The legal status as well as the private and public role of women is a central issue in Algeria today. The relationship between men and women is of political, social, and economic importance and a matter of national identity. According to historian Daho Djerbal, “The subaltern status of women can serve as an indicator for all other inequalities.”[#1] Discriminatory laws, social exclusion, and violence against women are enduring themes of public discourse and opinions how to address inequalities vary greatly. Not only is there is disaccord between predominantly secular, largely Western-oriented associations and religiously based activists who take the Arab/Muslim world as their point of reference, but also within and between those two different camps.
The debate about the legal status of women dates back to the founding of the Algerian nation-state in 1962 when it gained independence from France. This relatively young nation finds itself in a state of flux, politically, socially, economically, and culturally. New ways of approaching gender relations are not only of domestic concern but also determine the role Algeria intends to assume within the Arab/Muslim world and on the global stage, particularly the Mediterranean region.
In the following, some of historical factors that underlie the current debate concerning gender relations will be outlined and the ethnic dimension discussed, namely the Berber/Arab conflict. Legal issues pertaining to two conflicting sets of laws that govern Algerian women’s lives will be explored. Furthermore, it is important to consider the strides women have made in the workforce, an important indicator of change. Lastly, examples of select contemporary women’s associations illustrate women’s activism in Algeria today.
The question of women is embedded in a broader context. Algerians are frequently categorized as Maghrebi, Muslim, or Arab. These categories need to be reexamined. A large portion of the Algerian population is not Arab but Berber; not everyone born to a Muslim father, and therefore by definition a Muslim, grows up to be a believer. Likewise, the term “Maghreb” (“West” in Arabic) needs to be scrutinized. This concept was first formulated by Muslims located at the center of the classical Islamic civilizations at the time Islam spread to North Africa. It determined a definable “Other,” albeit an Islamic one.[#2] The term was later adopted by the French colonial power to designate the special relationship between France and North Africa, namely Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and in particular Algeria–occupied by France for more than 130 years. The Maghreb was understood to be different from African countries south of the Sahara, several of which are predominantly Muslim as well. Algeria is also routinely considered part of the Arab world, despite the fact that a significant portion of the population is not primarily of Arab origin. Likewise, it is seen as belonging to the Muslim world, though it has been historically inhabited by a sizeable Jewish population, and more than a century of French Catholic influence has also left its mark. The geographic, historic, cultural, and religious links with the Arab East, the African South, and across the Mediterranean with Europe complicate the task of defining authentic Algerian gender relations and a sense of national identity.
The notion of the Maghreb is compounded by the fact that relationships among independent Maghrebi nations remain fractured. Despite signing a formal treaty of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in 1989, the five member countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania are a long way from moving toward a union that resembles, for example, the European Union. The AMU in fact shares more similarities with the contentious East African Community. Neither has succeeded in reducing unemployment, poverty, or bad governance, and there is no central legislative body or an attempt to create a common currency. The border between Morocco and Algeria remains closed, preventing free movement of citizens from one North African country to another. Furthermore, the term “Arab” in the AMU can be understood as attempting to enfold North Africa ever more tightly into the umma (Muslim community) of the Arab world, a notion contested by non-Arab Algerians.[#3]
Despite the fact that the peoples of North Africa share similar languages, cultures, the predominant religion of Islam, and a patriarchic system; each country faces unique challenges owing to its history, current form of government, and access to or absence of valuable natural resources such as oil and gas. Lack of natural resources can compel a country to invest in its human resources. This is the case in Morocco, an autocratic monarchy that drastically reformed its family code in 2004, thereby legally elevating the status of women. Without a monarch to set the tone for public discourse, the debate about women’s rights in Algeria can best be described as anarchic. Straddling differing identities, many of which are imposed from outside, women in post-independence Algeria have at times seen remarkable progress, followed by setbacks, starts, and turns. As the nation emerged from a nine-year long struggle for independence, one of the bloodiest of its kind, the role of women remained intertwined in the process of defining a post-colonial identity, political direction, and a path for economic development.
As stated above, due to its geographical location and its history, Algeria–the second largest country in Africa–is at a crossroads between Europe, Africa north and south of the Sahara, and the Arab world. Close to 90 percent of the Algerian population lives along the Mediterranean coastline. Across the waters are Spain, Italy, and France, countries with large Algerian immigrant populations. The Sahara connects Algeria to countries south of the desert (Mauritania, Mali, Niger), and Algeria also shares a border with all other North African countries (Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya). The most significant forces in Algerian history have been the spread of Islam, Arabization, the Ottoman Empire, French colonization, and the discovery of hydrocarbons.
Algeria was a special case among French overseas possessions because it had been a colony of settlement, meaning large numbers of metropolitan French and other European citizens came to settle in Algeria after the French occupation began in 1830. When the war of national liberation broke out in 1954, only 4.5 percent of Algerian women knew how to read and write. Just 3 percent were employed outside the home and only 16 percent of Algerian women above 15 were unmarried. There were 503 non-European Algerian students at Algiers University–22 of them female.[#4]
Heroic stories of women’s participation in the war for independence, as support personnel but also in the armed struggle, abound. However, women were quickly relegated to their domestic roles by successive post-independence governments. This stance was officially justified in the name of Algeria’s national identity as a Muslim nation and based on a quest to affirm Algerian culture wherein women traditionally played a subservient role. Women who fought in the battle for independence–such as Samia Lakhdari, Djamila Bouhired, and Hassiba Ben Bouali—are routinely held up as role models of Algerian heroism, yet women who actually follow in their steps today often find themselves vilified.
Declaring Islam as central to national identity eventually gave rise to growing radical Islamist movements. This in turn led the government under then President Chadli Benjedid in 1984 to put in place a highly conservative family code that rendered women legal minors in matters concerning marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Yet radical Islamists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) continued to gain in popularity. In 1992, national elections were cancelled and a state of emergency declared after Islamists had democratically won a first round of local elections the year before. The ensuing armed struggle between the militant wing of the FIS, rival radical Islamist groupings, the national military, and local militias drew the country into a decade-long reign of terror, said to have claimed 150,000 lives. Much of the violence was directed at women. They were assaulted in public for not wearing the veil, and there were abductions of women who were subsequently used as domestic and sexual slaves for self-proclaimed Islamist warriors. Gang rapes and public aggressions especially against women living alone occurred frequently.[#5] Testimonies of such atrocities were collected by Leila Asaloui in her book Coupables (Guilty). Aslaoui concludes her account by saying: “This book is not an admission of failure, in fact the contrary. It has been written with the certitude that one day the battle of Algerian women will succeed. The two epitaphs which describe them the best are: fighters and resistance activists.”[#6]Complicating religious considerations of gender roles are ethnic tensions that have played an important role in recent Algerian history.
THE BERBER QUESTION
Armed conflict between radical “Islamists”[#7] and the military was preceded by ethnic conflict between Berbers and Arabs, the two largest population groups in Algeria. Berber ethnic minorities have inhabited North Africa long before the arrival of Arabs in the seventh and eighth centuries. In Algeria, the largest Berber community is Kabyle, whose traditional homeland is in the Kabylia mountains, not far from the capital Algiers. French influence among Berber populations was more pronounced than in Arab communities, and Kabyles in particular received a French-based education. Unlike Arabs, Berbers were believed to be less deeply rooted in Islam and therefore potentially more compatible with European mores and values. As a result, the first generation of post-colonial Algerian intellectuals was predominantly Berber. Yet in an effort to establish a national identity that marked a clear departure from French influence, post-colonial governments implemented Arabization programs that led to a formal marginalization of Berbers who–along with people of mixed Arab-Berber descent–make up 30 percent of the population. It may be no coincidence that leaders of women’s organization, no matter their political or ideological leanings, are frequently headed by women of Kabyle origins. By virtue of their background, they are accustomed to oppression from within and without, and have acquired strategies of resistance.
Berber uprisings opened the way to political pluralism, including the founding of various women’s associations but also marked the rise of radical Islamism. Arabization programs aimed at eliminating Berber culture and language marked the beginning of Berber/Kabyle consciousness movements. A wave of protests was sparked in April 1980 at Tizi Ouzou University in Kabylia by an official decision to cancel a lecture on Berber poetry. These week-long protests were later referred to as the “Berber Spring,” reminiscent of the “Prague Spring.” According to Michael Willis:
The Kabyle Spring also had implications for Algeria as a whole, since it marked the first major demonstration of popular dissent and dissatisfaction with the Algerian regime since independence. Accordingly, it damaged the image of the invincibility of the regime and opened the way for other dissident forces and voices in the 1980s–most notably the Islamists.[#8]
Berbers have lived under many rulers–Roman to Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman Turks, and more recently French–and have adopted different religions over time–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively. Yet with regard to gender relations, Kabyle customs have been remarkably resistant to change. However, it was the introduction of Muslim laws that codified the legal status of Berber women by according them the right to inheritance.[#9]
Nedjma Plantade describes the aims of traditional Kabyle education: “It is clear that educational rules have the following goals: for a boy to become a man endowed with three fundamental qualities: honesty, family values and disinterest in women and sexuality; for girls to become obedient women, submissive, polite, respectful and self-effacing.”[#10] This anthropologist, herself Kabyle, argues that though traditional Kabyle society is communal as opposed to individualistic, this should not be taken to mean that there is a great sense of gender solidarity. Quite the contrary: As one’s standing in the community is under constant scrutiny and observation, women tend to view other women as rivals rather than potential allies.[#11] As will be discussed later, such sense of rivalry is evident in contemporary women’s organizations.
The Kabyle paradox lies in the fact that Berbers are generally socially conservative, yet are at the same time open on political and economic matters and often also embrace political militancy.
The existence of contradictory laws is a hallmark of previously colonized countries, and legal challenges upon independence were enormous. The 2004 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme states:
The colonial imprint can be marked. Indeed, it is often difficult to determine which legal processes are genuinely traditional and which can be seen as a hybrid by-product of colonial manipulation and control. An added complication in separating authentic from imposed practices is that colonial rule and its “civilizing mission” unilaterally claimed responsibility for introducing modern values, beliefs and institutions to the colonies.[#12]
Algeria’s present criminal and civil law is primarily based on French legislation, yet matters of citizenship, nationality, and the family code are based on Islamic law, in essence creating two sets of laws pertaining to women. Algerian women can only confer citizenship on their children if the father is unknown. Whereas the constitution guarantees gender equality, a second set of laws renders women legal minors: the family code is based on Shari’a, i.e. religiously sanctioned law. Family law is seen as a reflection of a country’s culture, it is as much a cultural institution as a legal norm.[#13] As the concept of the family forms the basis for understanding of women’s private and by extension public roles, it is central to society. A change of family law would inevitably result in larger societal transformations.[#14]
Despite the constitution’s declaration of gender equality, it does contain the seed for legal conflict. Article 29 of the Algerian constitution reads: “All citizens are equal before the law. No discrimination shall prevail because of birth, race, sex, opinion, or any other personal or social condition or circumstance.”[#15] However, Article 2 of the Algerian constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state, therefore allowing for a set of religiously based laws.
In an attempt to appease the rising force of Islamism, in 1984, the state adopted a highly restrictive family code. Radical Islamism was, however, not contained, and violent conflict between radical Islamists and the military plunged the country into a decade of violence. In 2005, several years after violent conflict had ended, the government initiated a partial reform of the “scandalous law.”[#16] The position of divorced women with children was strengthened by giving them the right to stay in their former conjugal homes, forced arranged marriages were outlawed, and polygamy constrained by requiring consent of the first or second wife and validation by a local court. Furthermore, women were no longer legally required to be obedient to their husbands. However, the concept of wali, guardian, was affirmed. This law stipulates that an adult woman remains under the lifelong tutelage of a guardian–the legal reform merely allowed a woman to choose her guardian. A guardian’s approval is required if a woman wants to marry and–though based on social custom and not the law—banks, for instance, routinely require signed consent by a guardian if a woman wants to open a bank account. Nasr-Eddine Lezzar identifies three main approaches of women’s activism with regard to family law:
- The claim for abrogation of existing laws and replacing them with secular and egalitarian laws (secular activists).
- Maintaining a separate family code in keeping with Shari’a (Islamist activists).
- Finding a middle ground by insisting on implementation of existing family laws and working toward possible amendments.[#17]
In the present climate of confusion between religious principles and cultural practices, coupled with widespread fear and tension due to continued, sporadic terrorist attacks, it is hard to come by groups or individuals that actively pursue finding a middle ground. Islamists and secularists are too entrenched in their respective positions to be willing to collaborate.
Though armed struggle has largely come to a halt, non-violent Islamism now shapes public discourse concerning possible legal changes that define gender relations. While secular women’s associations battle to uphold the supremacy of the constitution and most advocate either a more substantive reform, abolition of the family code or demand that women obtain the right to choose between laws, Islamist women activists hold that religious law is divinely inspired and therefore non-negotiable. Still, Islamist women argue that the current family code is not based on a “proper understanding of Islam,”[#18] yet there is no consensus among Islamist women about specifics of a possible new family code. They do, however, join the chorus of women throughout the country lamenting that laws are not properly applied but are implemented based on a system of favoritism, personal connection, and economic prowess. According to Global Corruption Report 2007, the higher the complexity of laws, the higher the expected level of corruption.[#19] This analysis of the Algerian judicial system also states: “The maintenance of a state of emergency since 1992, in defiance of the constitution and Algeria’s human rights obligations, complicates matters further. The emergency gives wide-ranging powers to the administration and the police with no counterweight guaranteeing respect for judicial norms.”[#20]
While legal ambiguity is a crucial factor in the debate about the status of women in Algeria, women in the workforce serve as an important indicator of change, a topic explored next.
WOMEN AT WORK
Though the legal debate is a crucial element determining the situation of contemporary Algerian women, employment is another essential component in this complex puzzle. In the prologue to his La minorité invisible (The Invisible Minority), Abdelatif Rebah writes:
The overall picture of women’s social situation remains one of contrast. Housewives still make up the majority of women (65.8 percent), the majority is urban (51 percent) and less than 35 years of age (58 percent), and a high number are still illiterate (37 per cent)…. The glaring preponderance of past trends overshadows new, current tendencies… which include female representation in the educational sector (55 percent primary school teachers, 50 percent secondary teachers) and in the health sector (50 percent of the medical profession, 66 percent pharmacists, 63 percent dentists) and those with high school teaching diplomas (63 percent). The place and role occupied by women in today’s society is considered an indicator of development.[#21]
In the urban centers of Algiers and Oran, women are also widely represented in professions such as judges and lawyers. Even though the government increased judge’s salaries in 2004 to decrease temptation for corruption, Algeria’s judges earn less than their counterparts in Morocco and Tunisia.
Given that more than 56 percent of current university students in Algeria are female, it is safe to assume that even if only half of these women eventually enter the public professional sphere, the gender landscape in Algeria will be significantly altered. According to an Algerian National Office of Statistics survey, 42.6 percent of professionally qualified women declared never to have worked outside the house because either their parents or husbands did not want them to; 17.8 percent cited familial obligations, and 4.5 percent said they did not work because they felt discouraged by the widespread problem of unemployment.[#22]
Rebah argues that women who start and own businesses and act as directors “put the catalogue of permitted gender roles into question. The woman who inserts herself into the masculine domain, defies existing structures… her work is no longer based on pure financial or material need and therefore defies acceptable social norms.”[#23] The author interviewed female Algerian entrepreneurs who hail from a great variety of backgrounds: conservative and religious milieus; rural areas; urban middle-class. Despite these differences, these women had important traits in common: They excelled at school and possessed tremendous personal drive and initiative. Similar too were the reasons for starting their own business ventures: Social norms limited their chances of upward mobility within Algerian companies.[#24] “For women, being the boss of an enterprise accelerates their careers and opens the path to autonomy, freedom to make decisions and provides a venue to express personal values and to develop their potential beyond the domestic sphere…. All of this is a sign that they belong to world of decision-makers.”[#25] None of the women interviewed for Rebah’s study belonged to or overtly supported women’s advocacy groups nor did any profess allegiance to either secular or Islamist causes; instead they understood their battles as personal. Likewise, none of these women set out to upset local customs or traditions. That they eventually were doing just that was considered a by-product of their ambition and success. Hence, women who are not on the forefront of women’s rights battles are contributing in important ways to social and cultural changes. Tamzali argues that as women advance in the economic sphere, gender relations progress.[#26] This point was also made in Gray’s study of female Moroccan entrepreneurs who through their economic success attained a measure of personal autonomy and independence that allowed them to be active agents of change with regard to gender roles.[#27]
As previously stated, women’s advocacy groups can broadly be divided into two categories: secular women’s organizations, which are generally Western-oriented and focus on family law issues, and Islamist activists whose point of reference is religion and the Muslim/Arab world. Islamist activists discussed here refer to non-violent individuals. It is important to note that women active in secular associations do not renounce their religious identity but advocate for separation of state and religion, resembling the French concept of laïcité (secularism). They view religion as a private matter, not of public policy. As different as the goals of these two opposing forces are, there is disaccord within secular and Islamist groups as well, and neither is a homogenous block. The main differences between the two categories is that secular women’s activists focus primarily on legal matters, especially the family code, and advocate either for abolition or major reform, while Islamists reject the discussion about the family code and instead focus primarily on grassroots vocational programs, literacy campaigns, and religious instruction.
Often excluded from feminist discourse, Miriam Cooke argues that Islamist feminist strategies should be considered within the framework of feminism:
I believe that feminism is much more than an ideology driving organized political movements. It is above all an attitude, a frame of mind that highlights the role of gender in understanding the organization of society. Feminism provides analytical tools for assessing how expectations for men’s and women’s behavior have led to unjust situations, particularly but not necessarily only for women.[#28]
Lloyd describes the gender conflict in Algeria as revolving around peoples’ efforts to make sense of their identities, gain control over their lives and the direction of their society.[#29] This was confirmed in interviews by this author with leading figures of secular women’s associations in Algiers and in the second largest city Oran–most of them foreign funded NGO’s (nongovernmental organizations). Secular activists shared similar goals, namely abrogation or reform of the existing family code. Some associations include a focus on single mothers and rights for their children, a particularly sensitive issue in Algeria. Advocacy groups are engaged in dispensing legal advice to women in cases of divorce and child custody battles. Some have launched campaigns to publicize the 2005 family code to make women aware of their rights–however limited they may be. CIDDEF,[#30] for example, published an easy to read, multi-lingual, color-coded legal guidebook which is free of charge and widely distributed. The accompanying cartoons often poke fun at the limitations inherent in the law reform. Secular activists consider women’s rights and human rights closely connected. Hocine Zahouane, president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH)–one of several human rights organizations in Algeria–has long been an advocate of family code reform and has supported the work of secular women’s associations. Since 1992, he has repeatedly advocated for women to be at the least allowed to chose between different sets of laws that govern their lives. Zahouane considers such a proposition “a banality,” yet in the 15 years since he first argued for choice, the debate over family law continued unabated.[#31]
The multitude of women’s associations does not seem to be based chiefly on discrepancy in objectives but rather on personal differences. Common to all are their organizational structures: Presided over by one strong, visionary individual, they contain few internal democratic mechanisms. Women’s associations are not immune to the cultural context within which they arise. Therefore, it should not be surprising that these organizations are often hierarchic and authoritarian in structure. Though a systematic study of Algerian women’s associations has yet to be conducted, in neighboring Morocco, Souad Eddouada has studied women’s organizations and came to the following conclusion:
… these organizations demonstrate that patriarchy not only concerns the domination of women by men since we find hierarchy among women themselves. The absence of the young generation, the survival of hierarchical relationships of power within these supposedly feminist and alternative to male structures, in addition to the gap between the grassroots and their representations by the egalitarian discourses of these feminists’ activism are due to the absence of free and open reflection within these organizations.[#32]
Algerian women’s associations are authentic within their own social and cultural context and develop along a different trajectory than women’s movements in the West. Wassyla Tamzali, president of the “Algerian Forum of Mediterranean Women” and former director of Women’s Rights at UNESCO, speaks of the unique Algerian experience that situates women at a crossroads between the West, notably France, and the Arab world and insists on the right “to live this multiplicity”:
Europeans consider me as a clone of Western civilization. But I am a member of the Muslim world that is constructing its own history. My identity includes: feminism, the Algerian war, my knowledge of the West, the myth of the Orient. A mixture… But this diversity is also not accepted by the Arab-Muslim world that grants it no legitimacy.[#33]
Tamzali further argues that the Algerian feminist movement’s struggle is too narrowly focused on the family code reform and political representation. “We have thought that the question of women lies in the secularization of laws and democratic political practices. We have not fully understood the experience of western women and the fact that neither secularization nor democracy has resolved the issue of discrimination and gender inequality.”[#34]In fact, Algeria’s brief experience with democracy has proven devastating for the population in general and women in particular. They were the victims of choice in the armed conflict that followed the cancellation of democratic elections in 1992, won by the FIS. “There is a genuine lack of perspective for young people,” said Louisa Driss-Aït Hamadouche, a university professor in Algiers. She believes that the violence young women witnessed growing up left them discouraged and apprehensive about getting involved in activism.[#35]
Secularism has likewise been an elusive goal. The promulgation of the religiously-based restrictive family code in 1984 served as a springboard for the first post-independence feminist movement, which culminated in the brief coming together of all women’s organizations and associations in 1989. Women’s activism had benefited from the opening of political pluralism prior to the ill-fated elections. At the time, newly gained freedom of expression, public gatherings, and the spreading wave of fundamentalist Islam caused a virtual explosion of women’s associations. Most activists of that period came from the urban, university milieu and consisted of Western-educated women. The violent decade and a continued state of emergency eventually severely restricted women’s activism. Twenty years later, the same founding women remain or have re-emerged as leaders of various associations. There has been no discernable passing on of the baton from one generation to another.[#36]
Associations established during the 1980s that are still active include AFEPEC, (Association des femmes pour l’égalité et l’exercice de la citoyenneté or Women’s Association for Equality and the Exercise in Citizenship), AEF (Association pour l’émancipation des femmes or Association for the Emancipation of Women), and ADPDF (Association pour la défense et promotion des femmes or Association for the Defense and Promotion of Women). This list is by no means complete; frequently new associations splinter off as a result of personality conflicts, are active for a while and then disappear. Most associations receive international financial support and operate independent from government-sponsored women’s associations, which are in line with official FLN (National Liberation Front, since independence the ruling party) policies. The FLN is widely seen as supporting the status quo and therefore not regarded as an agent of change.
Malika Remaoun, founder and leader of AFEPEC, envisions a state in which women can choose between a religiously based family code and secular laws. Asked if she would favor the abolition of all religiously based laws, she responded: “We are a pre-dominantly Muslim society. Therefore it is unrealistic to expect that all aspects of Shari’a could be abolished. What my association advocates is that women have a choice. Our goal is the autonomy of women with regard to family law.” However, Remaoun added: “Ideally, a country should have only one set of laws that apply to all citizens. Mixing religion with law creates a space in which women can be treated unequally. Because religiously based laws are considered divinely ordained, or sacred, no one can touch them.”[#37] AFEPEC has outreach programs in the densely populated outskirts of Oran, where unemployment and crime are rampant. The goal of these activities is to instruct less educated women in family law and to provide basic understanding of the rights they do have. They also aim to equip women to confront widespread domestic violence, issues of abuse, and child custody.
One group of women whose issues are particularly sensitive to address is that of single mothers because childbirth outside of marriage remains “a taboo.” Yamina Rahou who has studied single motherhood for more than a decade argues, “the law does not take social reality into consideration.” Social norms, traditions, and religion contribute to the continued discrimination of single mothers and their children.[#38] Compounding this situation is the fact that adoption and abortion are illegal in Algeria. Though there are no official statistics available, women are incarcerated as a result of an abortion or extra-marital sexual relations. Rahou maintains that present norms make women the sole culprit of sexual trespassing. The absence of government and paternal support leads to abandonment of large numbers of children each year.[#39]
For Nadia Aït Zaï, law professor and director of the previously mentioned CIDDEF (whose offices are located in the basement of Sacre Cœur Catholic Cathedral in Algiers), changing adoption laws is one of the most pressing issues, as it would provide single mothers with a viable option for as long as such a status remains culturally unacceptable. She claims that based on the constitution, “Algeria is in fact a secular state,” but it is by way of the family code that religion manifests itself. According to Aït Zaï, family law reform is central to the question of national identity and citizenship.[#40]
Chérifa Bouatta and Doria Chérifati-Merabitine have researched individual perceptions of women in different associations. In their study La militante femme entre aspirations individuelles et projets de société (The Female Activist Between Personal Aspirations and Societal Projects), the authors chronicle the development of women’s activisms since post-independence.[#41] Enthusiasm of the newly independent nation invigorated women until their élan waned when confronted with government’s efforts to bring Algeria back in line with its cultural roots and reversed the trend toward gender equality. The authors also observed a general reticence among younger women.[#42] They attribute this apprehension to a culture wherein a woman’s life is to be kept private, and personal ambition can best flourish when it remains veiled.
Islamists activists on the other side strive for an Islamic state in which laws are religiously based, including certain gender inequalities, while at the same time advocating for equal opportunity in the workforce.
One self-described Islamist woman, a medical doctor, recounted an emblematic incident that happened in the hospital where she works.[#43] A barbu (bearded man, synonymous for Muslim fundamentalist) brought his fully veiled wife to the hospital and insisted that she be seen only by a female doctor, that he be present for all examinations, and approve treatments. The doctor, herself wearing the Muslim headscarf, asked this man how he expected to find a female medical doctor if he considered women as minors, apparent in the dealing with his wife. She refused to examine the woman unless the husband left the room and agreed to have treatment options discussed primarily between her and the patient. This anecdote illustrates that “Islamist” is not a homogenous category.
Leaders of the female branch of MSP (Mouvement de la Société de Paix or Movement of Society for Peace), a major Islamist political party in Algeria emphasize grassroots activities in the Casbah, the historic but now dilapidated part of Algiers, and in the shantytowns surrounding the capital. Hassiba Amokrane, a parliamentarian and grassroots organizer, explained that the focus must be on teaching income-generating skills (such as sewing, tailoring, and basic computer skills) and running literacy classes for adult women.[#44] On visits to these projects, this author found that religious instruction is an integral part of this activism. The often ramshackle facilities were crammed with women eager to learn a professional skill and adult literacy classes were filled to capacity. All activities were run by unpaid volunteers. However, no satisfactory answers as to sources of funding for equipment for these projects, such as computers, sewing machines, fabric, books, etc., could be obtained. None of the organizers would confirm assertions that Islamist outreach programs continued to receive funding from Saudi Arabia as it had in the past.[#45] Women who benefited from these programs expressed immense gratitude for the training they received and some admitted that if putting on the veil and reciting the Koran was a requirement for participation, they considered this a “small price.”
For Amokrane, a political scientist, changing laws and advocating human rights is secondary to equipping women with basic skills for independent living. She therefore saw little common ground with secular advocacy groups. “We are an Islamic country that has seen a lot of violence. Our work stems the tide of radical Islamism much more than any of these secular organizations. Our assistance goes beyond job training because we serve a national security interest as well.”[#46] This, she explained, is achieved by engaging women in income-generating activities and instructing them in peaceful interpretations of Islam.
While interviewing women who either directed or participated in such community projects, men appeared at the centers and took over discussions between this author and the women present. When inquiring about the reasons for their presence (they were not involved in the daily running of the centers) one woman spontaneously responded: “This is to give men the respect they deserve.” A heated discussion ensued among the women whereupon the men eventually were asked to leave the room.
As there have been few foreign Western scholars to visit Islamist-run projects and given the current real or perceived climate of anti-Islamism among Westerners, inquiries by this researcher were followed closely by the authorities. The author was asked to present herself at the mayor’s office to report on her research to a panel of FLN officials. Close supervision and informal channels of communication are an integral part of Algerian society, another reason for women’s reluctance to become overtly active.
All Islamist women interviewed for this study insisted that a religiously based family code was an integral part of Algerian national identity. They believed that domestic violence and abuse of women would disappear if people behaved in accordance with the tenets of their faith. Therefore, religious instruction, not a change of law, was considered of paramount importance.
The situation of women in Algeria today reflects the general state of uncertainty of this country. Continued, sporadic terrorist attacks keep people on edge and contribute to a climate of fear. This state of uncertainty brings a sense of urgency to the struggle for a national identity. Opposing forces of secularism and Islamism insert themselves in the discourse over the role and status of women, which is critical to the larger quest for national identity. While women are increasingly represented in the economic sector, their participation in women’s associations is relatively feeble. Most associations are headed by middle-aged women who grew up during the war for national liberation and came of age in the post-independence period, and who had weathered various waves of violent conflict. Traumatized by the more recent decade of the violence, the majority of younger women today stay away from public activism. Most women in Algeria today wear the veil, if not always for religious reasons so as to afford them some protection when moving in the public sphere. They rather focus on professional advancement or engage in social service projects. Encapsulating some of the most pressing global tensions within its borders, the way Algeria resolves issues of gender inequalities, will determine Algeria’s position in the Muslim world and on the global stage.
*Dr. Doris H. Gray teaches in the Women’s Studies Program and the French Department at Florida State University. Her most recent book is Muslim Women on the Move – Moroccan Women and French Women of Moroccan Origin Speak Out (New York: Lexington Books, 2007).
[#2] Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “Maghrebi Regime Scenarios,” The Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 10, No. 3. (2006), http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2006/issue3/jv10no3a8.html.
[#3] Luis Martinez, “Algeria, the Arab Maghreb Union and Regional Integration,” in Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission Report (October 2006), p. 4.
[#4] Leila Mansouri-Acherar, “Algériennes à l’école: du savoir à la politique,”in Les Algériennes, citoyennes en devenir (Oran: C.M.M., 2000), p. 163.
[#5] Catherine Lloyd, “From Taboo to Transnational Political Issue: Violence Against Women in Algeria,” Women’s Studies International Forum, No 29 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), p. 458.
[#6] Leila Aslaoui, Coupables (Paris: Buchet Chastel, 2006), p. 14.
[#7] Radicals described themselves as Islamists, however, non-violent Islamists denounce appropriation of Islam by terrorist groups and gangs.
[#8] Michael Willis, “The Politics of Berber (Amazigh) Identity,” in North Africa: Politics, Religion and the Limits of Transformation (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 231.
[#9] “Tisuraf – Groupe d’Etudes Berbères,” in Femmes Berbères. (Paris : Publications de l’Université Paris VIII, 1979), p. 33.
[#10] Nedjma Plantade, La guerre des femmes (Paris: La Boite à Documents, 1988), p. 137.
[#11] Ibid, p. 165.
[#12] United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report (United Nations Development Programme, 2004), p. 58.
[#13] Valentine Moghadam, “States, Gender, and Intersectionality,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2008), pp. 16-19.
[#14] John L. Esposito and N.J. Delong-Bas, Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Group, 2002), p. xi.
[#15] Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Algeria as cited in Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa (Freedom House, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), p. 35.
[#16] Lezzar Nasr-Eddine, “La femme et les droits de l’homme en droit algérien,” Revue NAQD – Femmes et Citoyenneté,No. 22/23, (Fall/Winter 2006), p. 234.
[#17] Ibid, p. 239.
[#18] Interviews by author.
[#19]Fayçal Métaoui, “Algeria’s Judiciary: From Bad Beginnings to an Uncertain Future,” in Transparency International (ed.), Global Corruption Report (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 171-74.
[#20] Ibid, p. 173.
[#21] Abdelatif Rebah, La minorité invisible (Alger: Casbah Editions, 2007), pp. 9-10.
[#22] Algerian National Office of Statistics (ONS), 2004, http://www.ons.dz (last accessed February 2008).
[#23] Rebah, La minorité invisible, p. 13.
[#24] Ibid, p. 52.
[#25] Ibid, pp. 53-54.
[#26] Wassyla Tamzali in ibid, p. 8.
[#27] Kenneth Gray and Doris Gray, “Women Entrepreneurs in Morocco: Vanguards of Change in the Muslim World,” in M. RadoviÄÂÂÂÂÂÂĂ?â??Ă?â?ˇ (ed.), Perspectives of Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Age of Globalization (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2007), p. 66.
[#28] Miriam Cooke, “Multiple Critique: ‘Islamic Feminist Rhetorical Strategies,’” Voices from the South, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2000), p. 91.
[#29] Lloyd, “From Taboo to Transnational Political Issue.”
[#30] CIDDEF, Centre d’Information et de Documentation sur les Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme (Center for Information and Documentation of Rights of Children and Women).
[#31] Hocine Zahouane, “Théorie de l’Optionalité,” Publication LADDH, No. 3 (1992), pp. 1-6.
[#32] Souad Eddouada, Women, Gender and the State in Morocco: Contradictions, Constraints and Prospects. Ph.D. Dissertation, Mohammed V Université, Rabat, 2003, p. 11.
[#33] Interview with Wassyla Tamzali by Euromed Café, http://www/euromedcafe.org (last accessed May, 2008).
[#34] Tamzali in Rebah, La minorité invisible, p. 2.
[#35] Interview by the author.
[#36] Dalila Lamarène-Djerbal, “La violence islamiste contre les femmes,” Revue NAQD – Femmes et Citoyenneté (Fall/Winter 2006), p. 126.
[#37] Interview by the author.
[#38] Yamina Rahou, “Les mères célibataires: une réalité occultée,” Femmes et Citoyenneté, No. 22/23, (Fall/Winter 2006), p. 47.
[#39] Ibid, p. 54.
[#40] Nadia Ait Zai, Etude comparative sur la représentation des femmes dans les Institutions politiques au Maghreb (Alger: UNIFEM, published by CIDDEF, Centre d’Information et de la Documentation sur les Droits de l’enfant et de la femme, 2007).
[#41] Chérifa Bouatta and Doria Chérifqti-Mérabtine, “La militance féminine entre aspirations individuelles et projet de société,” in Les Algériennes, citoyennes en devenir (Oran: Éditons CMM., 2000), pp. 253-92.
[#42] Ibid, p. 291.
[#43][#44] Interview by the author with Dr. Zohra Bououdine, December 24, 2007, Algiers.
44 Interview by the author.
[#45] Luis Martinez, “Les groupes islamistes entre guérilla et négoce. Vers une consolidation du régime algérien ?,” Les Etudes du CERI, No. 3 (1999), pp. 127-37.
[#46] Interview by the author.