The Return of ‘Princess Qajar’

The Return of ‘Princess Qajar’

How a meme reveals the erasure of females in history

Image for postThis picture, along with an explanatory caption, claims to depict ?Princess Qajar?

In late 2017, the photo above began circulating the Internet. In it, a woman with long dark tresses, thick eyebrows and a downy mustache stands regally as she gets her portrait taken. A caption reads that this woman was ?a symbol of beauty in Persia (Iran)? and that ?13 young men killed themselves because she rejected them,? with other versions of this meme naming her as the ?Princess Qajar.? The general shock-value of the meme seemed to come from the way her image defied modern beauty standards, from her large, rounded figure to her noticeable facial hair.

It was also completely made up.

When the picture first arrived on the internet, it was picked up by doubters at once who wondered whether or not the story could actually be true. Posts on forums like Reddit and SkepticsExchange devoted to the topic quickly debunked this ?Princess Qajar? meme as false for many reasons.

And yet, despite the quick work that internet users made of revealing the falsity of this meme, ?Princess Qajar? has been making the rounds again.

Image for postA recent ?Princess Qatar? meme, with added social media accounts

On Instagram in particular, the meme seems to have attracted recent attention. Meme accounts, posing as historically accurate vaults of information, claim the meme as their own, putting their social media links under the caption, which, even months later, remains unchanged.

It?s astonishing that even after this meme has been debunked for almost a year, it still manages to trick people into believing it is truth.

Heck, just a quick internet search will reveal to you that ?Princess Qajar? isn?t even a real name. The name ?Qajar? actually comes from the Qajar dynasty, Iranian royalty of Turkish descent, who ruled Persia from 1785 to 1925. There was no one named ?Princess Qajar? because every princess from that dynastic period was technically ?Princess Qajar?.

This photo/caption combo aims to shock the viewer into disbelief, as the women pictured are not what modern standards might dictate as ?a symbol of beauty.?

Even more astonishing is that this meme actually features two entirely different women: two different princesses of the Qajar dynasty. It?s not even the same person! Instead, thanks the fantastic sleuthing of Victoria Martnez, the woman in the white dress has been identified as Princess Fatimah Khanum (?Ismat al-Dawlah) (1855 -1905) and the smaller portrait is of Princess Zahra Khanum (Taj al-Saltanah) (1884-1936).

There is also no evidence to support that either one of these ladies was ever a symbol of beauty, nor that anyone killed themselves after being rejected by them (they were both married at quite a young age).

What is true about this image is the fact that, yes, facial hair actually was a female beauty standard during the 19th century in Persia, but that?s about as far as the truth behind this image goes. However, this photo/caption combo aims to shock the viewer into disbelief, as the women pictured are not what modern standards might dictate as ?a symbol of beauty.?

With the recent revitalization of this meme, comments sections on these posts have blown up with both praise towards ?Princess Qajar? for defying the beauty standards of today and disparaging comments towards her appearance. While it is important to acknowledge that both of the women in the picture appear somewhat different from how mass media portrays feminine beauty, the princesses were still likely forced into conforming to standards of beauty. Those standards were just different from the ones we see today, though they were no less restricting for women.

Even so, it?s a positive experience to know that body hair and facial hair was not always viewed as ?un-beautiful.?

Even so, a very important part of women?s history is ignored in this meme, as viewers can only pay attention to the ideals of feminine beauty across time and place and not the significant political and educational contributions these women made in their time.

In fact, we?re boiling down to almost nothing two women, that were extremely powerful in Iran for different reasons than beauty. The sensationalism of the ?symbol of beauty? caption and assertion that 13 men killed themselves over her appearance only adds to this watered-down picture, or ?junk history meme? as Martnez calls this type of image.

Image for post?Ismat al-Dawlah (above) acted as a royal emissary to the wives of foreign guests

In fact, ?Ismat al-Dawlah, the woman in white, was a well-written woman of Iran. She could play the piano and she acted as host to the wives of the foreign guests who visited Iran, putting her in a position of power as a kind of diplomatic representative for the Qajar dynasty. Even more impressive still, after ?Ismat?s husband, Dust Muhammad Khan, left Iran secretly in 1881, ?Ismat single-handedly mediated the situation between her husband and her father to allow Dust Muhammad Khan back into the country.

Image for postTaj al-Saltanah is captured in a faded photograph

There are other, equally incredible women of the Qajar dynasty who rose above societal norms in ways other than just physical appearance. Taj al-Saltanah, relegated to a small portrait in the corner of her own meme, was also an incredibly important historical figure. Twice divorced during a time when the practice was commonly viewed as negative, Taj learned painting, music, and French and became especially fond of European literature during her life. She ?became active in the era?s constitutional and feminist activities? and was a member of the Anjuman-i Hurriyat-i Nisvan, a women?s rights group, according to her own memoirs. Her writings remain the only memoirs of a royal woman during this time.

And there are many, many more Qajar women who played significant roles in revolution and equal rights, who carved paths to power through strength, intelligence, and cunning. Their appearances are of the least importance in this case; it is their personal achievements and life stories that we should be sharing through history memes.

Crowning Anguish, the translated version of Taj?s memoirs, is available here for anyone interested in learning more about this Princess Qajar.

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