The association of the Arab world with Western sexual fantasy figured prominently in the artwork and literature that was critiqued so famously by Edward Said in Orientalism. Yet beyond the fantasies embedded in Delacroix’s paintings of odalisques, what did sex actually mean in nineteenth-century Algeria? In Ottoman History Podcast #188, Aurelie Perrier begins to answer this question. Building on the groundbreaking work of scholars like Malek Alloula and Christelle Taraud, her research explores the nature of illicit sex in nineteenth-century Algeria under both Ottoman and French rule.
Perrier situates the topic in the fluid boundaries of Ottoman-administered sex work. Under Ottoman rule, sex work was tolerated in Algeria, and even centralized to some extent by the state. The trade, driven in part by seasonal migrations of nomads, came to be supervised in cities by an official known as the mezwar, whose responsibilities included ensuring the discretion of sex workers and collecting taxes from them. In this context, working women seem to have enjoyed a degree of freedom from stigma, inhabiting spheres of religion and entertainment with little apparent contradiction to their livelihood. Though their work came under state supervision, it was not confined in brothels, as it would be with the arrival of the French in 1830.
Indeed, as Perrier shows, the brothel, and its implications of not only centralization but also segregation, aptly symbolized the relationship of the French colonial state with sex work in Algeria. Restricting sex workers to particular spatial boundaries (quartier reservé) within cities corresponded to a broader dynamic in which sex work became stigmatized in new ways. The medicalization of sex work constituted another part of these novel spatial practices. As the presence of French soldiers in Algeria largely accounted for the expanded demand for sex work, the health of prostitutes also became a new object of state concern, and, in the interest of fit soldiers, new regulations for prostitution ensured state medical access to the most intimate parts of sex workers’ bodies and lives. Regulation of prostitution was significantly guided by omnipresent colonial concerns about maintaining boundaries of gender, race, and class. Yet in many cases, French control of prostitution emerged as more incoherent than omnipotent. Many residents of and migrants to Algeria managed to use the system for their own ends, or to evade it altogether.
Still, the undeniable encroachment of the state into this realm of life left an indelible mark on both French and Algerian history. Please join us in this podcast, as Dr. Perrier sheds light on this topic and the many lives entangled within it.
Aurelie Perrier is a recent PhD graduate in Middle East history from Georgetown University. Her dissertation examined the politics of gender in nineteenth and early-twentieth-century colonial Algeria. Her broader research interests center on private life, the management of sexuality, and the production of sentiment in colonial settings, as well as on the construction of imperial masculinity.
Sam Dolbee is a doctoral candidate in the department of Middle East Studies at New York University.