After protests, Algerian women reconquer the public space

Algerian women have learned that their presence in the public sphere will not be granted to them but they must acquire it themselves.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Young Algerian women take part in a demonstration in Algiers. (AP)
Driving change. Young Algerian women take part in a demonstration in Algiers. (AP)

Algerian women were not banned from public space but we can’t say they were as present and accepted there as men, either.

They used to cross this space furtively, frightened by the leering glances that followed them and quite often by foul words thrown at them. Their conditioning to fear public spaces begins in childhood when they are intimidated and emotionally blackmailed to keep to their homes because the public space is dangerous and a source of moral corruption.

Many Algerian women chose to flee from the intimidation and harassment on the street by disappearing under a hijab or jilbab or khimar. Because of the extremist discourse of imams in mosques and of Islamists everywhere, Algerian society at large has started to look at females who did not wear headscarves as loose women, disrespectful of Islamic rules and often labelled as whores. This explains the tremendous increase in the number of veiled females in Algeria.

This rejection of women did not spring from the depths of the authentic Algerian society but was the result of an external invasion by fundamentalist ideas with the collusion of local Islamist elites, both from within the regime and in the opposition. Because of pressure by Islamists, the Algerian family code did not only justify some old and fossilised social norms but also tried to revive many of them.

Take polygamy for instance. While this practice was on its way out in Algeria, the 1984 code reintroduced it by law. In this regard, playwright Khira Ben Attou, author of the play “Boxes,” said the struggle is long for Algerian women to take their rights by force and bypass the unjust Algerian family code and to be able to achieve complete equality with men, even in inheritance.

She said the revolution is an opportunity for Algerian women to get out of boxes where they were imprisoned and fulfil themselves as independent entities.

The fact remains, however, that this family code, which was directly based on sharia, did put into law the lower status of Algerian women. It gave all the rights to males and deprived females of their basic rights. Article 39 of the code states that, if a woman is single, she is under the guardianship of her closest male relative and, if she is married, then she must obey her husband and his family.

Despite this legal and social siege, Algerian women have not surrendered. They have made inroads in all of life’s domains and excelled particularly in their studies. At Algerian universities today, females outnumber males.

Every year, Algerian female students consistently outdo male students at university entrance exams. In the 2017 and 2018 exams, females represented 65% of the successful population. Yet, after university, only 11% of male graduates remain unemployed while 55% of female graduates are not hired. Statistics for 2018 indicate that the Algerian workforce includes 9 million males and 2 million females.

With time, Algerian women have learned that their presence in the public sphere will not be granted to them but they must acquire it themselves. So they did not hesitate to participate, right from the beginning, in the popular demonstrations against the regime since February 22. The uprising against the regime is a strong declaration of the birth of a real mixed gender civil society that will open prospects for individual freedoms for both women and men.

Never before have Algerian women taken to the streets in such huge numbers as they have in the “revolution of smiles.”

Algerian women were out in large throngs: working women, housewives, elderly women, engineers, doctors, teachers, journalists and even the famous, such as the iconic female figure of the Algerian liberation revolution Djamila Bouhired. They came out as first-class citizens and not as irrational and impure beings as claimed by the Islamists.

The presence among protesters of Bouhired, 83, a symbol of the Algerian women’s resistance, which was hijacked after independence, had a special effect on all Algerian women. It reminded them of the heroic participation of their grandmothers, side by side with Algerian men, in Algeria’s war of liberation. When independence came, men took all the rights and imposed inequalities on women.

Algerian women do not want to see that scenario repeated after the revolution of smiles today. They are determined this time that liberation will be with them or it won’t be.

In speeches and statements by women’s organisations and on websites, there is a consensus that the time has come to bypass the Islamists’ medieval ideologies and to start building a new democratic Algeria that guarantees justice, individual and collective liberties and equality for all Algerians, males and females alike, so as not to fall again into a social system that oppresses women and despises femininity.

With their large presence in the protests and demonstrations in Algeria every day, Algerian women no longer must hurry their crossing of the public sphere. Today, they are at the heart of civil society. They are out there chanting: “A free and democratic Algeria” and “Democracy… women’s rights.”

What they mean is “No to a religious state. No to applying sharia. No to Islamists’ rule and no to fundamentalist colonisation.”

Algerian women are not just demanding their equal rights and such other rights, including the right to choose their clothing. They are out there as citizens demanding that their country be freed of the claws of a failed, corrupt and illegitimate regime.

Novelist Fairouz Recham, author of “I was Honoured by Your Departure,” said the participation of Algerian women in demonstrations added a distinctive feminine touch to them and doubled protesters’ enthusiasm. It was the first time in many years that feminist slogans were shouted in Algerian streets.