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«The Colonial “Emancipation” of Algerian Women: the Marriage Law of 1959 and the Failure of Legislation on Women’s Rights in the ...»

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Frantz Fanon glimpsed the dangers of such a reactive FLN agenda reinforcing traditional practices that might carry negative consequences for women (Fanon, 2001[1959]: 31). But while he viewed this as a temporary sacrifice of the war this proved not to be the case and the FLN helped to create a long-term, post-independence mental association between almost The colonial “emancipation” of Algerian women any form of progressive agenda on women or “emancipation,” and the idea of an alien, western invasion and subversion of Algerian culture and society. As the conservative ideologue Malek Bennabi remarked in 1968 feminism represented a foreign import: “Our feminism must not be ‘made in somewhere’. It must be of our own brand”; while for the Minister of Justice, Benhamouda, the goal of any new Algerian code “is above all to purify the structure of the family of all its un-Islamic elements” (Borrmans, 1977: 538; Lazreg, 1994: 131-2, 150).

The second point follows on from this, the argument that the Algerian government delayed legislation on a post-Independence family code since its hold on power was precarious and it preferred to avoid politically destabilizing battles over such a sensitive issue between opposing camps that viewed themselves as socialist/secular modernizers or as AraboIslamist defenders of “tradition” (Marshall and Stokes, 1981: 629-30).

Certainly Borrmans detected signs of such a split in the secretive workings of the drafting commissions of 1963-4 and 1966, and gives this as a reason why government shelved these projects (Borrmans, 1977: 521-29, 535-42). It is now evident, especially from the work of Gilbert Meynier, that such a split over the position of women had existed already among the higher echelons of the FLN during the war itself (Meynier, 2002: 223-37), but the weaker socialist or secularizing current eventually lost out to the colonels (Ben Bella, Boumediene) who seized political power at independence.

Although there were some initial signs of promise on the women’s question from the Ben Bella government, particularly in the passing of the “Khemisti law” of 1963 which increased the minimum age of marriage for girls from 15 to 16 years, this quickly evaporated and in a deeply ambiguous speech on International women’s day, 8 March 1965, the President noted there could never be socialism without the participation of women “within the framework of our Arabo-Islamic values” (Borrmans, 1977: 539). On the same occasion a year later, Boumediene, having seized power through an army coup, made an almost identical speech: progress, he said, “does not mean in any way imitation of western feminism. We say no to this kind of evolution since our society is an Islamic and socialist society…this evolution must not be the cause of the corruption of our society” (Vandevelde, 1980: 374-5). Lazreg, an eyewitness to the event, reports that women who tried to leave in protest were sent back to their seats by armed guards (Lazreg, 1994: 151).

108 Stichproben Although many commentators have dated the penetration of radical Islamist currents into the FLN apparatus from the 1970s onwards, this happened in some areas of policy-making from at least 1957-8. While the political elites felt comfortable in utilizing the language of “socialism” and secular law in the technocratic and economic sphere (of oil, planning, industrialization, land reform), the cultural-religious agenda was basically drawn from the Ulema tradition. The PPA (Parti du Peuple Algérien, Algerian People’s Party) of Messali Hadj (1937-1954), and its successor the FLN, both shared a populist and messianic religious nationalism that was shaped by the Ulema (McDougall, 2006:136), and its leading ideologue, Tawfiq alMadani became minister of culture and religious affairs in the first provisional government and later under Ben Bella. In the post-1962 political struggle between socialism and Arabo-Islamic traditionalism, both Ben Bella and Boumediene discreetly sided with the latter on the question of women, particularly as in a search for political legitimacy they had most to gain from appealing to populist Islam and the austere salafiyya movement which sought a return to the purity of tradition and sharia. An authentic womanhood was to be located more in the restoration of an essence that had been immutably defined in the past than in any process of modernization.

As Mohammed Harbi, a leading oppositional figure within the FLN has argued, the post-1962 governments showed an essential weakness of Algerian nationalism from its very beginning in the 1920s, a form of populism that based unity on a religious and mythical idealization of a past community that obscured elaboration of a clear ideology or political project, so acting to the detriment of universal and individual rights in which women were the greatest losers (Harbi, 1994: 22-33).

Finally, and most important of all, post-independence governments prevaricated over the reform of the family code because they recognized the enormous and almost immovable weight of patriarchy, of an embedded system of family structures, sentiment, and power that would be difficult to transform without creating dangerous political opposition. However, it was precisely because the “traditional” family structure was faced with crisis and dislocation that the male-dominated social and political system sought refuge and stability in a defensive reinforcement of patriarchy. The question that needs to be answered is how it was possible that socio-cultural patterns of male domination over women, particularly within the family group, managed to survive largely intact throughout the period from the early The colonial “emancipation” of Algerian women 1950s down to the 1970s and beyond, in spite of enormous changes in Algerian society and the family during and after the war of independence.





The French army program of “pacification” involved a massive uprooting of the peasantry from the mountainous interior, the destruction of thousands of hamlets, and relocation into militarized encampments.

Between 2 and 3 million people, half of the rural population, were definitively torn away from the land and dumped in camps that, in many instances, formed the nucleus of post-war urban settlements (Cornaton, 1967; Bourdieu and Sayad, 1964; Rocard, 2003). In addition hundreds of thousands of refugees sought safety across the borders in Morocco and Tunisia, or fled the insecurity and hunger of the interior for the shantytowns of the northern literal. Most of this refugee population did not regain their villages of origin on independence since the ties to the land had been definitively fractured, indeed the departure of close to a million pieds-noirs during 1962-3 further accelerated rural-urban migration as Algerians moved quickly to occupy empty European properties in the towns. The process of déracinement meant that family units were in many instances torn away from extended kin networks of the village in which endogamous marriage alliances were embedded, and forced into urban spaces in which neighbours were frequently strangers. Women who had traditionally not veiled in the village of origin in many instances now resorted to this, since the camp or urban environment now presented a new danger of exposure to outsiders and to family honour.

The war was also marked by the massive departure of younger, active males from rural society: either they joined the FLN in the maquis or abroad, or they migrated to the cities and metropolitan France to find employment and to escape violence and forced recruitment by the French army or warbands such as the MNA (Mouvement National Algérien, Algerian National Movement) ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale, National Liberation Army) or Bellounists (supporters of Mohamed Bellounis, a former member of the MNA who received French military support to fight against the ALN). This meant that in many villages, especially in Kabylia, populations were reduced to women, children and the elderly, a society of what Jansen has termed “women without men.” Although some contemporary observers argued that Algerian women, in the absence of husbands, remained firmly under the power of older males (grandfathers, uncles…), most agreed that 110 Stichproben women had to cope without men and gained experience of a new found autonomy (Jansen, 1987).

When the war ended in mid-1962 Algerian men returned “home,” to what in reality must have been for many a quite different location, hoping to find family life as it was before the conflict, only to discover a radical dislocation of the domestic circle, in many instances geographically displaced into urban centers, reduced to smaller, nuclear units cut free from the framework of village clan networks, and run by women who had learned to cope without men. Returning men felt deeply anxious and insecure in relation to such change, and set about asserting their domination over women with a new energy and, far from accepting a transition towards a new style family based on the “modern” couple, a nuclear unit composed of husband, wife and children, the extended family and “clan” networks took on a new shape and lease of life.

As the anthropologist Camille Lacoste-Dujardin and the sociologists Claudine Chaulet and Lahouari Addi have shown, the peasant family, which was traditionally a unit of production, underwent a major transformation in which kin networks and marriage strategies were reconfigured so as to serve the basis for new forms of political and economic power (Lacoste-Dujardin, 1976 and 1996; Chaulet, 1984; Addi, 1999). The typical post-62 household constituted three generations in which, because of the desperate crisis in housing, parents shared the same space with married sons, their wives and children, or, if more wealthy, acquired adjacent flats.

This extended family diversified a shared economic base through a mix of labour emigration to France or major cities, small enterprises (taxi firms, street trading), agriculture, factory work and so on. This adaptive, dynamic capacity of the “traditional” family provided it with great strength in times of massive economic and political change but went hand-in-hand with a vigorous reinforcement of the patrilineal ideology that maintained women in their “natural” role of mothers and daughters claustrated within the home. Lacoste-Dujardin says of this family as “refuge”: “These new families, fragments of lineage groups dispossessed of so many of their privileges, still jealously guarded, according to the length of time passed since its disruption and the degree of links retained with the parental clan, a consciousness of family honour and still adhered to a patrilineal ideology” (Lacoste, 1996: 269-70; see also M’Rabet, 1965 : 52).

The colonial “emancipation” of Algerian women Some academics have tended to draw a picture in which the oppression of Algerian women has been ascribed to a battle of the sexes, an aggressive male subjugation. Certainly Vandevelde has produced a considerable body of evidence, from her survey in 1968-71, to show that hundreds of women felt so isolated within the home that they had no means to escape from a life of resignation and ignorance, passive and depoliticized. Typical of the statements recorded is the following by a middleaged woman, “No women take part in social life because of customs.

Women are made for the house, which basically means they have no life.

They rarely go out… Put in another way, Arab women are buried alive” (Vandevelde, 1980: 30-1). So radical was female seclusion that a third of rural women had no contact with neighbors, while even their husbands did not speak with them and some did not even know how he was employed (Vandevelde, 1980: 160-71, 181). However, as Lacoste-Dujardin has shown, older women as mothers and mothers-in-law could achieve a considerable degree of domestic power and status in so-far as they brokered marriages and exercised a strict disciplinary control over their daughters and cohabiting daughters-in-law, thus reproducing the ideology of female submission and serving as “agents of masculine domination” (LacosteDujardin, 1996: 81-83). Numerous reports by French army itinerant social and welfare teams (EMSI) seeking to westernize and “emancipate” Algerian women during the war noted that resistance came mainly from the dominant older women (adjouzat) who blocked any reforming intent and contact with girls and young women in their households. Patriarchy, far from being solely imposed by force on women by males, was a powerful system of belief and practice that was sustained by both men and women and this explains in part the ability of the ideology to survive post-war changes (Addi, 1999: 105-6, 115-16, 210-12).

A developmental theory of emancipation (see Chapter Two in Rai,

2002) argues that women more generally are likely to gain rights through the long-term effects of modernization, including economic change, urbanization, improved education and training, better health care, and increased access to employment. But in the Algerian case the potential for such progress was radically blocked by women’s confinement. Firstly, although considerable advances were made in post-independence educational provision for girls, this was for the great majority restricted to primary schooling, and parents usually insisted on withdrawing daughters 112 Stichproben at 12 or 14, isolating them in the home and preparing them for marriage.

Secondly, patriarchal values of honor and seclusion prevented women from engaging in employment outside the household, and by 1975 only 3.2 per cent of women above 15 years was economically active, one of the lowest figures in the Arab world (Jansen, 2004: 4). The simultaneous explosion in the birth rate further locked women into the domestic role of mothers.

Finally, the isolation and atomization of women made it difficult for them to gain any kind of political awareness and for many involvement in any kind of associational life or women’s movement, such as the quite conservative UNFA (Union Nationale des Femmes Algériennes, National Union of Algerian Women), was simply out of the question.

The majority of women interviewed by Vandevelde demonstrated a crushing demoralization and resignation, and an inability to conceptualize the political universe beyond the doorstep or to answer the most basic questions on the outside world which was viewed as the domain of men.



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