagonist, a serene face, thick curly hair reaching her shoulders, black unibrow, and a subtle mustache is approached by thirteen young handsome boys to ask her hand in marriage and she rejects them. These poor boys, just because they couldn’t woo her to marry them, commit suicide. It may sound preposterous to you and so makes an ideal recipe for a viral meme. But, not an honest and proud record of history.

Princess Fatemeh Khanum, This was the picture used in the meme. Inscribed: “Khanum ʻIsmat al-Dawlah daughter of Nasir al-Din Shah, wife of Dust Muhammad Khan Muʻayyir al-Mamlik”

The image is of Princess Fatemeh Khanum who is known to have rejected the 13 boys in the meme. Research scholars suggest that though sporting a mustache was admired in women at that time in Iran. There is no account of anything as such happening in the pages of history. Moreover, girls were given in marriage at a young age of 10, so there was hardly any chance left to meet any man other than relatives let alone refusing thirteen boys. So after debunking the meme, I went on to know more about the princess in the photo. Allow me to tell you the real story of a king who had a different taste in beauty.

Nasser Al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896)

Nasser Al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896), fourth shah of the Qajar dynasty in Persia was the longest ruling shah. He came to power at an age of 17 years and stayed in power for 48 years making him the ruler who reigned the longest, in three thousand years. His rule abruptly came to an end when he was assassinated while he was doing his prayers in 1896. Ostensibly, Nasser Al-Din Shah had a weird taste in women or maybe it was a thing of that time and region. He had 100 (approx) concubines for himself and most of them had the manly appearance. It’s also been said that most of these women intentionally gained weight and drew a unibrow just to be in his harem.

Antoin Sevruguin, a Russian photographer

Nasser was also a photography hobbyist, he built the first studio in Iran and also employed Antoin Sevruguin, a Russian photographer. Nasser gave Antoin exclusive rights to document his females. Most of the photos that we see of that time were either taken by Nasser himself or by Antoin. If you remember, showing a face of the women was prohibited under Shia Islam with only the most powerful denouncing the law. So it would be accurate to say that these pictures portray more than an ugly face.

 

 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.”[1] 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[2] (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.
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.”
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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

The following quoted excerpt is taken from Victoria Martinez's “Princess Qajar” and the Problem with Junk History Memes

There is something that strikes me about Nasser, being a Shahanshah and practicing a religion that is usually not inclined towards the needs of females and tries to oppress them. He loved his female company and gave them the freedom to come out through these pictures. He did not oppress them, instead, he celebrated them.

I started writing this blog just to make it a fun blog about the history and how we define beauty, taking all my facts from that meme and some of the web pages who did not do a good job at facts checking. I am ending it with the knowledge, that it has become very easy to twist history and make memes out of everything. I had to delete and alter around 200+ words of this blog just to correct my facts. But rather I say truth or not say anything at all. I hope it was a fun and knowledgeable read for you and if you want to lay something on the table. Do so in the comments below. Do remember to double check the facts next time you see a meme.

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4 Thoughts to “What is beautiful? Really?”

  1. Hi Billy,
    I am the author of the blog post you cited, “‘Princess Qajar’ and the Problem with Junk History Memes,” and I just wanted to say thank you for adding to the correction of the negative and demeaning narrative caused by this meme. This is especially important coming from a man. In addition, I greatly appreciate that you centered your piece on the perspective of the shah himself, who quite clearly loved and admired these remarkable women. Personally, one of my favorite lines in your post is this: “It lead me to know something really important about history and changed my perspective.“
    Best regards,
    Victoria Martínez

    1. Billy

      Thank you for putting such detailed study of history. Your blog was a source of great information.

      1. I’m so glad. Thank you. 😊

  2. There have been times in history when people have appreciated and celebrated women of all shapes, sizes and appearances. Reuben had a thing for exceptionally heavy women. In all his paintings, women would look like what he’d say ‘a real woman looks like’ – no airbrushing or twisting of the body image.
    Kate Moss – an example of super lean woman – no curves – celebrated super model of our times.
    With my own record of attractions, I’ve come to realize that most of it depends on imprinting (if I for once have had a person with brown eyes., I’d be attracted to brown eyes.)

    Nice, informative post. The meme got me worried when I saw it..lol.

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