Is this a portrait of Fatima al-Fihri?

The featured image is an orientalist depiction of a woman painted by Jan Frans Portaels in 1877. As you may be aware, Arab Millennial recently published a piece on Fatima al-Fihri, the founder of one of the world’s first universities located in Morocco. In our research, we found a lot of publishers were using this painting as a depiction of Fatima al-Fihri, but digging deeper, we found no confirmation that the lady in the painting is, indeed, Fatima al-Fihri:

  1. Fatima al-Fihri was alive in the 9th century, whereas the artist, Jan Frans Portaels, was alive in the 19th century: how would he have met her?
  2. The title of Portaels’ portrait is “Oriëntaalse vrouw”, which simply means “Oriental woman”; there is no reference to Fatima al-Fihri in the title.
  3. We could not locate the gallery holding the original image to see if Fatima al-Fihri is mentioned in the description or anywhere on the canvas.

Jans Frans Portaels (or Jean-François Portaels) is simply one of the founders of the Belgian orientalist art school, and has many, many depictions like the one discussed described as generic North African women:

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“Oriental woman”, 1877

 

“A flower girl in Cairo”, n.d.

 

“Aouïcha from Tanger”, 1874

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We believe that a website either used a generic orientalist image because they could not find one of Fatima al-Fihri, or the image by Portaels appeared (for some reason) in a Google image search for “Fatima al-Fihri”, and the publisher assumed that the portrait was of Fatima. We also believe that other publishers saw such articles about al-Fihri with the image attached, and assumed the relationship without verifying a very important question of identity for themselves. An example of this can be found here:

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Why is this a problem?

Aside from the fact that al-Fihri probably didn’t want to be remembered in the imagery of a colonialist, orientalist depiction of an objectified and lifeless North African woman, the misuse of the portrait by Portaels highlights a wider point about the way we observe, identify and assume information. Just because information appears online and is widely used, it does not mean the information is “true” – we have a duty to verify information for ourselves, especially when talking about historical, scientific and other academic issues that concern a search for truth, and particularly when talking about someone else’s visual and ideological identity.

Unfortunately, the misuse of the portrait by Portaels has now redefined who Fatima al-Fihri actually was; she may have had little resemblance to the woman in the image, and the woman in the image may have had different political and religious views to al-Fihri. The portrait has nonetheless been widely adapted and reused in online marketing relating to Fatima al-Fihri:

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Moral of the story?

Please, please check information for yourselves before publishing it, especially when it concerns a historical figure’s identity.

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