Women in Algerian Society

Tribal Custom, the Quran and Revolution

The Changing Role of Women in Algerian Society

By Khedi

The status and role of women in Islamic countries is shaped to a large extent by religious doctrine, but other cultural and historical factors have been equally powerful in shaping Muslim women’s destiny. An exploration of these forces will help to differentiate between religious and secular influences on Algerian women, and hopefully provide the basis for a clearer understanding of their lives today.

Religious Factors

There are over one billion Muslims in the world today, over one-fifth of the world’s population, although only 18% live in the Arab world. Substantial parts of Asia and most of Africa are Muslim, and the largest Muslim community is in Indonesia.

The primary sources of Islamic Jurisprudence in Algeria, as in most Islamic countries, are the Quran, the Sunna, and whatever the consensus of Islamic scholars (Ulamas/Djema’a) decide (fetwas).

The Quran (literally “recitation”) includes 114 Suras (chapters), 6,000 verses, 77,439 words, and 321,180 letters. What we have today is the collection of Suras written right after the Prophet Mohammed’s death, and put together during the third Caliphate Othman (644-55). This collection is accepted by all the schools of Islam as the Holy Book, and has been transmitted as it is for fifteen centuries. This unanimous acceptance shows the power of its text and its hold on generations.

The sayings and deeds of the Prophet (Sunna) are the second authority for Muslims. A hadith is a reliably transmitted report on what the Prophet said, did, or approved.

Islam does not recognize hierarchy or clerics: Imams were meant to be just prayer leaders—people who memorized the Quran and could lead the prayers. The Islamic scholars have the responsibility to be in charge of the Tafsir, interpretation and explanation of the text of the Quran. This is difficult work when you deal with the law, which demands absolute certitude. The “fetwas” issued by these scholars are their opinion based on the Quran and the hadiths. Muslims are not required to follow any particular fetwa, as each Muslim is responsible for him/herself.

This window on Islam would not be complete without a mention of the five pillars of Islam. First, the declaration of faith, Shahada, is a creed in which the believer announces his/her faith and becomes Muslim: “There is no God except Allah and Mohammed is the messenger of God.” Second, five obligatory prayers, Salat, are to be performed, always in Arabic, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Third, fasting, or Sawm, is done during the month of Ramadhan for self-purification, to feel the hunger of the poor and to preach forgiveness and mercy. Sawm is done from dawn till sunset for 29 or 30 days (lunar calendar). Fourth, the purifying tax, called Zakat, is an annual payment of a certain percentage of what you own to be distributed to the poor—an economic system to support the needy. Fifth, the pilgrimage (Hadj) to Mecca (Saudi Arabia), is done once in a lifetime, for those who can afford it without debt and who have the health to do it.

There are no ambiguities about these pillars within Islam, but let’s explore some areas where women and some political leaders (Bourguiba, Attaturk) and scholars have not always agreed with the Tafsir when it concerns women. For example, if we take the case of the veil, it is commonly thought that the total wearing of the veil (covering of the face, hands and feet) originated in and was imposed by the Quran. Veiling was actually practiced during the Byzantine era prior to Mohammed’s time, and such an imposition cannot be found anywhere in the Quran, although Muslim women are required to dress modestly and to cover their bosoms.

In the Mediterranean context, nomadic tribes had to move to cities during the colonization to find work. The woman became the man’s property to protect without the help of the family tribe. So he secluded her from the foreign outside world. Deprived of tribal support, men fell back on artifices such as high walls and the veil. The disappearance of the veil in recent years has caused anxiety as the unveiled woman is seen out of bounds, beyond the norms, venturing into areas that are not hers. She is exhibiting herself to the prying eyes of men who are defenseless against such temptation: “Man was created weak.” (Sura 4, verse 8).

How about marriage and polygamy? It is widely believed that Muslim girls are forced to marry and don’t have a say at all. In the Quran, the conditions for marriage are very clear. First, the consent of both parties is required. “It is not lawful for you that you should take a woman as heritage against her will.” Second, the husband gives the “mahr,” a gift to the bride, of which she gets to appoint the amount and nature: “Take them in marriage and give them their dowry as appointed.” As to polygamy, the rules are clear: “And if you fear you can’t act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seen good to you, 2 or 3, or 4 but if you fear that you will not do justice between them then marry only one. (4,3 Surat An-Nisa). Religious thinkers’ opinions vary widely on this subject, some thinking that it is not allowed: “You will not be able to do justice between your wives even if you tried.” Others think it is allowed and base their opinion on the Sunna that the Prophet married several wives. It is interesting to note that virginity was not glorified. All the Prophet’s wives except for Aicha and Mary were either widowed or divorced.

Ouled Nail man and woman. Photo by Rudolf Lehnert, 1904.

Ouled Nail man and woman. Photo by Rudolf Lehnert, 1904.

The following Berber polygamy poem, given to me verbally by a woman from a Berber tribe high in the Aures Mountains, reflects on the emotional challenges of polygamy:

The stranger has arrived, she took her place in the house.

Her tattoos don’t look like ours,

But she is young. She is beautiful,

Exactly what my husband wished for.

The nights are not long enough for their games.

Since she has been here, the house is not the same.

It is as if the doorstep and the walls are pouting.

Maybe I am the only one who notices it,

As the mule in front of her empty manger.

Many Muslim women are not aware of their rights in divorce. The woman can pose the condition in the prenuptial agreement that she is permitted to initiate divorce. For example, it can be stated that she will stay married only if she remains the only wife. The right to divorce initiated by a woman is given to her by the Quranic laws under the following conditions: if the husband can’t fulfill his obligations financially, if he is absent for a long time, and if he is impotent. Although it is the man’s right to initiate what is called “verbal divorce”—if the man pronounces the word “Talik” (divorced) three times, the woman is considered divorced religiously—it is not that easy to make the divorce valid. In many countries, the divorce has to be pronounced by a judge, whose duty is to verify that the proper steps were taken to reach a final divorce. A man cannot prevent an ex-wife from remarrying: “When they have ended their period of waiting (three months to ensure she is not pregnant from the previous husband) do not prevent them from marrying.”(1,232)

Normally, in practice, adultery as a cause for divorce carries a heavy load of ambiguities. In the Quran, it is imperative that there are four witnesses, and the proof should be unequivocal. This is very precise and almost impossible. If proven guilty then man or woman should be confined: “For those who are guilty of indecency from among your women call to witness against them four witnesses, then if they bear witness, confine them to the house.”

There is no prescription for stoning (a Judaic custom) or killing. The same problematic thinking happens when the scholars talk about contraception. Nothing is written against contraception in the Quran. But some Muslim thinkers affirm that Islam opposes the use of contraception based on the Sura, ”Do not kill your children for fear of heresy.” Others believe Islam doesn’t forbid the use of contraception based on theses verses: “Allah wishes to ease your burdens, not to make things difficult.” (1, 185).

As to property and inheritance, if one follows the Quran, “Men have a share on what parents and relatives leave behind and women also have the right to have a share.” Muslim woman had the right to inherit and manage whatever they owned by themselves in a time when other countries didn’t allow any financial transactions by women. Moreover, it is rarely known that Islam holds, “If she is the only child, the woman inherits half of what the parents leave.” And what she inherits is her own property to manage, dispose of as she pleases, and she doesn’t include it in the family’s property, as men have to support the women of their families: “Men are the maintainers of women.”

The Regional Status of Women in Algeria

In Algeria, Islam had to be superimposed onto socioeconomic structures that existed before Islam, and the traditional system is stronger than the formal Islam. That tolerance helped Islam spread and survive. For example, you will find the “Maraboutism” (venerating the tomb of a saint or descendant of the prophet) giving power to its managers, even females, in influencing crowds.

Each region has its own particularities. We’ll mention here only those that are the most different from the Islamic teachings and may to this day be still alive in remote communities and within traditional families.

The Kabyle

Women of the coastal Kabyle had to follow the traditional pre-Islamic customs encoded by the Kanoun. Moral conduct was strictly observed and vengeance by death was common when any transgression was suspected. The Kabyle woman did not benefit from Quranic rights. She was unable to inherit anything because her mahr (dowry paid by the husband) was her father’s property. She was unable to gain custody of her children, regardless of their age. She could be married without being consulted, and if widowed she could be bought by her in-laws. The husband could initiate a divorce, but she was prohibited from doing so. She could be forbidden to marry again by her former husband, or when allowed to do so she had to pay a fee, the lefdi.

The Shawia

The case of the Shawia, the Berbers of the Aures Mountains, is somewhat different. The dowry remained her property and she could resort to formal Muslim laws. She also could exert her influence in the Djema’a (senate of elders) through her husband. The astounding particularity of this community is demonstrated by the custom of allowing widows and divorcees to become an Azriya (meaning a free woman)—a courtesan. She would live separately from the community, but the community didn’t consider her independent life as shameful (which would be unheard of among the Arabs or the other Berber communities). She could remarry and be accepted back in the community, returning to her life as a Muslim!

Ouled Nail woman. Photo by Rudolf Lehnert, 1904.


The women of the Ouled-Nail (Laghouat, Ghardaia, Ouargla, and Biskra) belong to a most unusual group, known for their elaborate costumes, jewelry, and dances. Without disapprobation from her kinsmen, in times of famine or other disaster, the Ouled-Nail woman could enter into a specific system to save money and marry well. She would travel with other women from her family or community to other communities where all would entertain men. She neither solicited nor had a set fee, and was able to chose who was to be her “companions” (whether sex was involved or not). Whenever she estimated her fortune good enough, she returned to her community. This traditional practice of the Banat Nail to move freely from their community and establish themselves in another village to entertain was corrupted by the French colonial system into formal prostitution to serve the French military and tourism. Before the French, open and public prostitution did not exist.

The Mozabite

The women of the Mozabite, from the Ghardaia region, belong to the Kharidjites, a distinctive sect of Islam. The Mozabite woman leads a strictly regulated life. Provided she was comfortably lodged, the husband could keep her bound to the house. The uniqueness of this group is that it is imperative that the woman receives training in religion, so she has the advantage of knowing her Muslim rights and has the right to defend herself.

The Targuia

Even westerners were astonished when they learned of the amount of freedom that Targuia women have. The Targuia men veil, but the women do not. The Targuia woman is free to choose her own husband and to refuse an arranged marriage. Her dowry belongs to her even when divorced. She can ask for divorce if her husband commits adultery. If divorced, she keeps her children till weaned, and her children decide with whom s/he wants to live. Targuia women are usually better educated than the men of the community, and they have the duty to preserve the Berber script known as Tamaheq. They learn to sing and play music, and can preside or participate in the Abal soirees when women sing and play music for the pleasure of seeing men dancing for them.

Historical Factors

Colonization (1830-1954)

During the colonization period there were a series of uprisings followed by terrible repression. The French wanted to dismantle the Islamic institutions, the economic infrastructure (the artisanat) and the Islamic cultural network, and schools were gone by 1930. There was considerable unemployment and male immigration to France was constantly increasing. Cultural disrespect and segregation led Algerians to regard Islam and the Muslim family law as sanctuaries from French Imperialism. Practicing Islam became a defining factor for being Algerian.

The colonization process had a deep impact on gender relations in the Algerian community. The Algerian man, excluded by the French from public life, reacted by becoming more despotic at home, and having a need to prove his challenged virility, became more procreative. While the French presence produced a Westernized Algerian elite, the masses became very hostile to change out of reaction against the French presence.

The Algerian women became the true guardians of their authentic traditions and identity and were shielded from French contact. Veils and seclusion behind high walls created an aura of mystery the French were dying to unveil. The impulse toward women’s emancipation came mainly from the French. Even assimilationist Muslims insisted on maintaining their Muslim specificity (Farhat Abbas).

Ouled Nail girls. Photo by Rudolf Lehnert, 1904.

The French impact on the status of women was pervasive in many areas of society. The imposed legal structure, included a limit on girls being married before sixteen, and divorce being pronounced by a judge. The church mounted missionary efforts, including the Sisters’ schools. Women came into contact with French men as servants, in factories, and as migrants to France. The French also offered free education for girls.

French resistance also had its influence on the status of women. For Algerians, the unveiled woman represented capitulation to the Europeans and their culture. Thus, the protection and seclusion of the Algerian woman were seen as a defense against the French culture. The French understood the important role of Algerian women as guardians of traditions and as instruments of resistance to their acculturation. They also recognized that Algerian women were in a pivotal position, and attempted to undermine the Algerian culture by emancipating the women “a la Francaise.” Had they been successful, the Algerian home would have been open to French intrusion. Algerian women emancipated in a French image would have had a vested interest in maintaining a French presence in Algeria. But for Algerian women the expression, “there is them and there is us” was maintained throughout the colonization (Assia Djebar, Fadhela Merabet).

The aim of the French was assimilation, and they saw women’s education as a tool to undermine Algeria’s culture. They encountered much hostility from Algerian families reluctant to send their girls to French schools, and if they did, they married them very early so the girls were unable to finish their studies. A French law in 1887 that made primary education for both sexes obligatory had limited success. Progress was slow. The rate of literacy by 1954 for the whole Algerian population was only 10%. In 1954, at the university level there were only three girls in law, eight in letters, one in science, five in Medicine and three in Pharmacy. Orphan girls who received free education often ended as prostitutes, either because of lack of funds or because they couldn’t find a job and were rejected by both communities.

The French also reformed Algerian law to suit their aims. The Muslim justice became part of the French law, and the qadi (judge) was gradually separated from the formal Islamic teaching. He became trained under French supervision, and justice was rendered in the name of the French people. Muslim justice became a branch of French law applicable to Muslims, who were not considered to be full citizens, but “Muslim French” under the Sharia. The Code was called “Indigenat.

Revolution (1954-1962)

Algeria drew its inspiration for the revolution and the creation of a state from two sources: Islam and Socialism. Islam proclaims virtues of Muslim tradition and repudiation of Western presence; and Socialism promulgates an ideal state of equality and justice for all.

After both World Wars, the educated Algerian elite consistently advocated for more equality and participation in government. Among them was Messali Hadj, one of the most prominent leaders of Algerian nationalism in the 20’s and early 50’s. Disappointed by the failure of the limited French reforms, and being thrown in French jails repeatedly, they united with hard liners against the French presence and erected a revolutionary structure that continued and developed as the war for independence took its course.

More than 10,000 women were active in the fight for independence. However, the army’s organizational structure did not integrate women into the command structure because Algerian women didn’t have the military background, whereas Algerian men had formal military training with the French army. This reality prohibited women from access to the upper echelon of command. However, when emergencies during the war forced the army to use women as combatants, women answered the call beautifully, to the surprise of the French. Heroic role models such as La Kahena and Lalla Fatma N’Sumer came forward. Women not only faced the same risks as men­­—torture and long imprisonment—they also ran the risk of being raped.

Women became gradually more involved in the revolution through 3 stages. From 1954-1955, they performed the traditional woman’s role of support: feeding combatants and caring for the injured. Women thus became involved with a larger world unknown to them by traveling to large cities, dealing with the colonial administration, looking for the disappeared or jailed, and working to feed the family. They were also victims of French repression: they went through food shortage, were arrested to live in detention and refugees camps, and were raped and pushed into prostitution by the French army.

The period from 1955 to 1958 was characterized by the recruitment and inclusion of women in the civilian resistance sector. Their life in the outside world changed dramatically, as they had to be aggressive in the colonizer’s and the men’s space. Women began to be included because the National Liberation Front (FLN) was expanding, the rural women had already proven their abilities as nationalists, and certain duties needed a female approach. They gave the resistance access to areas men would not have been able to penetrate, particularly in terms of gaining worldwide sympathy when the press revealed that Algerian women were being tortured. This also helped to propel Algerian women into public life.

Between 1958 and 1962, intellectual women were increasingly recruited for their knowledge and skills, and they gained political influence with the male Algerian elite. The most prominent were lawyer Zohra Drif and medical doctor Leila Aslaoui. By teaming Algerian women journalists and French liberal journalists and intellectuals, and by recruiting other women, they contributed to the creation of an FLN doctrine, a system for propaganda against the French violation of human rights in Algeria.

FLN leaders were hesitant to expose Algerian women to the inevitable risk of the now full-fledged war. At first only married women were contacted, usually wives of men already committed to the war. Next it was the turn of widows and divorcees, and finally young and unmarried girls became involved, the most famous being the three Djamilas, Bouhired, Boupacha, and Boumaza, who were sentenced to death.

In 1958, the French made a concerted effort to win over the Algerian women by encouraging them to unveil and go to the French schools, so that they could enter the private world of the Algerian men. Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and sympathizer, held the thesis that if the women were uprooted the rest would follow. The key tactic of the French was to concentrate on encouraging the Muslim women to unveil. In self-defense the Algerian men and women put more importance on the veil. When Algerian women became spies, veiling proved a useful tactic for hiding arms, letters, and disguising men. When asked to operate in European sectors, such as during the Battle of Algiers, the Algerian women discarded their veils to mix more easily in French crowds. Then all Algerian women became suspects, and veiling resumed, again providing a useful storage space for pamphlets arms and bombs. Through this process, the veil had lost its purely traditional dimension.

The revolution disrupted the traditional family by providing a higher loyalty than that of the family. Women risked their lives and honor and the alienation of their male relatives. By raping them and rounding them into detention camps to have sexual access to them, the French used Algerian women as instruments to challenge and humiliate the Algerian male concept of honor. Algerian women were ordered to forego their terrible ordeal for the cause. The status of Muslim women was the Algerians’ last stronghold for their own culture. The revolution marked a definite break with the traditional Algerian authority structure, and women were no longer the passive guardians of the Algerian culture. Away from home, they were free from parental control, and they were with men they were not related to. For the cause, they had to unveil themselves or dress like men if the job demanded it. They carried guns and bombs, and they became increasingly responsible for things formerly taken care of by men, and in enemy territory. Men and women formed bonds that cut across class, ethnicity and gender. Sexual misconduct inside the Algerian ranks was severely punished. Men learned to trust women with risky missions, and women learned to trust men in their space. The traditional masculine mystique of strength and omnipotence was thus broken. Guardians, victims or instruments, women took care of themselves unprotected.

By their contribution to the revolution, Algerian women have contributed to the cause of feminine emancipation by becoming symbols of courage and feminine initiative. By asking to be admitted into the ranks of the army, veiled or unveiled women performed tasks unrelated to their usual home-related roles. By becoming a tactic, rather than a sign of social property, the veil could be discarded when the revolution was over. Depending on the role that they were required to perform, women acted either as Europeans or as passive Algerians, which led to an awareness of their individual abilities. They had to organize their own marriage without family arrangements. They started to look at the world differently, questioning what could their participation in the war give or take way from them. The revolution witnessed the budding of Algerian feminism.

French feminists wanted to assimilate Algerian women into the French culture to safeguard their humanitarian reputation and their presence in Algeria. This approach had a limited success, as Algerian women were more willing to work for their newly hard-won respect as nationalists, rather than fall into the trap French women tried to catch them in.

The Ben Bella Era (1962-1965)

The first government after the revolution was characterized by the personalization of power, and the emphasis on a single state. Ben Bella’s slogan was, “Islam is my religion, Algeria is my country, and Arab is my language. Dissidents were demonized. He supported the continuation of the increased importance of the role of women, and ten women were elected in the First National Assembly. Ben Bella repeatedly affirmed, “The Algerian woman must play the same important role she did in the revolution. We oppose those who, in the name of religion, wish to leave our women outside the country reconstruction. We respect Muslim traditions, but we want a revolutionary Islam and not the Islam left to us by colonial domination with erroneous interpretations of Islam. It is not the wearing of a veil that makes us respect the woman…Decolonization is hard. It’s like a tooth: you’re never through taking care of it.”

The Tripoli Program was unanimously adopted as the charter of the new nation just before independence, and became official in July 1962. It stated, “The contribution of the Algerian women to the war of liberation has created favorable conditions for breaking the centuries of yoke they bore, for freeing and welcoming them into the direction of public affairs and the development of the country. The party should abolish all hindrances and the progress of women should support the work of their organization. The party cannot move forward without carrying a lasting fight against social prejudices and backward beliefs. In this field, the Party cannot limit itself to mere statements, it has to assure the irreversibility of an evolution established in deeds by giving women responsible positions within the party structure.” So the women’s emancipation was a party line, not a government policy.

The First Algerian Constitution was adopted in September, 1962. Based on the Tripoli Program it reiterated the same recommendations for women. It also gave them the right to be full citizens, and guaranteed equality and no discrimination based on birth, sex or race. It made Islam the official state religion, made Arabic the national language, gave women the right to vote, gave freedom to the people of Algeria to elect their representatives, gave all citizens the right of mobility in and out of the country, gave all citizens the right of free education, compulsory till high school, guaranteed the protection of private residency, guaranteed the right to inherit, guaranteed all citizens the right to work, and guaranteed all citizens the access to state jobs and training.

Out of the ten elected women in the National Assembly, only one, Fatima Khemisti, successfully passed a significant law, which bears her name, making it unlawful to marry before age sixteen (she demanded nineteen in the hope that girls would be able to finish high school).

By 1964, the mood had already changed. The President continued to verbally promise equality, but his government was shaky. The patriarchal tendency remained, and the male revolutionary heroes received all of the attention from the state. Authoritarianism established itself as the President banned all political parties. The radical section of the FLN in France who advocated a secular state was dissolved. The radicals of the UGTA (Union Workers) who insisted on the right of workers to strike were purged.

The future status of women was shaped by the imperative need to restore Arabic as the primary language, Islam as the religion of the state, and men as sovereigns of the family. Although there have been significant changes in the last decades of the twentieth century, the patriarchal tendency and the wish to return to an Arab-Islamic framework which manifested in the years after the revolutin, have resulted in a difficult struggle for women, as they implicitly put into question the entire society.

Born and raised in Algeria, Khedi came to the U.S. in 1972 to pursue degrees in biology and education, and was the first teacher of Middle Eastern dance in her area. She returned to Algeria after completing her studies, and later moved with her family to Saudi Arabia to work. Khedi has taught children in primary and high school in several countries, and she is multilingual, having traveled extensively in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Khedi’s family returned to the U.S. in 1986, where she was a high school French teacher, and eventually returned to teaching dance.

The author would like to dedicate this article to all the women of the world, and in particular to the brave Algerian women.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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