The struggle of Algerian women v domestic violence

Friday 27/11/2015
Women walk past a metro station in Algiers.

Algiers - Algerian women are rarely mentioned in history books, an indi­cation that their strug­gles are not new, but they have been powerful actors.

As far back as the seventh century, al-Kahina led Berber tribes in Algeria who opposed the Muslim armies of the Umayyad Dynasty. Lalla Fatma N’Soumer was an important figure in the Algerian resistance during the first years (1830-63) of the French colonial conquest. Women’s partici­pation in the armed revolution was beautifully depicted in the famous film The Battle of Algiers.

In literature, Assia Djebar has written dozens of highly acclaimed novels, focusing on the creation of a genealogy of Arab women and on her emancipation. In 2005 she was elected to the Académie française, the first writer from the Maghreb to achieve such recognition. She has been rumoured several times to be among the contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Algerian officials never miss an opportunity to highlight women’s participation in nation-building, es­pecially to foreign audiences. But no woman had a high government po­sition until the mid-1980s.

In modern Algerian society, wom­en are expected to fulfill the tra­ditional roles of wife and mother. Women are seen as the guardians of Islamic and traditional values. The family code, based on sharia, clear­ly restricts their roles. Their family roles in society are seen as natural and sacred and women represent only 7% of the Algerian labour force.

The battle for gender equality and against political violence has been the central issue of the Algerian women’s movement since it became vocal and active in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who rose to prominence with the assistance of women-led non-governmental organisations and activists, made only minor changes to the 1984 Family Code in 2005. The amended law granted women more rights in terms of di­vorce and housing. Still, the 2005 bill lags behind Morocco’s 2004 Moudawana, which repealed the 1957 family code and Tunisia’s liber­al personal status code enacted the day after independence. Polygamy remains legal in Algeria under Arti­cle 8 of the Family Code.

Women had been excluded from the decision-making process since independence. No woman was a member of the first nine Algerian governments. It was only in 1984 that Algeria saw its first female min­ister. Between 1987 and 2002, only two women were included in the ex­ecutive government agencies. June 2002 witnessed a breakthrough of sorts, as five women were appoint­ed members of the government. In 2014 Bouteflika appointed seven women to his cabinet.

As an immediate response to the “Arab spring”, Bouteflika enacted a gender quota system in elected in­stitutions. The May 2012 legislative elections thus produced a great in­crease in the number of women in parliament: Women won 146 seats out of 462 (31.6%); in 2007, only 7.78% of seats were won by women. The 31.6% is the highest percentage of any Arab legislature and higher than many countries in the West.

Does this fact alone suggest that Algerian women are among the most advanced and liberated in the MENA region? I do not think so.

Violence is growing in Algeria. Ac­cording to police records, in 2014, more than 58% of physical abuses against women stemmed from do­mestic violence. Every year, be­tween 100 to 200 women die from domestic violence. In March 2015, the Algerian parliament passed a bill criminalising domestic violence against women after one of the most contested and controversial parlia­mentary debates ever.

The debate split along secular­ist and Islamist lines. According to Islamists, the bill intrudes on the intimacy of couples and is contrary to Islamic values. According to a deputy from al Adala, “Hijab should be mandatory in public because nudity is the reason for sexual har­assment”. For Islamists and other conservative groups, “this law will break up the family”.

The bill would not have passed without intense government pres­sure. However, the law includes a clause on pardoning that some see as a message of impunity, since it allows ending criminal prosecution if the victim offers forgiveness. Am­nesty International requested an amendment to remove the clause as it was “a dangerous precedent”.

More than six months later, the Senate still has not scheduled de­bate over the bill. The Salafists and other groups have staged demon­strations: Not for jobs or housing but for beating women. The same message is conveyed on Islamist-controlled private television chan­nels.