"Hassiba Ben Bouali, If You Could See Our Algeria"

Women and Public Space in Algeria

by Susan Slyomovics
published in MER192

On January 2, 1992, Algerian feminists demonstrated against the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and their victory in the national elections of December 26, 1991. Their target was the Islamist assault on women’s rights and the threat of violence against women. One of their posters addressed a martyred sister, a moudjahida, killed by the French during the Battle of Algiers in 1956-1957: “Hassiba Ben Bouali, If You Could See Our Algeria” (Hassiba Ben Bouali, Si tu voyais notre Algérie). At the same time, women marching in Oran waved a similar slogan: “Hassiba Ben Bouali, We Will Not Betray You” (Hassiba Ben Bouali, Nous ne te trahirons pas).

In Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 film, The Battle of Algiers, a famous scene shows three Algerian women -- one of them represents Ben Bouali -- in the act of donning alien European dress in order to pass freely through the French military cordon around the walled casbah. They enter the French colonial city and leave guns or bombs for Algerian freedom fighters. In the published script, each of the women:

stand[s] in front of a large mirror. [Hassiba] removes the veil from her face. Her glance is hard and intense. Her face is expressionless. The mirror reflects a large part of the room: It is a bedroom.... Every action is performed precisely and carefully. They are like three actresses preparing for the stage. But there is no gaiety; no one is speaking. Only silence emphasizes the detailed rhythm of their transformation. Her blouse and short skirt to her knees...make-up, lipstick, high-heeled shoes, silk stockings.... [1]

The camera follows Hassiba as she crosses boundaries: from interior domestic space to the exterior public street, from Arab casbah to French nouvelle ville, from “native” to “colonial” space. The language of the film makes clear that her journey is not only real but highly symbolic, from what Western anthropologists of the Maghrib would call the secretive, cloistered, domestic, female world to its binary opposite, the male and public exterior domain. Domestic space has traditionally defined and reproduced social relations between Algerian men and women; but space outside the home, from which women have been traditionally excluded and in which male ambitions have always been produced and played out, becomes, with Hassiba’s journey, the arena not only for a national but also for a gender struggle.

During the Algerian war of independence, women militants often discarded the veil, the traditional North African haik, to overcome the spatial segregation that reinforced prevailing values of Algerian men and French society. The absent veil confounded the one unifying perception of what defines the Algerian woman, characterized by Frantz Fanon as “she who hides behind a veil.” [2]

Most Algerian women did not follow Hassiba’s example; they neither discarded the veil nor placed bombs. Even before the war of independence, during the colonial administration, according to Fanon, the veil became “the bone of contention” in a battle between colonizer and colonized, and the subjects of colonialism “display[ed] a surprising force of inertia.” But if women at that time were not able to join in a political discourse still conducted in French by both sides, they were nevertheless visible in their silence.

Marnia Lazreg’s important work, The Eloquence of Silence, describes how Algerian women, primarily Arabophone and illiterate, were structurally marginalized by both colonial and native societies, yet used the weight of their silent physical presence to play an important role in the revolution. [3] Veiled women participated in numerous anti-French marches and strikes, their thoughts and intentions as unknown and as unknowable as their physical appearance -- a shocking protrusion of a necessarily private world into the public and political domain.

Space and Status

The interplay between society’s spatial arrangements and the status of women reveals much about the ideological underpinnings of the Algerian state since independence. The violent deaths of women that are now being reported can be understood as a consequence of a specific policy of National Liberation Front (FLN) rule since independence, namely its emphasis on education and industrialization. This entailed state encouragement of women’s presence in two new arenas of public space, the school and the factory, a shocking innovation to Muslim traditionalists. In religious terms, women’s presence is deemed illegitimate, haram. Socially they are perceived as intruders into masculine space, disturbing the equilibrium of a regulated, single-sex, urban milieu.

The short history of working women in Algeria has therefore been a troubled one. Even within factory spaces, the possibility of men and women working together (mixité) has been avoided. The interior space of the factory workplace is socially constructed to be the same as the outside world. The daily activities and individual behavior of women workers are shaped by structures that insure men’s exercise of power over women. Statistics from Tlemcen’s state-run factories show that working outside the home is generally a temporary phase in a woman’s life. Most women factory workers are unmarried and from 20 to 30 years old. They work to augment family finances or to prepare financially for their own marriages, and tend to quit after marriage. [4] Thus, for complex historical, economic and religious reasons, both women and men subscribe to economic and spatial arrangements that reinforce the legitimacy of women’s lower status.

The presence and deportment of women in the workplace has continued to be controversial, subject to the ebb and flow of ideological tides. At this moment, the burning issue is the pressure being laid upon women to conform to norms of Islamic dress, and to wear the veil even in indoor workplaces. In Islamist quarters, parallels are often drawn between women in the labor force and the unauthorized presence of women in the street: Both in the factory and on the street women are considered to be transgressively visible in exterior space. Women themselves resent this pressure but conform out of fear. “None of us wants to wear the veil,” said Fatima B. (a pseudonymous 22-year old junior manager in a Tlemcen factory), “but fear is stronger than our convictions or our will to be free. Fear is all around us. Our parents, our brothers, are unanimous: ‘Wear the veil and stay alive. This will pass.’” [5]

Sanctuary and Veil

In Algeria today, the “veil” under discussion is not the traditional North African haik but rather the hijab, an article of clothing imported from the Arab East. Hijab, a word with many meanings, is now often used as a synonym for modest Islamic dress for women. In Iran and Afghanistan, this may mean a chador, a head-to-toe cloak that envelops the female form; in Algeria, it means a headscarf, often worn with a loose gown.

Opposition to the veil is not universal among women who hope to leave traditional constraints behind. In a series of interviews among women students at the University of Algiers, Laetitia Bucaille discovered that Islamist students believe that the hijab forces a rearrangement of the male public sphere to make room for the presence of women. It is a badge of religious and political allegiance, but the students also claimed that women who wear the hijab escape the male gaze and are therefore exempted from the dominant male group’s ability to control social space by means of sexual harassment or sexual objectification of females. It was precisely their protective veiling, these women insisted, that allowed them to escape the traditional female roles of mother and wife in order to pursue professional, educational and social lives necessarily conducted in public. “I have six brothers and I am the only girl and the youngest,” said one student. “Before, everyone used to say: ‘Where were you? Where are you going?’ Now I am more free, I go to the mosque, even at night during Ramadan. They allow me everything.” [6]

In other words, Islamist university women, an elite group, have built on the precedent set by the veiled women of the revolution. Indiscriminate mixing of the sexes in public places is an obstacle to the emergence of women in public space, they insist. Instead, they have articulated for themselves an image of the veiled woman -- active in the social order and even on the street -- as equivalent to the female body covered and protected within the home. For women to become knowledgeable, they must make their journey from the inside to the outside based on an intellectual sleight of hand that defines the two opposing areas, female interior versus male exterior, as equivalent only if the woman is veiled.

If it is the women of the Islamist movements and not the men who have constructed a new Muslim identity whose core is gender segregation, as Bucaille contends, then a different set of cultural, religious and ideological justifications of gender segregation has emerged, profoundly altering the relationship between gender stratification and spatial institutions. [7] The views of these Islamist women, however, find little support among the FIS leadership. A FIS leader, Ali Ben Hadj, stated in a widely quoted interview in 1989 that:

the natural place of expression for women is the home. If she must go out, there are conditions: not to be near men and that her work is located in an exclusively feminine milieu. In our institutions and universities is it admissible to authorize mixing? It is contrary to Islamic morality. It is necessary to separate girls and boys and consecrate establishments for each sex.... In a real Islamic society, the woman is not destined to work and the head of state must provide her with remuneration. In this way, she will not leave her home and consecrate herself to the education of men. The woman is a producer of men, she produces no material goods but this essential thing which is the Muslim. [8]

The spirit of Ben Hadj’s statement is congruent with that of the laws enshrined in Algeria’s Family Code promulgated by the FLN five years earlier, in 1984. [9] These laws reduced women to the status of minors, subject to the law of father or husband, and presaged the remarkable mixture of nationalism and Islamism (an intellectual FIS-FLN accord) that secularists described much later as le fascisme vert (green fascism). Feminists protested the family code from the very beginning. On March 4, 1985, a group of women rallied in the casbah of Algiers on the site where Hassiba Ben Bouali had been killed.

Social Order

Since 1991, institutional violence by the state has been matched by Islamist groups committed to the overthrow of the current regime. Emerging armed factions (jama‘at musallaha) such as the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) and the Mouvement Islamique Arme (MIA) have specifically targeted women. Many women have also died in the violence directed against the intellectual elite (journalists, doctors, professors, writers or actors), foreign nationals, the police, the military, and government officials.

Women are also assassinated because they are women -- working women, unveiled women, and women active in social and political associations, categories that frequently overlap. In March 1994, a FIS/GIA communique warned that any woman on the streets without the veil could be assassinated; on March 30, two women students, Raziqa Meloudjemi, 18, and Naima Kar Ali, 19, were killed by gunmen on motorcycles while standing at an Algiers bus station. [10] In May, travel by train was forbidden because men and women shared compartments; shortly afterward, the night train between Bejaia and Algiers was attacked and torched. At the beginning of the 1994 school year, the GIA threatened death to the 7 million primary and high-school students and their 320,000 teachers unless the norms of Islamic education were followed -- the separation of boys and girls, the veiling of women professors and girl students, and the elimination of gymnastics. Earlier, Amnesty International condemned the killing of Katia Bengana, a 17-year old high school student in Blida, shot on February 28 after receiving threats that she would die unless she wore the hijab.

Operating as a mirror image to the Islamist violence against women are the activities of a lesser-known vigilante group, the Organization of Free Young Algerians, OJAL (l’Organisation des Jeunes Algériens Libres), which has ties to the government and claims to represent the secularism of the FLN regime. For them, too, women’s spatial boundaries are at issue. They warn women against wearing the hijab, and in retaliation for Islamist killings of unveiled women they have killed two veiled women. They have called for reopening public places where women have traditionally congregated, such as beauty salons and public baths, places ordered closed by the Islamists.

Secularist and Islamist groups are attempting to define and promote diametrically opposed positions by using similar strategies. One of these is to control women’s access to resources or knowledge by controlling space. To be male in the midst of Algeria’s political turmoil means to express a logic of power relations according to which the dominant group, whatever its political ideology, can and must constrain women’s movements and actions. What we see unfolding in Algeria is the competition of two very similar demarcations of the spaces that women are permitted to enter or traverse. Secularists allow women a modicum of movement outside the home, especially at beauty salons or baths. These spaces are precisely those not shared by the two sexes. They may encourage female sociability and solidarity that would not be permissible if women never left their homes. Islamists view even so limited a use of public space by women as a threat to their social order. But women are allowed to go to the mosques, interior spaces controlled by the FIS, free of unsupervised and potentially subversive socializing.

Islamist gender segregation extends beyond actual occasions where the sexes might mix in public life; it aims to eliminate even the possibility of such an occurrence. Municipal governments run by the FIS have banned concerts, cinemas, public dancing, wedding ceremonies in hotels, women on the beaches, and women in the municipal cultural centers and recreation halls that they fund and control.

Women in public places, veiled or unveiled, die for the interpretations secular or religious fanatics attach to their presence and appearance. Their dangerous and circumscribed situation is described in a letter from a friend who teaches at the University of Oran. In practical and symbolic ways, she finds that women have become prisoners in their own homes:

As for us, we have become accustomed to this situation: here, a death announcement, and there, the fear. The daily count of assassinations no longer frightens; we hardly pay any attention. This is, of course, true only on the surface. In reality we have all become anguished, sick and neurotic. Faces are gray, conversations morbid. Laughter has deserted our country. We stay in spite of it all. All this gives us the feeling of being new ‘moudjahidine’ and the satisfaction of serving something -- even if it means being stupid victims of blind terrorism. We lead a dull life. Work, home, with nothing extra because one must be shut in inside one’s home. Even the rare cultural and social events at the university are gone; at least they used to allow us to see each other. As for me, I am like the rest. I take care of my daughters, my job, and my house. My job allows me to hold on. I can escape the problems of Algeria in speaking of the medieval age in Spain. In fact, everything is ruined in Algeria: political life, social life and even family life. Terrorism has installed itself at every level, even in the family unit. We head toward barbarism.

Some women cooperate with the system of stratification out of religious beliefs. “Knowing that I have a message as an educated Muslim woman, I have two choices,” Leila, 21, told Bucaille. “The first is to have a family. God created me in order to accomplish a certain mission and one of them is to have a family, have children, and transmit this message so that they too could transmit it to others.” [11] Others see no alternative and do so out of fear. Still other women struggle against attacks on their rights.

Islamist Appeal

Hassiba Ben Bouali is one of a long list of women activists, moudjahidat and chahidat, who fought for Algerian independence against the French colonial system. There were others: Myriem Ben Miloud, Djamila Bouaza, Djamila Bouhired, Djamila Boupacha, Zohra Driff, Bahia Rocine, Samia Lakhdari and Zhor Zerari (as well as many women whose anonymous lives and deaths were the subject of Assia Djebar’s 1978 documentary, Nouba des Femmes de Chenoua). They operated clandestinely, often forced to renounce home and family. In a chilling reprise, one of the prominent feminist leaders, Khalida Messaoudi of the Mouvement pour la Republique, has gone underground in Algiers, forced to abandon her apartment and her work as a mathematics professor. In a recent interview she announced her readiness to take up arms:

Unless the Mouvement to which I belong decides otherwise, for my part, I am ready to take up weapons. Let no one say that I call for civil war. We who kill no one and defend the values of secularism and equality are the victims of violence. Concerning women, what is going on at this moment in Algeria is not a confrontation between a majority and an opposition, but a war between two blueprints for society, one that appeals to the Enlightenment and human rights, the other marking a return to obscurantism and religious fanaticism. The coming of an Islamist state would be the negation of citizenship and Algerian identity. [12]

Like many feminists throughout the Arab world, Messaoudi understands that restrictions imposed in the name of Islam disguise patriarchal structures intent on seizing or maintaining political and military power. “I think I understand why the fundamentalists (integristes) are powerful, she says. The FLN had destroyed all the traditionally valued places, the places of the inside (les lieux de dedans), but without proposing others: only 4.2 percent of women work in Algeria. The Family Code came and aggravated the situation. The FIS, for those who accept to wear the veil, offers them all “some places outside” (des lieux dehors), for example, the mosque. There, they are allowed what even the FLN denies them: a political voice. FIS women’s “cells” debate every subject all over Algeria. This way they have the impression of acquiring a certain power and power that interests them.

The FIS has reversed stereotypical value judgments about women’s spaces. It has accorded women two things. First, it has assigned a higher status to the feminine knowledge associated with the home and child-raising, to the extent that the Islamists have raised even the value of women’s home life above the status of women working in sexually segregated workplaces. Second, they have found room for women’s study groups, monitored within FIS-controlled mosques. Islamist women can therefore argue that spatial segregation works to women’s advantage by allowing them to develop networks and power independently of men.

Messaoudi, of the Mouvement, when asked what secularists of her movement have to offer women that might counter the appeal of the Islamists, replied that “it is very difficult because we democrats have only in exchange a major transgression to propose: that of the street. The political street, to which one must descend to confront the single party or the religious party; the cultural street, that marks the sexual division of space in the Muslim world.” [13] To move women from the female to the male side of what has been defined as the proper place of each is to challenge the FIS’s religious notions of how space is divided and delimited; it is to commit a sin. To segregate women within the workplace is to insure gender differences in earnings and positions. To restrict women forcibly to the home is to remove women from knowledge, action and political power.

Social Resistance

How do we interpret feminists demonstrating in the name of Hassiba Ben Bouali? In the Algerian war for independence, some women rejected both colonial status and the subservient roles traditionally assigned to women in Algerian society -- Ben Bouali is only the best known. Most Algerian women played a less assertive role. Nevertheless, their veiled and silent participation in demonstrations and other forms of resistance marked a departure from the traditional confinement of women to the domestic sphere. Education and new social and economic opportunities for women have been part of the new order introduced by the FLN since independence. But these innovations were timid and tentative, and women’s limited gains have been subject to continual challenge.

Today, many women in the social and intellectual elite, such as university students, profess fervent Muslim faith but reinterpret Islam’s idea of women. It is precisely the protected status symbolized by the veil that encourages them to believe that they will be able to compete in the male public world. They are following in the footsteps of the veiled women of the revolution, not those of Ben Bouali. But these new and supposedly Islamic conceptions of women’s roles are not supported by the FIS. More remarkably, the Islamist leadership’s attitudes conform to legislation put in place after independence by the FLN. In other words, the factions now struggling for power in Algeria are in fundamental ideological agreement that women’s social freedom must be severely restricted.

The FIS victory at the polls and the subsequent coup by the FLN have created an atmosphere in which women have the distinction of being targeted for abuse and even assassination no matter what they do. The threat to women’s lives, and to their aspirations for the future, has produced an embryonic underground on the model of women militants in the war of independence. Messaoudi, unlike Ben Bouali, possesses no bombs or weapons. She has frequently called on an international community of democrats and human rights activists to denounce violations directed specifically against Algerian women. Most radical of all, the site of the domicile and domesticity is not where female resistance and subversion are located. According to Messaoudi, the point, as it was before against the French, is to take to the streets against tyranny or face death.

Endnotes

[1] Piernico Solinas, ed., Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (New York: Charles Scribner, 1973), pp. 66-67.
[2] Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 36.
[3] Marnia Lazreg, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 96. Whatever the power of silence may he, revolutionaries and feminists seem to be ready to turn it in for social equality with men.
[4] Rabia Bekkar cites statistics of women workers in a Tlemcen state-run factory: 81 percent single, 8 percent married, and 11 percent widows or divorced. “Territoires des femmes a Tlemcen: Pratiques et representations,” Maghreb/Machrek 144 (1994), p. 133.
[5] Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1994.
[6] Laetitia Bucaille, “L’engagement islamiste des femmes en Algérie,” Maghreb/Machrek 144 (1994), p. 111.
[7] Ibid., p. 117.
[8] Quoted by Elisabeth Schemla, “L’Islam et les femmes,” Le Nouvel Observateur, September 22-28, 1994.
[9] Ministry of Justice, Code de la Famille (Qanun al-Usra) (Algiers: Office des Publications Universitaires), 1986.
[10] New York Times, March 31, 1994.
[11] Bucaille, p. 111.
[12] Khalida Messaoudi, “Le voile, c’est notre etoile jaune,” Le Nouvel Observateur, September 22-28, 1994.
[13] Ibid.

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