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:


“Oriental woman”, 1877


“A flower girl in Cairo”, n.d.


“Aouïcha from Tanger”, 1874


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:


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:








Moral of the story?

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

More Articles for You

The Syrian artist who paints on death

Akram Abo Alfoz, an artist living under siege in Ghouta, creates inspiration as he transforms the medium destroying his city into a vehicle of hope. His work speaks optimism in a language that transcends speech.

Western colonialism’s continued compromise of Arab democracy

The British made promises to the Arabs but, after the fall of the Ottomans, European promises vanished like a mirage. Instead, they filled the Ottoman power vacuum with the British mandate. There would be no democracy in the Middle East.

Israel: an illegitimate, Middle Eastern democracy

Other than the fact that Israel is not the only example of democracy in the Middle East: is a democratically elected government legitimate if they are elected to pursue systematic colonialism?

Iran: politics of pragmatism & Arab parallels

Since the existence of independent nation states in the Middle East and North Africa, Iran has been one of the …

What is Apartheid Off Campus?

Apartheid Off Campus is a growing network of young activists across the United Kingdom, students leading the struggle to end their own universities’ complicity in the Israeli apartheid regime (hafrada, or “separateness” in Hebrew), or its colonisation of Palestine. Despite student …

On France’s “Arab problem”

A recurring theme throughout Arab literature is exile. Being far from home, far from one’s family, one’s land, or one’s …