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Women and Democracy in Algeria

Author(s): Dalila Djerbal and Louisa Ait Hamou


Source: Review of African Political Economy, No. 54, Surviving Democracy? (Jul., 1992), pp.
106-111
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4006173
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Review of African Political Economy No.54: 106-125
? ROAPE PublicationsLtd., 1992
ISSN 0305-6244; RIX #5310-13

Briefings
Women and Democracy in cations for the current debates about
democracy. Butof significancealsowithin
Algeria this largerdebateare the implicationsfor
Dalila Djerbaland LouisaAit Hamou womenof a politicalvictoryby Islamic
fundamentalists. Theauthorsexplorethe
Algeriaintroduceda multi-partysystem growth of the women's movementin
after widespreaduprisingsin 1988 and Algeria(in whichtheyhavebeenperson-
preceededto hold elections,first at the ally involved) in the context of the
localand then at the nationallevel. The intertwinedprocessesof democratisation
explosionofaccumulated tensionsin 1988 and the rise of fundamentalism.They
was generatedby the shortcomings of the acknowledgethat womenare themselves
nation'sindustrialisation projectnad the dividedalong 'traditionalist'and 'mod-
lack of sufficientopportunitiesfor the ernist' lines, but argue that it is only
post-revolutiongeneration.Seventyfive through increaseddemocratisationthat
percentof thepopulationwasless than20 fuller participationby womenin society
years of age;forty per cent were unem- can beachieved.
ployed.The modelof economicdevelop-
mentusedin Algeria,focussingon heavy Todaya wind of democracyis blowing
industrialisation,had led to a vast rural over many of those third world coun-
exodus. Although some new jobs were tries that formerly experienced single
created, productivity was slowed by party systems. How can we under-
bureacraticmanagementand discontent stand this new democratic trend and
swelled.Theunderprivileged classesulti- what are its implications for women?
mately gave vent to their frustration, It is perhaps not accidentalthat a new
some turning to Islam as a final resort type of discoursegeared towards indi-
against what they perceivedto be the vidual rights and liberalismis spread-
corruptionand inhumanityof thesystem. ing throughthe continentof Africaat a
time of economic crisis. The argument
Oneof themajor actorsin the multi-party can be put that it is partlyattributedto
arena was the Islamic SalvationFront the pressure of the IMFfor prescribed
(FIS)which,ironically,was committedto political and economic forms and to
abolishingthe democraticconstitution. this extent constitutes a new form of
TheFISgainedthelargestnumberof seats imperialism.Butregardlessof whether
in thelocalelectionsandcameintocontrol pressures are internal or external, the
in a numberof municipalities. Butwhenit significance of democratic discourse
becameevidentafterthefirst stageof the and its impact on political systems
nationalelectionsin late1991thattheFIS must be acknowledged. The case of
would win at that level as well, the Algeria, where the evolution toward
militaryintervenedto preventthe second multi-partyism was diverted by the
roundof voting. implications of a possible victory in
nationalelectionsby the IslamicFront,
Algeria'sexperiencehas importantimpli- is one of particular interest. It is
Briefing: Womenand Democracyin Algeria 107

importantto explore how the element euphoria, democracy is now jeopard-


of Islamicfundamentalismfits into the ised. National elections were inter-
broader Algerian experience, both as rupted and a state of emergencycalled.
regardspressureto democratiseand as There is latent violence in the society,
regardsthe position of women. fear and repression and an over-
whelming feeling of insecurity in the
Algeria became a symbol of liberation civilian population. All this is magni-
for many other African countries by fied by a disastrous economic situa-
virtue of its seven years of anti- tion. Yet at the same time some public
colonial war. But the nation now finds debate continues. The voice of the
itself at a hiatus. The emergence of underprivileged, particularly of the
privileged classes and the lack of youth and of women, continues to be
opportunitiesalienatedthe young, and raised, though perhaps not always in
absence of other strong alternatives consensus. But forms of oppression
resulted in many turning to the FIS. are at least now named and it is no
Since the street riots of October 1988 longer possible, for example, to refer
and the terrible repression which fol- to the choice of the citizens or to
lowed where hundreds of young peo- human rights without denouncing the
ple died, many changes have occurred: patriarchal structure which sustains
multi-partyism has been instituted, relationships between people and
freedom of expression granted and a which relegates women to an inferior
new constitutionvoted in. The people - status. Women continue to be re-
many women among them - have garded by some as responsible for all
begun to organise themselves into 'evils' in society, and by others as the
independent unions and associations. vanguard of the public life against a
corrupt power; but whichever, it can-
However, after nearly two years of not be denied that women are at the

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108 ReviewofAfricanPoliticalEconomy

centre of the struggle for citizenship Islamist movement which has devel-
which is the essential condition of oped in Algeria over the past two
democracy. decades and which uses women in its
religious and political discourse to
We wish to explore the implicationsof foster a traditionalistproject.Thus the
the 1988 uprisings and subsequent Muslim fundamentalists have pre-
events for women in Algeria. For a scribeduse of the Chariaa(Islamiclaw)
better understandingof this issue, we to confine women within the closed
need to explain how Algerian women space of home and patriarchalfamily.
have been used in the struggle be- In this sense women have become a
tween traditionalism and modernity focal point in Algerian politics in the
and to review the formand concernsof struggle between traditionalism and
their movement. modernity.

The issue of women has always been a Thecontradictorypressureson women


sensitive one. It was a daring move for are expressed in their participationin
women to actuallytake partin the war the wage economy. In the period
of liberation, since it was never re- immediatelyafterindependencesocial
garded as consistent with their role in differentiationwithin the countrywas
society that they should be freedom not extensively marked and the FLN
fighters.Yet some women managed to (National LiberationFront) could le-
impose themselves, confronting the gitimatelyclaimto be the expressionof
opposition of their families and the communal solidarity. Apart from a
reserved response of the Moujahiddine few circles on the left, the Algerian
(male freedom fighters).Their partici- society was acquiescent,still subjectto
pation was eventually accepted so far the power relations within clans and
as it served the cause of independence. allegianceto the leader, who typically
But when the war was over, women was an elder and male. Social changes
were asked to go backto theirkitchens. soon began to accelerate, however.
Rural-urban migration and the ap-
Still, it must be acknowledged that in pearanceof shantytowns were accom-
the attempt to constructa new society panied by mutations in the roles
based on the principles of socialism, attributedto the various members of
women were granted equal rights and the family. Of particular importance
had access to education and work was the factthatwomen began to enter
following independence. And a wom- the marketeconomy, as seasonal agri-
en's organisation (UNFA) was offi- cultural workers or servants in Euro-
cially sanctioned by government. But pean households.
in spite of this the specificity of
women's issues was not recognised. The economic crisis which became
Indeed it was assumed that women evident in the late 1970s, exacerbated
would build the country alongside by poor management of national en-
men, while at the same time safe- terprises,the move towards an era of
guarding the family as sacrosanctand consumption instead of production,
fulfilling their responsibilities within and the corruptionof some members
it. of the ruling class, led to greater
disparity between the social classes,
This notion of women's role in the with increasing pauperization on the
family has also been focused on by the one hand and the emergence of a
in Algeria 109
andDemocracy
Briefing:Women

categoryof the well to do on the other. tem.


This gave way to the reinforcementof
traditionalistand Islamistvalues which Apart from the small percentage of
began to be articulatedas an alterna- female graduates who have gained
tive to the corruptand unjust exercise high level positions in the professions,
of power. Traditionalismand patriar- the majority of Algerian women re-
chy had of course always existed mained largely unskilled and pre-
within Algeria, but their force had dominantlyconfinedto the household.
been muted by optimism in the possi- Few have made claims for equality of
bilities of modernist development. rights, being conscious of the difficul-
Theirreemergencewas a consequence ties encountered by a 'free' woman
of the limitationsof those possibilities, wishing to acquirerealeconomicinde-
but its impactwas to the disadvantage pendence in a patriarchalsociety. For
of women. Yet at the same time, some women, the family representsa
preciselybecause of economic difficul- place of securityeven though objective
ties increasinglybeing experiencedby conditionsmight suggest the opposite.
households,women were being drawn Such women are caught in a trap
into the labour force. Moreover, they whereby the prevailing view is that
continued to assume primary respon- female employmentis not a rightbut a
sibility for housework, purchase of reward to which one is entitled by the
basic necessitiesfor the household and acquisition of a diploma and yet for
looking after the health and educa- destitute households employment is
tional needs of their children. They not a right but a necessity. Their
were being pushed outside the home predicament is all the greater in the
by subsistence requirements of the context of poor conditions of trans-
family at the same time that tradition- port, limited job opportunities, low
alist elements were pressuringthem to wages and sexual harassmentin pub-
remaininside. lic places. Without academic creden-
tials and supportive social relations
Sinceindependence,women have ben- and structures,women accede to men
efited from three factors: the global a certain number of 'advantages' in
industrialisation project, the expan- exchange for men assuming responsi-
sion of educational opportunities and bility for their materialwelfare.
formal recognition of their rights un-
der the constitution. But their gains Thus patriarchyis sustained and en-
have been limited. Compared to Mo- trenched,even promoted by the pres-
rocco and Tunisia where twenty five ence of the tiny minority of women in
per cent of women have jobs, only the public sphere of the professions.
eight per cent were in wage employ- Yet at the same time that presenceand
ment it in Algeria in 1990. Most have -theconstraintswhich are the daily lot
remained confined to unskilled posi- of women have served to destabilise
tions - as house servants, room serv- the function of patriarchy.The contra-
ants in the para-medicalprofession,or dictions which impinge on women
seasonal workersin agriculture.How- have been exacerbated. While men
ever,as educationalopportunitieshave have had to acceptthe fact thatwomen
increased, a small number of women are taking more space in active life,
have gradually gained access to posi- there are those among them who
tions left vacant by men, largely in would wish to lock women into the
medicine, academe and the legal sys- Chariaa.
110 ReviewofAfricanPoliticalEconomy

These contradictionshave contributed but made no mention of the need for


to the dynamism of the women's men to obey their wives (Art.39).
movement. While it must be recog- Polygamy was officially recognised
nised that the pressure of objective with men being allowed to marry up
facts and events have helped to alter to four wives (Art.8). Men were
women's condition, it is women's permittedto repudiatetheir wives for
consciousnessas regardssexist legisla- virtuallyany reason(Art. 48),whereas
tion and a conservative mentality, women's right to divorce was ex-
often reinforced by Islamist values, tremely limited. Although only ad-
that has constituted the basis of wom- ministeringto familyrelationships,the
en's struggle. Women's interests have Code inevitably affected other aspects
been articulated, if not always af- of women's lives. Since they were
forded prominence, throughout the required to obey their husbands, for
period of independence. But it was example, they could be prohibited
perhaps from the early 1980s that from moving freely and in some cases
groups of women, composed mainly from getting a job.
of university teachers, students and
working women began actively to There was a blatant contradictionbe-
claim equalityof rights.Thoughfew in tween the substance of the Code and
number they have been visible by the increasingvisibility and participa-
virtue of being concentrated in the tion of women in various spheres of
largerurbanareas. public economic activity in Algeria.
Through the Family Code, the state
Debateconcerningwomen's rightshas delegated partof its authorityto males
focused on the issue of a FamilyCode. to exerciseon behalf of the female half
The Moudjahdate (women who partici- of the population. The male citizen
pated in the war of liberation)strenu- had rights and duties in relationto the
ously opposed each draft of the state, while a woman had duties
proposed code set forward by the defined by law towards her husband.
government in the period after inde- Everythingconcerninga woman'spub-
pendence, protesting particularly lic life was to be approved by her
against sections permitting polygamy husband or, if she had no husband,by
and repudiation.But their endeavour her father.Thus, the Algerian govern-
ultimatelyproved unsuccessful. ment legalised the inequalitybetween
men and women that had existed in
In 1984 the state decided in favour of the society, but which was in fact
the most backward tendencies in its beginning to break down. The Family
adoption of the Family Code. While Code of 1984 gave succour to tradi-
socialpracticewas evolving at the time tionalist elements, who strove to ad-
towards recognition of the status of vance theirposition further,but it also
women as responsible and fully adult served to galvanise some women and
in respect of rights associated with became the focus of their renewed
marriageand divorce,the FamilyCode struggle.
put women firmlyunder the authority
of men. It denied women the right to It is not accidental that the growing
majority,since their 'matrimonialtu- strength of the women's movement,
tor' was given the right to vote their and of that tendency within it which
marriage (Art. 11 and 12). It specified challenges the violence of traditional-
that a woman had to obey her husband ist elementswhich would negatewom-
Briefing:Womenand Democracyin Algeria 111

en's civil rights, has parallelled two tion of the Chariaa. The first project
other processes - the momentum to- refers to the citizen as producer of
ward democracy and growing Muslim legislation and meaning; the second
fundamentalism. Many and diverse calls on members of the ideal commu-
women's associations have begun to nity to be ruled by a sacred and
emerge over recent years: in the early therefore eternal law. And while the
1980s the modernist element of the first project places the individual -
women's struggle focused on the Fam- both men and women - on an equal
ily Code; since 1988, however, it has footing (at least formally), the second
moved on to a denunciation of all subordinates the individual to the
other forms of oppression, such as the sacred as interpreted and implemented
attempt to forbid mixed sex schools by those holding power, with women
and to prohibit girls from practising required to be submissive to male
sports. It has attacked verbal violence authority and men to the authority of
implicit in sexist speeches in the the state. These are the choices which
mosque and in the media. Yet its apply, and in terms of which women
essential demand was and remains the have positioned themselves.
recognition of full citizenship for
women. In the tumultuous present, Algeria has
been undergoing changes in the direc-
This said, divisions among women tion of economic liberalisation and
must also be acknowledged. The Octo- democracy, which have been halted,
ber 1988 riots unveiled, in the most or at least delayed, by traditionalist
exaggerated shapes, all the contradic- forces. The eventual outcome remains
tions, the perversions, the political and unclear, but it can be certain that it will
moral scandals within society - wealth have important implications for
grabbing, the existence of a category of women. While women are themselves
sub-citizens and the oppression of divided along various lines of class,
women. But they also opened the way educational achievement and religious
for the articulation of two totally conviction, it is the belief of the authors
different models of society - the 'Is- that their potential as full participants
lamic Republic' and 'Democracy'. in society is indicated only by the path
These parallel trends also divided of increased democratisation. Algeria
women into the feminist associations faces many difficulties, not least in the
which conceived of secular legislation economic sphere. But if the nation is to
or a re-writing of the Family Code, and avoid failure and disaster, it must set
the associations of Muslim fundamen- the basis for a real democracy that
talist women who call for implementa- entails full participation and effective
representation of all its citizens - both
within the family and in the polity. In
our view democracy not merely im-
plies freedom of expression and multi-
partyism, but the basis for establishing
principles of justice and equal rights. It
is not an end, but a process which must
be fought for and not taken for granted.
I(

4c ~ ~ ~ ~ 4 4 Dalila Djerbal is at SNED; Louisa Ait


Hamou is at the University of Algiers.