Shortly after he rose to power, former President of Algeria Houari Boumediene visited Tuggurt, a city more than 600km south of Algiers. His arrival is documented on film, where you can see him carefully step down from a private plane and then wave from a Lincoln town car, followed by dozens of police Vespas. When looking closely at the black-and-white montage, one can get a glimpse of a group women gathered under an enormous banner that reads: “For the Emancipation of Women Under Islamic Principles.”
This was starkly different from the self-identified feminist movement in the capital, where an Islamic ethos was believed to infringe upon the demands of women.
Since its inception, scholarship across the Arab world on subjects concerning women has been guided by the principles and objectives of the dominant Western feminist paradigm that emphasises the shackles of patriarchy and the achievement of equal access to political and economic power. This is in part because feminist movements in the Middle East and North Africa have themselves subscribed to such premises, and this positioning is often assumed to represent the aspirations of most women in the region.
However, a rudimentary understanding of colonization in Algeria is missing in mainstream Algerian feminism. The fight for women’s rights has been examined exclusively through the women of Algiers in their apartments, leaving out the women of Tuggurt in their houses, who did not share the same premise. Recognising these nuances is important to understand conceptions of women’s liberation in the Muslim world, past and present.
From Algiers to Tuggurt
Women in Algiers had a very different experience of colonialism than women in Tuggurt, due to the nature of administrative division at the time.
In brief, Algeria was organized into territorial units of different legal status. Provinces along the coast, for example, were fully integrated into the French state. In between the northern strip and Sahara lay ‘mixed regions’, where traditional authorities were co-opted into the system but nonetheless had been less affected by direct colonial rule.
Past these units are the Southern departments, which Tuggurt fell under, controlled by the military. Local leaders were likewise bound by engagement with their European superiors, but these lands were, again, much less concerned with the cultural impacts of colonialism. Cities like Algiers and Oran on the other hand were major metropolitan nuclei for settlers and therefore subject to the same laws applied in Paris.
French secularism (laïcité), rooted in a fomented panic about Islam, was much more present in these areas where stronger contact was made between indigenous peoples and foreigners.
This does not mean that women, and men for that matter, in Tuggurt or any other southern department did not face colonial violence. This is the major myth of “pénétration pacifique”, or pacific penetration, that French historians peddled about their conquest in the Algerian Sahara. But it does mean that, in Tuggurt, the response to both French and post-colonial pressures was resistance against the foreign conceptions of women’s liberation.
This is likely why discourse on the hijab in Algiers emphasises choice, unlike other cities or towns where there is no debate on the matter. This does not mean women are forced and silenced elsewhere, but because it is intuitively accepted as custom and not particularly questioned. The same way skinny jeans are vastly worn in the United States and therefore unlikely to be cause for philosophical debate, hijab, in all of its varying expressions around the world, do not spark second thoughts in largely homogenous societies vis-à-vis standards of modesty.
Since European women did not often cross paths with Algerian women in the streets of Saharan or semi-Saharan localities as they did in Algiers and Oran, this duality of traditional feminine attire and Western feminine fashion was not established in Tuggurt – which is an important comparison to note. Even if the importation of Western clothing pieces eventually reached Tuggurt, there is a much more singular understanding of body covering that persists today – one that was lost in Algiers.
Literary narratives on Algerian women
In 1980, Assia Djebar published a novel entitled The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, which described the lives of women who aided their country in unshackling itself from French colonial rule, but were forgotten in the process. She thus paints a contrasting image of independent statehood, the very flesh of liberation that revolution produces, and the women who played a role but have been hidden by freedom’s shadow.
While beautifully written, Djebar’s work is a part of a feminist canon that often presents itself as embematic of the Algerian woman’s cause as a whole. This mischaracterises the place feminism has in the country. It ignores that feminism as a looking glass was only made possible by a Francophone elite, itself enclosed in a milieu with its own historical context.
In other words, the women who took to literature as a means of expression were immersed in intellectual circles that were based on foreign philosophies in the first place. The effects of their leadership trickled down to a significant degree into the consciousness of the general public.
The use of foreign premises is clear in the case of women’s education. Before French colonialism, education in Algeria was provided by Quranic schools where the instruction of Arabic and religious sciences took place. As the French empire dug and planted its torch in Algerian soil, access to these schools became increasingly limited. The Islamic network of zawiyas was dismantled in slow but steady efforts to crack down on what they saw as a threat to their cultural and political hegemony. The establishment of French schools was privileged and the state’s disdain for Muslim-led curricula had become more and more apparent as time passed.
This led to widespread illiteracy among Arabs and Berbers who, of course, repelled assimilation if it meant the confiscation of their faith – and it did. Trade schools were offered instead, and girls, whether in Algiers or Tuggurt, spent their time learning how to craft and cook. In 1886, French law made primary education for both sexes compulsory, but resistance from Algerians prevented its enforcement.
Feminists like Leila Ahmed have analyzed events like these and concluded that Muslim societies are guilty of gatekeeping education from women, ignoring the very nature of the education in question. While she recognizes that “Algerian women had had scarcely any contact with the French and therefore were not much Gallicized”, and seen consequently as “guardians of authentic traditions and identity”, she deduces that this role was considered inferior by Algerian men.
However, this presents a contradiction. While making assumptions of attitude, Ahmed puts considerable value in a French education that she believed was unjustly out of reach. Yet she places the responsibility on Algerian men, despite the fact that they, too, had generally remained outside the scope of the French education system.
A second strand of hypocrisy in the literature can be seen in writings on hijab. During the Algerian war for independence (1954-62), Mrs. Massu, wife of the French general who oversaw the mass torture of Algerian prisoners, founded an organization called “The Emanicpation of Muslim Women.” Karima Bennoune writes,
This group relentlessly raised the issue of veiling, and using French soldiers, its members forced groups of Algerian women to gather in public locations throughout Algeria’s major cities to remove their veils. This militarized paternalism led Algerian women to veil in greater numbers as a symbol of nationalist opposition.
Frantz Fanon is famous for his commentary on the veil as a source of frustration for the colonizer, making it quite a powerful possession for the Algerian woman. Assia Djebar, however, holds a very different sentiment toward hijab, and more specifically the hayek, a traditional white cloth worn by women in Algiers. While she does provide us with poetic, and befittingly sad stories that invite needed conversation on the unhealthy treatment of women, she does also expose her reservations against the veil, and in doing so, shakes hands with Mrs. Massu:
I was a voiceless prisoner. A little like certain women of Algiers today, you see them going around outside without the ancestral veil, and yet, out of fear of the new and unexpected situations, they become entangled in other veils, invisible but very noticeable ones.
Throughout the book, she draws more subtle comparisons between the veil and oppression. Here, she illustrates that the women of Algiers are only free in appearance, because they are imprisoned by different, metaphorical veils. Veils are often implicitly associated with and explicitly representative of a patrilocal civilization that ought to be destroyed for women to truly be autonomous. This betrays a clear intellectual bias on her part, one that does not correspond with the beliefs of many Algerian women themselves.
In historical and contemporary literature, male dominance is the primary critique of gender relations in North Africa, as it is in the West. The seclusion of women and adornment of the veil are frequently revisited to demonstrate this. Feminist historians often frame their analysis from the standpoint that men held contextually reasonable, but eventually burdensome perspectives on women.
However, they largely fail to provide the views Algerian women held of themselves in relation to French women, or even what they also expected of men. Were they not conscious agents who may also have seen Muslim modesty as a dignified mark of distinction between themselves and European women?
The fault of dichotomies
Djebar’s outlook in her book, The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, is reflective of her relationship to Algiers, a city that had experienced many paradigm shifts. Algeria, however, is not limited to Algiers – and even Algiers as its own microcosm has been victim to reductionistic discourse. Rather than an honest examination that recognises the diversity of views, scholarship often imposes its own assumptions of what liberation means.
In general, studies on Algerian women who sought for their equity outside of feminism are few and far in between. Sociologists and historians have fixated on the dichotomy of “Islamic fundamentalism” and “progressive feminism” in major cities in Algeria, without taking into account that towns like Tuggurt experienced neither the effect of colonial intelligentsia on indigenous elites, nor the nineties civil war that followed a coup when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party won the 1991 elections.
Some scholars may be inclined to call the event in Tuggurt an expression of “Islamic feminism,” defined by Ziba Mir-Hossein as “a gender discourse that was and is feminist in its aspiration and demands, yet Islamic in its language and sources of legitimacy”. There is a strong argument to be made against this sort of terminology because it continues to borrow from an imported worldview that posits the following axiom: “Patriarchy” as a “system” is inherently tyrannical. This may not be a core belief of women who fight for women’s rights within the folds of Islam.
Furthermore, if a woman is guided by Islamic standards of gendered rights and responsibilities, then this will influence her aspirations and demands. Mir-Hossein’s construction of “Islamic feminism” is thus one that stresses the Islamic component as merely discursive. It does not truly function as a framework – and this alone communicates the incompatibility between sacred justice and feminism, a secular means of establishing equality.
Yet, regardless of the labels, the question remains why certain voices and perspectives on women’s liberation are erased when they do not subscribe to a strictly Western paradigm. To this day, women who led protests in Algiers in the 1980s in support of attempts to integrate Islam into the legal code are likely to be dismissed as “Islamists”, and therefore irrelevant to those exploring a history of feminine politics in Algeria. The footage captured in Tuggurt is collecting dust in lost archives, while their silenced voices are claimed by the dominant feminist narrative.
Sabrina Amrane holds a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Sonbol, Amira El-Azhary, ed. Women, the family, and divorce laws in Islamic history. Syracuse University Press, 2020.
Leila Ahmed, Feminism and feminist movements in the middle east, a preliminary exploration: Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1982, Pages 153-168.
Bennoune, Karima. “Between Betrayal and Betrayal: Fundamentalism, Family Law and Feminist Struggle in Algeria.” Arab Studies Quarterly17, no. 1/2 (1995): 51-76. Accessed February 7, 2021.
Djebar, Assia. “Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement.” (1980).
Kouachi, Rawiya. “Islamic Versus Western Feminism in Assia Djebar’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.”