A Historical Crossroads: Why Algeria Needs its Women

I was fifteen when the Arab Spring began. I distinctly remember sitting in front of the TV with my father, watching as protests in Tunisia erupted from city to city, as citizens ousted a dictator who was well past his sell-by date. We were both confused and elated. Then Egypt came, then Libya, Syria, Yemen, protests even broke out in Morocco, where the ghost of Hassan II still roamed the streets. I noticed my father grow increasingly worried, this was too close to home.

There was talk of Algeria having its own Arab Spring, some protests erupted in the city centre, youth burned tires and faced off against police near my grandmother’s house – it seemed like the enthusiasm for other countries ridding themselves of their old regimes was suddenly extinguished when that same idea was brought home. The general consensus was that Algeria didn’t need an Arab Spring. We had already tried in the 90’s and it had cost us dearly.

The liberty of the Algerian people is now identified with the liberation of women and their entry into history.

– Frantz Fanon

Despite the attempts at erasure, women have been a major part of Algerian history & politics since before colonialism. From Dihya to Zohra Drif, women have fought tooth and nail for the country – with their efforts often pushed aside once the battle was done.

This was the case during the Algerian War of Independence. It was women who planted the bombs, women who fed & sheltered the fighters, women who transported weapons & medicine, and most of all, it was women who withstood the brunt of the violence – physical, emotional, and sexual.

While the men took to the mountains and tried to fight against an unrelenting French army with rusty weapons, it was cases like those of Djamila Bouhired & Djamila Boupacha which brought international attention to the situation, a turning point for the conflict. The signing of the Evian Accords may have brought independence to Algeria but it also meant that both sides could not prosecute the other for crimes committed, meaning the colonial force who had raped and pillaged the country & it’s people for well over a century could never be brought to justice.

Once Independence was attained, the women who had participated, who had given so much, and lost so much, suddenly became the marginalized. They were told to wait, their demands for rights were cast aside because the government had “more important things to deal with”. They were told to go home, return to their families, get married, have children & move on. The men would decide what was best for them.

Algeria & its government would go through many phases in the coming decades, while the rights of women were largely ignored.

In 1984, the in-famous Family Code was adopted into law. It was largely considered a gift to Islamists who had been pressing successive presidents for Sharia to be integrated into the legal system. The Family Code was essentially the government throwing them a bone. Here, you can have the women.

Protests broke out with scores of women fighting against the Code which basically turned them into children in the eyes of the law. The code was eventually reformed somewhat, but not before things became much worse. Between the 80’s and the period which would later be known as La Decennie Noire, prominent figures such as Khalida Toumi, Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif spoke out against the government, the rise in Islamic fundamentalism & women’s rights. Their cries fell on deaf ears.

When the civil war broke, women bore the brunt of the violence once again. Systematic kidnappings & rapes, brutal murders for refusing to veil, or having the audacity to teach – these all became commonplace. And yet, despite the threat they faced, women fought once again. Women like Nabila Djahnine, founder of the association Tighri n Tmetouth, who advocated for women’s rights until her assassination in February 1995. Women like Khalida Toumi, who had to go into hiding once a fatwa was issued for her death, yet refused to leave the country and continued to speak out to anyone who would listen.

Algerian women have never, and will never, be victims. What they have been, for decades, is silenced, marginalized, and infantilized. It is time for that to change.

Like many of my peers, I was born during the civil war. And, like many of my peers, I have no memory of it. The Algeria of today is not the Algeria of the 90’s. Algerians of today are not like the ones who came before them. Algeria is not Egypt, nor is it Syria, nor is it Libya or any of the other revolutions that took a turn for the worse. It’s time to throw the old, tired rhetoric in the bin, this generation of Algerians have the right to define their own future, one that is very different to those of their forefathers. I have hope that this generation will have the sense not to ignore its women, as previous generations have done. I have hope that this time will be different. For a revolution is not complete without its women.

The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky.

– Thomas Sankara

Article Image from Ranya G.

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