• The Gender Security Project

Algeria's Feminist Fight for Independence

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu



Source: Photius


Throughout Algeria’s history, from its independence movement (1954-1962) to protests against misogynistic policies (1980 to present) to today, Algerian women have been at the forefront of revolutionary and resistance movements. There is a clear continuity between the women who played a crucial role in Algeria’s violent struggle for emancipation from the French and the women of today who take to the streets to fight for their rights. As the Algerian women boldly proclaimed in 1958: “You make a revolution, you fight colonialist oppression but you maintain the oppression of women; beware, another revolution will certainly occur after Algeria’s independence: a women’s revolution!” [1]

War of 1954 to 1962

Before the Algerian war for Independence, women were completely excluded from both political public life and had no right to vote. Once the war broke out, it heralded a new era for women’s participation in not only the struggle for independence but also in their own struggle for rights and dignity. As the war waged on, Algerian women gained a notorious reputation for being akin to spies as they could blend in with the crowd and be easily mistaken for civilians. As they had more freedom of mobility than their male counterparts, women used to give refuge to militants being pursued by the colonialists and would also play the role of vigilantes. Therefore, Algerian women took part in war in ways beyond the traditional roles as sympathisers, cooks, nurses and paramilitary fighters, as soldiers for the National Liberation Army. Additionally, militant women who were part of the civil resistance were also entrusted to be in charge of transport and supplies.[2]

One of the most prominent tactics of chicanery that the women adopted was to act as communicators between the Algerian soldiers and high-command officers. Unsuspecting by the French army who viewed Algerian women as submissive, tepid and domestic, they would strategically use their veils to hide messages, money and even weapons. They were even involved in high-risk operations that involved depositing explosives during the guerrilla warfare. In this brave act of subversion, Algerian women waged a battle not just against colonial rule but also against the patriarchy which suggested that women did not have a place in the liberation movement. [3, 4]

Colonial Violence: Rape and Dévoilement

Algeria’s anti-colonial revolution and movement was dominated by a narrative that showed fighting between the Algerian man and the French man. As a consequence, the weaponization of Algerian women’s bodies by the is brushed aside, given no significance even though the women faced the brunt of both colonial and patriarchal violence. French soldiers used rape as an act of violence and an act of war to assert the dominance of the colonial man over the colonised women. It was not just a gruesome act of violence against the women but also a way to dishonour the Algerian men who believed their honour and name was tarnished. [3] According to Zahia Smail Salhi, the Chair of Modern Arabic Studies at University of Manchester and Vice-President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, “the bodies of women became political signs, territories on which the political programmes of the rioting communities of men were inscribed.” [5]

French colonialist propaganda designed to ‘emancipate Muslim women’ and counter Algeria’s nationalist struggle involved encouraging and campaigning for Muslim women to unveil (dévoiler) their traditional North African haik (veil). These campaigns were aimed at pushing back at traditional Algerian culture, hurting the sentiments of Algerian men and converting the women based on an imposition of Western universalist values. Ultimately, the women found themselves embroiled in a dual struggle against both the colonialists who carried out overt and structural violence and the local men who sought to control the women and ensure they remained custodians of traditions. Fed up of being the victims, the Algerian women resolved to fight for their liberation and joined the ranks of freedom fighters in various capacities. Gradually, the veil even became a symbol of resistance against French colonialism – the women took the existing narrative of oppression and flipped it around to symbolise their own autonomy.[3]

Aftermath and Legacy

In 1962, after a bloody war that lasted eight years, Algeria was granted independence. Yet, despite their indispensable role in the anti-colonial movement, the incumbent regime left Algerian women behind and went on to form a largely conservative and patriarchal state that treated its women as second-class citizens.[1] In the newly independent Algeria, the women who partook in the nationalist struggle were virtually erased from public view and the first National Assembly Meet consisted of only 10 women out of 194 members. [2] Since then, Algerian women have never ceased to challenge religious oppression, nationalist patriarchy or economic disadvantages. They have staged many protests in resistance to the regime, such as in 1981 when women were at the forefront of demonstrations against the regressive Family Code policy “which reproduced provisions of Islamic Shari'a law”. [5]

Today, a new generation of Algerian women, inspired by their predecessors, continue to demand justice and rights. The contributions of the women freedom fighters remain firmly entrenched in the collective memory of the country. Decades after their independence, young Algerian women carry forward the torch lit by their ancestors in fighting patriarchy, neo-colonialism, political alienation and notions of honour. During the Hirak/Revolution of Smiles protests that have swept the country since 2019, women have been at the political forefront and called for complete overhaul of the country’s political system as well as protest against rampant femicide in the country. Ultimately, Algerian women show no signs of backing down and will continue to occupy public spaces, participate in politics and revolt peacefully but powerfully, vowing to carry on the legacies set by the pioneers many decades ago.

References

1. N.S Moussa, (2016, October 4), Algerian feminism and the long struggle for women’s equality, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/algerian-feminism-and-the-long-struggle-for-womens-equality-65130

2. D.D Amrane-Minne and F. Abu-Haidar, (1999), Women and Politics in Algeria from the War of Independence to Our Day, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 30, No. 3, Indiana University Press, accessed at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3821017

3. A. Diwakar, (2020, July 5), The role of women in the Algerian independence movement, TRT World, https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/the-role-of-women-in-the-algerian-independence-movement-37868

4. O. Harize, (2020, July 3), From militants to student activists: the women who fought for Algeria, Middle East Eye, https://www.middleeasteye.net/discover/algeria-women-militants-independence-activists

5. Z.S Salhi, (2009, November 28), The Algerian feminist movement between nationalism, patriarchy and Islamism, Women’s Studies International Forum, accessed at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238370746_The_Algerian_feminist_movement_between_nationalism_patriarchy_and_Islamism

© 2020 by The Gender Security Project