The Women Of The Ouled Naïl Tribe in Algeria
These images are taken of the women in the Ouled Naïl (pronounced "willed nah-eel") tribe, photographed by Rudolph Lehnert in 1904.
The Ouled Nail women in Algeria, enjoyed the freedom to amass their own fortunes, choose their own lovers, and engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage. Their society placed no shame on these choices; on the contrary, their independence and worldly experience were valued as an asset, a source of pride for their menfolk and tribe.
Residing in the Atlas Mountains, the Ouled Nail, an Amazigh tribe, embraced Islam during the 7th century, yet they preserved their distinct culture, customs, and identity throughout the 20th century. One of their most renowned traditions was that of the Nailiyat dancers.
Seasonally, Nailiyat women left their rural mountain homes to venture into bustling cities and oasis towns, where they pursued careers as professional dancers and hosts. Although not all Nailiyat women were dancers, this practice was often a familial tradition, with girls learning the dance and related skills from older family members. While women from neighbouring tribes occasionally engaged in such practices during economic difficulties like widowhood or orphanhood, it appears that the Ouled Nail were unique in their voluntary and proud continuation of this tradition, passing it down to the next generation, who began performing around the age of 12.
While the men stayed home, the dancers established close-knit women-centered communities during their seasonal city stays. Within these communities, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers took on chaperone and household responsibilities, while the younger women entertained and performed. Men entered this social circle as friends, business partners, lovers, or clients, but their role was temporary and somewhat on the periphery. The foundation and organization of this lifestyle revolved around the women, who held the central role and made the decisions.
Adorned in luxurious layers of silk and other extravagant fabrics, the Nailiyat donned intricate braids, tribal facial tattoos, and adorned their hands and feet with henna. They showcased their prosperity and allure through ornate gold and silver jewellery, as well as headdresses crafted from the coins they earned in their trade. Additionally, they wore robust bracelets with large spikes, which were believed to serve as protective tools.
While displaying one's wealth might have seemed like a way to keep it visible and secure, it also made potential wrongdoers aware of the valuable prizes at stake. Tragic tales abound of Nailiyat who fell victim to violence, targeted for the precious jewellery they wore.
Dancer groups took turns at the center stage, while their fellow performers supported them through singing, chanting, clapping, and snapping, accompanied by male musicians. The performance began with a high-pitched ululation known as a zaghareet. The dancers moved gracefully, gliding and shuffling, swaying their hips rhythmically, and adding rhythmic heel taps that made their ankle bracelets jingle. The dance featured head slides, shoulder shimmies, backbends, and some impressive displays of muscle control, including the ability to vibrate each breast individually. Turns and hand gestures may have symbolized a connection between the heavens and the earth. Observers often remarked on the dancers' poised and impassive facial expressions. These were women who truly understood their value.
Although renowned primarily as dancers, the Nailiyat also hosted men in their homes, with the approval of their older family members. This arrangement resembled a form of patronage, similar to today's escort system, where men understood the expectation to express gratitude for the time, attention, hospitality, and conversation offered to them through both material and monetary gifts. This attention could contain elements of charm and sensuality, but the extent of it was at the discretion of the individual Nailiya. She had the freedom to have lovers who would provide further support by showering her with gifts. However, there was no fixed fee for specific acts, and she bore no obligation to accept the advances of any man who approached her. In the event of pregnancy, the child was welcomed and remained with the mother, and the birth of a girl was a particular reason for celebration.
Following several seasons of performing, when a Nailiya had amassed the wealth she desired, she would return to her village, purchase a home, and establish herself as a financially independent woman. This allowed her to consider suitors and embark on married life based on love rather than material wealth or social connections. Among the Ouled Nail men, a dancer's professional experience was viewed as a valuable asset that enhanced her appeal as a potential wife.
In his 1956 book, "Flute of Sand," author Lawrence Morgan cites a man who remarked, “Our wives, knowing what love is, and having wealth of their own, will marry only the man they love. And, unlike the wives of other men, will remain faithful to death. Thanks be to Allah.”
For some dancers, their connection to the profession was lifelong. Opting for city life, a dancer might acquire her own cafe and mentor the younger generation, just as the older women in her life had nurtured her. In either scenario, her work wasn't geared towards securing a dowry for her husband, nor was it a rite of passage she had to endure to reach a specific goal. Instead, it was a respected occupation, a trade, a career, and a tradition of which she and her community took great pride.
The Arabs found themselves captivated by these dancers adorned in flowing robes and adorned with sparkling jewellery. In fact, the name "Bou Saada," the city closely associated with the Nailiyat, translates to "Place of Happiness" in Arabic, a direct nod to their influence. As European colonization commenced in 1830, Europeans also became enamoured with the Ouled Nail's countless charms. Suddenly, salons across the Continent were filled with Orientalist paintings, as well as photographs and postcards depicting enchanting women bedecked in coins.
However, colonial fascination has a dual nature: while we possess an extensive and, some may argue, aesthetically pleasing photographic documentation of the Ouled Nail, this record came at the cost of exploiting the women depicted and ultimately led to the erosion of the traditions these photographs were intended to safeguard.
Rather than making an effort to comprehend the intricate role the Nailiyat occupied in their traditional society, the French immediately conflated these artists with prostitutes, a group regarded in French society as being of low social standing, degraded, and easily disposable. Adding an Orientalist lens that viewed non-white women as exotic, subhuman, and morally depraved, the Ouled Nail found themselves subjected to stringent French government regulations designed to control activities deemed morally corrupt. Simultaneously, they were heavily taxed and fined to sustain the colonial machinery. Nevertheless, the French continued to exploit the entertainment provided by the Nailiyat while eroding the very foundations that sustained them. Their activities were confined to government-licensed cafes run by the well-connected, depriving them of the women-led collectives that had once ensured their safety. Consequently, the women faced both exploitation and poverty, with the money flowing upward into the hands of foreign men.
The vintage postcards featuring the Ouled Nail that are prevalent today emerged from this particular environment. Notably, Algerian anthropologist and accomplished dancer Amel Tafsout pointed out that the majority of these postcards, while ostensibly portraying everyday scenes, were meticulously staged and designed to cater to Western preconceptions. They intentionally portrayed the Ouled Nail in contrast to the "respectable" white women back in the West. The adornment of jewellry was excessive, headdresses were piled high in an awkward manner, and poses were conspicuously crafted to cater to the foreign male gaze, emphasizing exotic and erotic elements.
It's important to note that I've deliberately refrained from including the most overtly sexualized photos, out of respect for the subjects involved, whose identities may forever remain unknown and who might have been coerced in various ways to participate in these photoshoots. However, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the racks of inexpensive postcards were filled with images of the Ouled Nail either partially or completely nude, portraying scenes that no foreign photographer would have encountered as part of the ordinary lives of the subjects.
These images were produced for the prying eyes of voyeurs, and their distribution on postcards allowed European society to easily purchase and trade in the bodies of nameless Algerian individuals, with little concern for the impact on both the women themselves and their society. Photographers like the infamous Rudolf Franz Lehnert and Ernst Heinrich Landrock trafficked in stereotypes, both constructing and perpetuating Orientalist notions about African women. Notably, even esteemed publications like National Geographic have an unsettling history of portraying Black and Brown women in ways that would have been considered unacceptable for white women, essentially objectifying them for consumption. In the January 1914 issue, an entire article by Frank Edward Johnson titled "Here and There in Northern Africa" was dedicated to this subject, featuring many of the photos of the Ouled Nail that later appeared on postcards.
Upon Algeria's attainment of independence from French rule in 1962, the way of life of the Ouled Nail had already suffered irreversible damage from over a century of colonial occupation and almost a decade of warfare. The post-independence authoritarian government imposed a last phase of assimilation upon the nomadic communities.
In an era when women in both Eastern and Western hemispheres, the Global South and the Global North, are asserting their right to self-determination in defiance of controlling forces, the Ouled Nail serve as a powerful reminder that, contrary to certain historical narratives, women have long thrived outside patriarchal constraints and have been making their own choices on their own terms for centuries.