Publication Author:Karima Bennoune
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number of pages:168
While recounting atrocities by itself does not explain the crisis in Algeria, documenting the unfolding horror is a prerequisite to any meaningful discussion of the current problems facing many Algerian women. Consequently, this chapter will begin with an overview of the suffering currently inflicted on Algerian women, primarily by fundamentalist violence. The next step is to look beyond those crimes to the ideology and movement which motivates them, and thereby attempt to understand what is at stake in Algeria today and what the meanings of the country’s internal conflict are, both for the nation’s future and for women throughout the region.
This article cannot possibly contain a full account of recent events in Algeria, nor does it mean to condone human rights violations by the Algerian government because its focus is on the abuses committed by fundamentalists. According to Algerian human rights organizations, international human rights organizations, and press reports, the violations of the government have included extra-judicial executions, administrative detention and the use of torture. Using respect for human rights as the criterion for the evaluating legitimacy would disqualify both the Algerian government and fundamentalist groups from the right to govern Algeria. However, fundamentalist ideology and activity unquestionably pose a unique and overwhelming threat to the lives of Algerian women.
Living in a Waking Nightmare: Fundamentalist Atrocities Against Women in Algeria, from 1992 to the Present
The fundamentalists are hunting women.
I thought of buying poison so I can kill myself if taken by them alive, so all they get is a corpse. I am losing my hair from nerves.
At the offices of an Algerian newspaper in early December 1994, a woman journalist said with quiet firmness, ‘Go and tell them what is happening here. How shocking it is that so many outside do not know, that so many are ignorant and are silent. In Algeria every day women are being kidnapped, raped, mutilated, tortured to death and killed by members of fundamentalist armed groups which the United States government helped to train and with whom it continues to urge the Algerian government to dialogue.’ The principal armed groups are known as GIA or Armed Islamic Group, the MIA or Armed Islamic Movement and the AIS or Army of Islamic Salvation. Among the armed groups, the GIA is believed to be the leading perpetrator of attacks on civilians.
One of the first women to be assassinated in the current wave of violence was 21-year old Karima Belhadj, who worked as a typist in the youth and sports department of the General Office of National Security. Karima supported her entire family of eight with her paycheck and was engaged to be married. She was shot repeatedly in the head and abdomen while walking home from work, and died in the hospital on 7 April 1993.Many women were utterly shocked by the murder of Karima Belhadj and for many this event represented a new phase in the conflict, a phase in which the deliberate targeting of women on an ever-widening scale became the norm. A young woman journalist expressed the impact of the event: ‘We thought at the beginning that women would be okay. But when they killed a 21-year old woman who worked as a secretary in a police station, we realized we were wrong. Women are afraid. No one is safe.’
What follows is the smallest sampling of the escalation in atrocities against women since Karima Belhadj’s murder:
23 January 1994: In the city of Tiaret, Mrs Derouche Mimouna, 28 years old and mother of five children, is decapitated in front of her family.
25 February 1994: In Sidi Bel Abbes, two sisters, aged 12 and 15, are kidnapped and raped in the forest.
3 March 1994: In Tlemcen, a 69-year-old woman named Samia Hadjou is killed by having her throat cut.
23 July 1994: In Chlef, a 37-year-old working woman is killed in front of her children and her decapitated head is left in the street as a warning to others. Reportedly, her young children attempted to run into the street and retrieve their mother’s head.
7 November 1994: Birtouta, Blida region: The bodies of two young sisters, Saida (15) and Zoulikha (21) are found on the side of the road. They have been gang raped, their fingernails and toenails have been removed, and, as the final horror, their throats have been cut. They have been thus ‘punished’ because they refused to consent to a temporary marriage or ‘Zaouadj el-mouta’ with fundamentalist armed men. Their mother Khadidja, who attempted to protect her daughters, was found 20 days later in a mass grave, having been raped and killed like her children.
Given the growing frequency of such occurrences, it is understandable why two young women I met expressed the desire to carry poison with them, so that they might take their own lives if captured. As journalist Ouessila Si Saber concluded, ‘It is not an easy death, the women victims must suffer first, before dying.’ Despite the danger, Si Saber and many other Algerian journalists continue to sign articles about the attacks on women and to live and work in Algeria. It is largely due to their work, and that of increasingly besieged human rights workers, that documentation of the onslaught against women’s rights is available.
Dying Beautiful’: Violence and the Veil
Having visited Algeria in February and then in December of 1994, I was startled by how greatly the violence against women had escalated. The heightened pressure on women to veil is but one example. In March 1994, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) issued a statement classifying all unveiled women who appeared in public as potential military targets. To punctuate this threat, gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed two young high school students, Naima Kar Ali, 17, and Raziqa Melou-Ladjmi, 18, while they were standing at the bus station in Boumerdes, about 40 kilometers east of the capital. Katia Bengan, a 17-year-old high school student in Blida, had already been gunned down in the street while walking with a veiled friend on 28 March 1994. Katia had been warned by local fundamentalists, but refused to veil. Her friend was reported to have been left alive because she was veiled.
The campaign to force women to veil has been relentless. A woman professor who taught at the University of Blida until she stopped recently for security reasons said that most of the women students had begun to carry a scarf in their briefcases to put on before entering the University campus. She and another woman professor both described the impact of flyers and graffiti. They pointed to one particular slogan which appeared throughout Algiers during Ramadan in 1994. It warned, ‘O you woman who wears the jilbab (full robes), May you be blessed by God. O you who wears the hijab (headscarf), May God put you on the straight road. O you who expose yourself, the gun is for you?’ While in Algiers the majority of women remain unveiled, in rural areas and smaller towns, the pressure has forced many young girls and women to begin veiling. As one 22-year-old woman from Tlemcen expressed the mood of many young women students: ‘None of us want to wear the veil. But fear is stronger than our convictions or our will to be free. Fear is all around us. Our parents, our brothers, are unanimous: Wear the veil and stay alive.’
The pressure on women to wear the hijab highlights the use and misuse of concepts such as ‘traditional’ in relation to events in Algeria. While Algerian women have worn the haik, a white silk cloak covering the head with a lace kerchief over the lower part of the face, for centuries, the hijab and jilbab which the fundamentalists seek to impose are relatively new, having been brought to Algeria only in the late 1970s. The chador, which is worn by only a few women, began to be seen around Algiers in the late 1980s and is also clearly a foreign import. Algerian peasant women have never veiled, but have instead worn scarves tied only over part of their hair.
‘Layadjouz’: Forbidden Lives
Behavior such as working in non-traditional professions, for example as a school principal or woman activist, is deemed layadjouz or forbidden, and has lead fundamentalist armed men to ‘execute’ women. Women activists have been particularly targeted both with threats and violence. The killing of Nabila Djahnine, a 35-year-old architect who headed a Berber women’s group called The Cry of Women, in Tizi Ouzou on 15 February 1995, is but the latest tragic example. Many women activists live in hiding, some moving every few days to avoid attack, and even having to be separated from their spouses, children and families for security reasons.
Paradoxically, while women have been killed for playing ‘untraditional’ roles, they have also paid with their lives for participating in ‘traditional’ activities. Working as a fortune teller, running a Turkish bath or hammam, or even being a hairdresser have brought death on women because such activities have been deemed immoral by fundamentalists. Other women have been threatened because they are accused of being witches, particularly local traditional fortune tellers.
Another ‘punishable offense’ is marriage to a non-Muslim man. An Algerian woman married to a Belgian man was ‘executed’ along with her husband in January 1994. The woman and her husband had lived together in Algeria for 30 years at the time of their deaths.
Rape: ‘Nothing is More Traumatizing Than This’
In addition to killings, rape and gang rape are reportedly on the increase,. Kheira X, a young Algerian girl from the interior of the country, gave an interview to the Algerian newspaper El Watan describing her ordeal when kidnapped by the members of an armed group:
They threw me in a van without windows and drove for hours on end ...They then took me into a kind of cave, where there was already an old woman. A few hours later, three men came to find me. The woman who was close by me was crying quietly. One of them struck her, then they left.
One of the first women to report being gang raped by members of the fundamentalist armed groups was, ironically, the wife of an Imam, Akila Belarbi. This occurred in the town of Maalma, 150 kilometers from Algiers. Later rapes were reported in Jijel, Oran, Ain Defla and M'sla, as well as in Bouira which is only 200 kilometers from Algiers. In Bouira, a 9-year-old girl was the only survivor of the fundamentalist massacre of her entire family, but she was raped and clubbed in the head. In Boumerdes, east of Algiers, a middle-aged woman seamstress was kidnapped by the local ‘Emir’ and then beaten, tortured and collectively raped, by many armed men. She reported this to the National Human Rights Observatory.
The kidnapping of young girls and women for use as sex slaves by the armed groups became so widespread that, in a totally unprecedented move for a society where sexuality remains a taboo subject of public discussion, three young women between the ages of 15 and 28 who had survived similar ordeals appeared with their fathers on Algerian national television on 22 December 1994, to speak about their experiences.
Fifteen-year-old Khadidja told a shocked Algerian public of being kidnapped at gunpoint from her parents’ home in front of her family, kept in a ‘safe house’ for several weeks where she was forced to cook and clean for ‘God’s warriors’ and repeatedly raped.
A 17-year-old girl pseudonymed Ouarda testified in the press of her months in captivity in an armed group stronghold where she also was repeatedly raped until pregnant. After being kidnapped off the street while returning home in downtown Algiers, she was kept with a group of other young girls, one of whom was shot in the head and killed when she tried to escape. ‘Ouarda’ described the first rape:
The made all the other girls leave and the terrorists came in with me carrying their arms. One ordered me to take off my pants. I refused, saying that what he wanted to do was not good and that God condemned it and we were not married. He threatened me with his knife saying that he would slash me and that he would do whatever he wanted to as God would permit him because he is a moujahid and he would marry me later ... I was really afraid when he placed the blade of his knife against my cheek. I took my pants off, crying. He told me to take off my underpants. I screamed and refused. I begged him, saying that this was shameful in God’s eyes but he took a cigarette and lit it and began burning me on the thighs. I screamed and closed my eyes with my back to the wall. He burned me again and I fainted. I did not feel anything else. When I regained consciousness, I was on the ground covered in blood.
Women survivors are threatened with further punishment, and in the case of rape with shame, in fear and often in silence, even after assault has ceased. Many of these women have either gone into hiding or fled to other parts of Algeria, becoming part of an increasingly large community of internal refugees seeking safe haven in other cities. Furthermore, the general climate of terrorist violence against women has produced its desired effect: a widespread psychosis and insecurity among the female population at large.
Threats: Words That Change Lives
An even wider group of women than those who have actually experienced violent attacks have been subjected to harassment and threats; and, given the level of ongoing violence, these threats are terrifying and profoundly life-altering. Some women are threatened doubly, as women and also as members of other targeted groups like teachers. Few have paid as high a price as journalists of the print and visual media. A 25-year-old woman journalist recounted the events which sent her into hiding, living in a cramped hotel now used to protect the increasingly vulnerable journalist community.
I found my name on a list in the local mosque. It said that I am an apostate and should be killed. It said that I would be killed in the next few days. Fear is human. I was afraid. I thought of Tahar Djaout (journalist murdered in 1992). He said, ‘If you speak out, they will kill you. If you keep silent, they will kill you. So speak out and die.’ I won’t hide it from you, I was really afraid. I tried to hide and I tried to keep writing.
Teachers and other members of the educational profession have been particular targets as part of the ongoing fundamentalist campaign against modern education. This has included attacks on students and teachers and the burning of hundreds of schools, as well as threats against all who continue to participate in the educational system. A woman school inspector received the following threat in February 1994:
For [Miss X], School inspector, If you do not solve the problems of Muslims which you have created before the end of Ramadan, you will have your throat cut like all tyrants and sinners, The conditions on you are 1) Wearing the hijab permanently after the first day of Ramadan, 2) asking forgiveness from the Muslims that you have made suffer in your behavior as a tyrant, 3) we are watching you and we know where you live. We are not afraid of the police or the gendarmes but we will cut your throat before the end of Ramadan. If you do not [meet these conditions] before the end of Ramadan, you are responsible. We warned you before cutting your throat.
[Signed] The Islamic Group of El Harrache, Head of the Group Azedine, Long Live Islam, Long Live the GIA, the armed struggle for an Islamic state in Algeria.
The school inspector has been in hiding ever since. She has beenforced to alter her work schedule significantly, and to have only extremely limited contact with her family. In the wake of the threat, she experienced terrible emotional stress, remarking in February 1994 that she felt as if she were ‘living in a waking nightmare.’
In October 1994, Nadia X, a woman doctor in a suburb of Algiers received death threats from within her hospital. Her husband began accompanying her to and from work and the entire family suffered greatly from stress. The doctor said sadly, ‘It is so disturbing after all I’ve tried to do, remaining a doctor in the public health system, that someone out there hates me that much. You ask yourself: why?’ Her daughter, a college student, interrupted angrily: ‘There is no reason why.’ She softened, and in a quieter tone said, ‘A letter like that changes your life.’
Similar threats, and the knowledge that such threats are acted on, have provoked a mass exodus of Algerian professionals to Europe, Canada and elsewhere. Increasing numbers of Algerian women are currently seeking political asylum in the United States, with mixed results. Many are in great conflict over the decision to leave and face the difficult choice of whether it is a stronger stand against intolerance to stay and die or to leave and live.
‘Touched for Life’: Women as Witness to War
Women have also suffered from violence against family members. In a new twist, men are now being killed for the political views and activities of their wives. For example, Mohamed Redha Aslaoui, a dentist and the husband of Leila Aslaoui, a former judge and government minister who resigned from the current government in protest at its policies and spoke out against the fundamentalists, was assassinated by men who came into his office.
Often, a woman whose family member is killed will receive threats if she identifies the killer to the authorities. Mrs. X Kaddour whose husband was murdered, reported to the National Human Rights Observatory that in July 1993 she was ‘condemned to death’ for reporting the killing of her husband to the police. She was forced to flee to another area of Algeria. A mother, identified only as B. Rabah, whose son and nephew had been kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered by one of the fundamentalist armed groups received a threatening letter on 14 May 1994, condemning her to death and stating that her other son would be murdered just like his brother if he did not stop singing, because it is sinful.
When not directly attacked themselves, women have had to bear witness to the terrible whirlwind of killing around them. Almost every woman has lost a neighbor, a friend or a family member and they have often had to watch these deaths, unable to stop them. A male journalist described to me the impact of one incident on his wife:
My wife was there [when Abderrahman Cherbou, a journalist was killed]. They put a bag over his head and attacked him with a knife. He still had the bread he had bought in his hand. He tried to run away with the blood spurting from his throat. This is how my wife saw him and she is touched for life with this. He died twenty minutes later from loss of blood.
An overwhelming sense of powerlessness and uncertainty about the future is becoming pervasive. Some women professors have spoken of the growing ‘collective psychosis’ produced, particularly among women, by the escalation in violence during 1994. Commenting on the horrors about which women survivors had told her, journalist Zazi Sadu remarked:
Kidnappings, rape, torture, assassinations, ‘dishonor’, flight, exile, permanent fear of reprisals, nightmares, hopes and futures broken... Here is a sample of what the soldiers of the Islamic State offer to women and their families, only five years before the dawn of the 21st century.
Roots of the Nightmare: Fundamentalism and Violence against Algerian Women Before 1992
For some, the violence of the Algerian armed groups against women has come as a terrible shock. It is certainly unprecedented in the history of independent Algeria. However, for many Algerian feminist observers and critics of both the fundamentalists and the government, the violations of women’s human rights are but the logical conclusion of the ideologies of the political wing of the Algerian fundamentalist movement and the irresponsible policies and corruption of successive Algerian governments which helped to spawn that movement.
Throughout the 1980s, the government of Chadli Beniedid (president 1979-92) collaborated closely with the burgeoning fundamentalist movement. The fundamentalists provided the government with allies against progressive forces and discouraged populist challenges while the public sector was dismantled. Fundamentalist ideology served to harness and deflect popular anger and frustration with the economic devastation wrought by ‘reform,’ corruption and mismanagement. If the real problems in Algeria were not the housing crisis or the medicine shortage, but rather a lack of religiosity and cultural impurity, the government’s major failings could be overlooked. All the regime had to do was allow the fundamentalists to organize, to create its own face of cultural ‘authenticity’ by enacting the conservative and repressive family code of 1984, having the president’s wife appear in public in a hijab, and encouraging national assembly deputies to speak of sending working women back to their kitchens as a way of ending unemployment. According to Saida Ben Habylas, the official representative of Algeria to the Arab Regional Preparatory meeting for the Beijing World Conference on Women:
The history of the FIS and other ‘terrorist’ groups is a series of alliances with a corrupt ‘politico-financial mafia’ that helped bring about the economic and social inequalities in Algeria during the 1970’s and 1980’s ... Political pluralism and democracy could have meant exposure of corruption of the old order. This old order allied themselves with the FIS in the 1980’s and agreed to ‘share power.’ There was a deal.
Popular frustration with the policies of Chadli Benjedid’s government and widespread corruption came to a boiling point in the October 1988 riots which the government suppressed by killing and torturing hundreds of civilians. In the aftermath, rather than responding to the predominantly socio-economic demands of the rioters, the regime decided to deflect attention away from its own policies and culpability with political reforms. It legalized opposition political parties, liberalized restrictions on the press and established a timetable for multi-party elections. While in the abstract these are inherently positive developments, given the vast socio-economic problems caused by the government’s policies, in this context they served as no more than a formalist figleaf. Furthermore, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the major fundamentalist grouping, was legalized despite the constitutional prohibition on parties founded on the basis of religion. Given the lack of response to the demands of the October uprising and the failure to bring to trial those responsible for the killing and torture, the post-1988 period was the perfect environment for the spread of fundamentalism.
With the benefits of legality, FIS activity and support mushroomed. The negative consequences for women were plain to see. Women of all socio-economic backgrounds began to experience tremendous difficulty walking in their neighborhoods, going out to work and dressing as they chose. The FIS analysis of Algeria’s economic problems was summed up by the slogan, ‘Our crisis is a crisis of faith and morals.’ As such, women’s behavior, habits and dress took center stage in the movement’s agenda. Any progress made in women’s status during the previous twenty years seemed to erode overnight. Thus, a young working woman from a working-class background remarked to me while going through a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Algiers during the summer of 1992 after the military intervention, that she felt less fearful with the soldiers around than she had when the FIS cadres controlled her neighborhood.
While the FIS was a legal party, the number of attacks on women skyrocketed, on both the individual and mass levels. For example, women’s college dormitories were repeatedly besieged by FIS militants who threatened women residents, prohibiting them from entering or leaving. Often the authorities refused to interfere to protect the terrified women students. Though similar attacks occurred at the University of Oran  and elsewhere, the worst incidents happened during 1989-90 in Blida, a middle-class town and fundamentalist stronghold about 100 kilometers from Algiers. A group calling itself ‘the Redeemers’ was established to patrol the conduct of women. According to the Algerian newspaper, Algérie Actualité, the slogan of this movement was ‘All girls who go out at night will die.’ Members of this group constantly harassed women in the Ben Boulaid women’s residence at the University of Blida, threatening and sometimes actually physically assaulting them. As a press release written by a group of women residents who experienced these events said, ‘These fundamentalists, sure of their strength and egged on by the authorities’ silence, have taken the place of those who represent the law and have started to apply their own laws.’ In 1990 the situation in Ben Boulaid culminated in a siege by some 300 militants, reportedly including Ali Benhadj, the FIS’s second-incommand.
Clearly, the cancellation of elections by the military in 1992 does not, as the Western press frequently claims, mark the beginning of fundamentalist violence in Algeria. Rather, the fundamentalist violence against women was deeply rooted in the group’s ideology and practices and its commitment to the ‘policing of morality,’ even while it was a legal political party participating in an electoral process.
In the 1990 municipal elections, the first multiparty elections in the history of independent Algeria, the FIS won the majority of municipalities, probably due to popular frustration with the FLN and a lack of other viable alternatives. Subsequently, the party used its power to keep women out of various public spaces. They were banned from cultural centers and other public facilities. Buses were forcibly gender segregated. Women were chased off beaches and mixed marriage ceremonies were prohibited in public hotels. Sports and technical training for women was banned.
On an ad hoc basis, fundamentalists implemented their ideological agenda by harassing women who were merely trying to practice their professions. For example, an open letter from a group of women students at the Polytechnical School of Architecture and Urbanism in Algiers described being barred by FIS members from houses which the student group was to survey in Bourouba. The women students were told that their place was at home and the male students were told to take the women away. The women students commented: ‘We were considered as devils, we were really insulted and humiliated... Now our work has come to an end…‘
Other professional women were threatened if they did not put certain allegedly religious standards above the professional standards required in their work. This includes practices necessary for public health and safety. For example, a woman director of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at an Algiers hospital received threats when she attempted to continue implementing universal standards of sanitary practice in her hospital department. A women’s association commenting on the threats to this doctor asked:
Can we accept that student-nurses refuse to wash their arms, on the pretext that their religious convictions do not allow them to do so? What about the health of patients? Can we accept a husband’s refusal to let his wife be examined by a male doctor when there is no (female) on-duty doctor? In ... medicine, can we accept workers’ refusal to consult a woman doctor, whose work it is, and who is there to do it?”
The fundamentalist commitment to purification led also to attacks on individual women, particularly widows who did not remarry and other women who lived alone. These included five attacks during the same night in Bou Saada and another in Ouargla in 1989. In the Ouargla attack, the woman’s victim’s 8-year-old disabled son was burned to death when a group of fundamentalists firebombed his mother where she lived alone with her children, having been divorced by her husband and made homeless by the provisions of the Algerian family code. A woman activist’s home was also firebombed in Annaba in November 1989, leading women’s groups to organize demonstrations under the slogan, 'We Fear For Our Future'.
Women activists argue that too little attention is given to this terrorism against women which started before the interruption of elections in 1992 and before the attacks on male intellectuals and journalists. Had the earlier attacks on women been taken seriously, they argue, the later violence could have been predicted and possible averted. Given the unwillingness of the conservative regime of Chadli Benjedid to protect women or to see the assault on them as political, the true nature of the fundamentalist view of women and its basic relationship to the fundamentalist social project for Algeria were obscured.
Beyond Atrocities: The Meanings of Fundamentalist Violence against Women
How can the murder of a girl or a journalist bring an Islamic state?
It is difficult to make sense of movements which, on the one hand, call for women to be pure and chaste, and yet simultaneously engage in widespread gang rape. However, there are clear meanings to this seeming madness.
No group of women was as reviled by fundamentalist ideologues in the 1980s and early 1990s as the women activists who attempted to organize against the 1984 family code, the 1990 electoral law and for greater rights for women in Algerian society. When asked why, in her view, the Algerian armed groups were attacking women, an Algerian woman professor who used to teach at the University of Algiers until she was forced by the situation to stop, responded:
This is clearly happening because women are refusing to obey instructions they are being given. Women threaten the communitarian vision of the armed groups and raise the issue of equality. Some women are refusing to be assimilated into this project and continue to insist on protecting their individual identities and rights. The armed groups are disturbed by women’s groups which break their vision. Especially women activists. They are in this view, the absolute worst. They are ‘public women’.
These ‘public women’ were branded as ‘the avant garde of colonialism and cultural aggression’ and, because they opposed the family code which legalized polygamy, they were dubbed, ‘the women who want to marry four husbands’ by the fundamentalists. In an interview with Agence France Presse in 1989, Abassi Medani, the leader of the FIS, stated that the recent anti-fundamentalist demonstrations of women were ‘one of the greatest dangers threatening the destiny of Algeria.’ This is because the women participants were ‘defying the conscience of the people and repudiating national values.’ Arguably, this level of venom and misunderstanding represents the ideas of which the throat-slitting and gang rape of today are but the logical conclusion. When dress and behavior standards are imposed on women by ‘death sentences,’ and all ability to engage in educational, professional or political activity construed as foreign, women who challenge such a regime of morals become the ‘other’, the kafr, the apostate, and, in the literal and backward interpretation of the fundamentalists, an obvious target. Many of the women whose lives have been claimed by fundamentalist violence are not accidental victims, but are carefully chosen prey because their lives, activities and voices are a threat to the fundamentalist order. As H. Zerrouky argued in the Algerian newspaper, Le Matin, the roots of this violence go even deeper:
In fact, what is shocking about these young men who kill women when we know that they have been raised on misogyny since primary school? A misogyny relayed [to them] again by Abassi Medani who speaks of women ‘democrats’ as ‘spies of neocolonialism.’
These assassinations are finally nothing more than the culmination of the way in which women are treated in the country. After trying to close them in, to marginalize those who seek to reclaim their rights, we have moved to the ultimate stage.
The Other Algeria: Women’s Struggle Continues
You must know that there are Algerian feminists and we are now fighting for the right to life and the rights of women. We need the maximum solidarity. Algerian Woman Activist Neither the hijab nor the jilbab, neither Iran nor the Sudan. (Slogan from women’s protest against the violence, 8 March 1994.)
Despite the firestorm which surrounds them, Algerian women continue to defy the Emirs and their cohorts. They are doing this at both the collective and individual level. Collectively, women’s organizations continue to issue press releases, to meet in secret whenever possible, to try to provide solidarity to women survivors of violence and to women who have lost family members, to go on speaking to the foreign press, and to reproduce and distribute press articles on the current situation of women. Up until recently they continued to hold demonstrations which have become a seriously life-threatening endeavor. Women’s groups were key organizers of the nationwide demonstrations against violence on 22 March 1994, and many of the participants were women.
On an individual level, women perform what Fatima Mernissi has called ‘daily battle’ by continuing to go out to work and to go to school, by refusing to wear the hijab, by continuing to write and publish, and by attempting to care for their families in a situation increasingly fraught with peril and economic deprivation. Many such women with whom I spoke while in Algeria were deeply concerned that the outside world thought of Algeria only in terms of the chador and the fundamentalists. They expressed the hope that the outside world should know that they do exist, that they represent another Algeria, which retains its commitment to progressive values and tolerance. As one woman intellectual said, ‘It is important for people to know that a democratic Algeria exists in the women’s movement and elsewhere. If these values did not exist, there would be no struggle in Algeria.’
Algeria’s Turmoil in the Larger Context: Meanings and Messages
I have to believe that you Americans do not understand us or the full importance of our problem. Those whom you supported or still support in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are full of scorn for you. They believe that American women are filthy whores. I do not believe this and neither do my friends. We do not want to be like you, but we want to live in a country where we can be like you if that is what we please, or be like ourselves, or even wear a veil if we want to. But the Islamist terrorists, after they have turned Algeria into another Iran, will not give us any choices at all.
It is disturbing that the conflict in Algeria is most frequently discussed in the mainstream Western media in terms of its potential to generate waves of refugees who are not welcome in Europe. In an era when Huntington is attempting to split the world into cultural spheres, basically divided into ‘the Muslim world’ and ‘us,’ when Islam has replaced communism as the great post-Cold War whipping boy, the hysteria about the Muslim hordes has totally obscured the reality of what is happening on the ground in countries like Algeria.
On the other hand, while an anti-racist analysis is crucial to debunking such a demonology, one cannot fail to face up to the implications and nature of fundamentalism as practiced and experienced on the ground. To confuse fundamentalism with some sort of ‘essential’ or ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ Islam as a culture or religion, whether from an antagonistic or sympathetic perspective, is an incredible mistake. Similarly, to assume that those who oppose fundamentalism are ‘Western’ or ‘elite’ or lose their ‘authenticity’ as a result is equally misguided. In fact, ‘antifundamentalists’, for lack of a better term, have defended such ‘indigenous’ aspects of Algerian culture as Andalus and Rai music, and dancing at weddings. On the other hand, as documented above, the armed groups have actually violated nearly every principle of Islamic humanitarian law as well as international norms. Thus, the major dangers of Muslim fundamentalism are not for the ‘West’ or ‘Western civilization’ or even Western interests, but for the Muslim world and the people who live there. What is needed is a very careful political analysis which is not simply based on construing the enemy of one’s enemy to be friendly or worthy of support.
When I arrived in Holland after my last trip to Algeria, a Dutch man responded to my description of what is happening there by saying that an Islamic State would not change life for the majority of the country’s women. While this might be an attempt to critique the mainstream Western discourse on ‘Islam,’ it is a deadly analysis with terrifying consequences for those who will actually be ruled by any future Islamic state. It utterly ignores the track record of the Algerian fundamentalist movement as documented in this chapter.
The most incredible omission in much mainstream discussion of Muslim fundamentalism in the US is the role of the United States itself and other Western governments in promoting it, both actively and tacitly, as an option. The well-known US training of Algerian and other Arab Muslim fundamentalist armed men in Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 1980’s is the most concrete example. Western support of the destruction of the Algerian economy via the dismantling of the public sector is another example. As one woman activist said, ‘The West indirectly supports the FIS with its IMF and World Bank demands on Algeria. It is weakening the middle class and making the poor poorer and the rich richer.’ Despite these realities, Mark Parris, acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, in a statement before the Subcommittee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March of 1994, claimed that ‘Algeria’s crisis is largely home-grown’ and the product of ‘socialist mismanagement’.’ Ironically, in this very statement he alludes to the pressures put on Algeria by the US to reform its economy and to restructure its debt which he admits ‘might create hardship in the short term.’ A former Algerian prime minister was told by a visiting American delegation that the continued existence of a public sector in Algeria is considered a far greater problem than fundamentalism or fundamentalist violence.
The Way Forward
I am no intellectual, but I believe other people were told, elsewhere in other times that the evil and fear around them would pass. As far as I know, it did not pass. It got worse. I believe it will get worse unless someone hears us.
At this writing, the violence in Algeria is escalating yet again. The Armed Islamic Group set off a bomb in downtown Algiers, blowing up a bus, killing 42 people, and wounding 256 others on 30 January 1995. This was the single largest deliberate killing of civilians in the conflict so far and represented yet another new stage in the conflict. The GIA statement which claimed responsibility for this attack timed to mark the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, opined in frightening language that:
There will be no peace, no truce and no compromise, because this holy month of Ramadan is a time for killing and fighting, for victories and breakthroughs, and it is the duty of all fighters to intensify military work and religious struggle.
In one week in February 1995 alone, fundamentalist armed groups took responsibility for the killings of 11 intellectuals, including the director of the national theater, a composer of Algerian Rai music and feminist leader Nadia Djahnine. On the other hand, a prison riot of fundamentalist prisoners was quashed in late February 1995, killing nearly 100 prisoners. The spiral of violence seems to move only upward. Meanwhile, the economy, a root cause of many of these problems, continues to flounder, producing an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent.
One of the biggest fears of many women is that, in any settlement with the fundamentalists, their status is perhaps the most likely concession. This leads to what one woman described as the ‘key paradox’ in the Algerian drama ‘how to deal democratically with a movement which believes that democracy is heresy and which proposes a new power structure based on religious legitimacy, determined by a hegemonic vision.’
However, one of the very strong appeals of fundamentalism is its hegemonic and clearly articulated vision. One of the key challenges, therefore, is the clear articulation of an alternative, a third way, which represents neither the military-backed government and its allies in the ‘mafia’ nor the fundamentalists. As a woman intellectual envisioned this project:
The democratic movements and activists need to put a democratic front together, a front of those who oppose an Iranian-style regime in Algeria. This movement must pose concrete alternatives. The fundamentalists have been selling heaven and dreams. So the democratic movement must also sell a dream.
However, this is no easy task and many of those who could be key players in such a project, being critics of both the government and the fundamentalists, have either been killed or are in hiding. In addition, given the pressure placed on Algeria by IMF-induced austerity measures, it will become increasingly difficult to offer a real alternative as life becomes materially worse for people.
The final session of the Arab Regional Preparatory Meeting in Amman, Jordan for the upcoming Beijing Conference on Women passed a resolution condemning the violence against women in Algeria over the vociferous objections of the Sudan and despite the nervousness of many governments to raise the issue. After strong pressure from the nongovernmental organizations present, including a petition drive among delegates, the resolution was passed. It reads as follows:
We declare and affirm our solidarity with Algerian women, who are confronted with a fierce battle against their existence, thinking, education and right to life, a battle aimed at keeping them from participating in the development of their country and waged by the forces of extremism and backwardness, which chose the language of violence and terrorism instead of the language of dialogue. Those forces are committing the most heinous crimes in violation of the rights of women and children, just to achieve their goal of doing away with the gains of Algerian women and undermining the achievements of the Algerian revolution in which women participated effectively, made sacrifices and became a model for Arab women in their struggle for their country’s freedom, progress and stability.
Women of the world are called upon to show solidarity with Algerian women in their just struggle to protect their gains and rights to life and peace, for those are imperative conditions to insure world peace.
One can only hope that the violations of Algerian women’s human rights are recognized as key to the problems facing the country, and that any solution to the crisis deemed ‘peaceful,’ guarantees, as the above resolution indicates is necessary, women’s rights and equality.
Reprinted with permission from the publishers of:
Mahnaz Afkhami (Editor). Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd), 1995, pp. 184-208.
I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd
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 See e.g., Human Rights Watch World Report 1995: Events of 1994 (Human Rights Watch), p 256.
 See e.g., Youssef Ibrahim, ‘As Islamic Violence Accelerates, Fears of a Showdown in Algeria,’ New York Times, 22 February 1995, p. A6.
 This is a somewhat problematic and controversial term. However, the author greatly prefers it to ‘Islamist’ which seems to imply that there is something unique to the Muslim religion which captures the essence of such movements. The term ‘fundamentalist’ puts the phenomenon in the context of similar movements in other religions, which, although each shaped by its specific socio-economic context, share a particular historical moment. For a well-thought-out discussion of definitions of fundamentalism, see Ayesha Imam, ‘Women and Fundamentalism,’ in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, 11/12/13, p. 13.
 Interview with woman journalist who asked that her name not be used, conducted by the author at La Maison de la Presse, Algiers, 28 November 1994. Many of the names of women quoted or discussed in this article have been omitted, shortened or changed altogether for reasons of security. This was often done by the author at the direct request of the woman informer and is either clear from the text or has been noted.
 Interview with woman journalist, La Maison de la Presse, Algiers, 28 November 1994.
 See F.B., ‘USA: Pour la poursuite du dialogue?’ El Watan, 6 November 1994, p. 3.
 See ‘Deliberate and Arbitrary Killings of Civilians by Armed Political Groups in Algeria: Repression and Violence Must End,’ Amnesty International, October 1994, AI Index: MDE 28/08/94. See also, National Human Rights Observatory, ‘Attentats contre les personnes,’ Table containing a partial listing of women killed, raped and attacked between October 1992 and March 1994. The National Human Rights Observatory was originally founded by the Algerian government but has proved to be independent, objective and dedicated in its human rights work. Twelve of its 42 board members are selected by nongovernmental human rights organizations. See also, Selim Ghazi, ‘Terrorisme: ces femmes qu’on assassine,’ El Watan, 8 March 1994, p. 1.
 The targeting of women was one prong of the fundamentalist armed groups’ strategy, a strategy which included the deliberate targeting of intellectuals, journalists, teachers, athletes, musicians, writers, professors, lawyers and other civilians of both genders. See Flora Lewis, ‘The War on Arab Intellectuals,’ New York Times, 7 September 1993, p. A15.
 Interview conducted by the author with Naziha X (pseudonym), Algerian woman journalist at La Maison de la Presse, Algiers, 27 November 1994.
 While only a few of the attacks on Algerian women have received press coverage in the United-States, the phenomenon has filled the Algerian press. See, e.g, Algerian Press Service, “Terrorisme: vingt-cinq femmes assassinées,’ El Watan, 7 March 1994, p. 1; Mahfoud Bennoune, ‘Comment l’intégrisme a produit un terrorisme sans précédent,’ El Watan, 6 November 1994, p. 7; Ahmed Ancer, ‘Journée internationale de la femme: 8 mars de deuil,’ El Watan, 8 March 1994, p. 1.
 For all these cases, see National Human Rights Observatory, ‘Attentats contre les personnes,’ op. cit.
 Ouessila Si Saber, ‘Birtouta: la mère des deux filles a été retrouvée: de nouveau l’horreur’, Le Matin, 27 November 1994, p. 1.
 For example, compare, Karima Bennoune, ‘Algerian Women Confront Fundamentalism,’ Monthly Review, September 1994, and Karima Bennoune, ‘The Struggles of Algerian Women in 1995: To Be or Not To Be,’ in Newsletter of the Association for Research on Algerian Women and Cultural Change (ARAWOC), Winter 1995, No. 1.
 See Salim Ghazi, Boudouaou, ‘Deux lycéennes assassinées,’ El Watan, 31 March 1994, p. 1 See also, Youssef Ibrahim, ‘Bareheaded, Women Slain in Algiers: Killings Follow Islamic Threat,’ New York Times, 31 March 1994, p. A3.
 See ‘Algeria: Amnesty International Concerned by Growing Number of Killings,’ Amnesty International, AI Index: MDE 28/WU 02/1994, News Service 57/94.
 Howard LaFranchi, ‘Algerian Women Wary as President Renews Dialogue With Islamists,’ Christian Science Monitor, 13 April 1994.
 Interview with Professor Fatiha X (pseudonym), conducted by the author in Amman, Jordan at the Arab Regional Preparatory Meeting for the Beijing International Conference on Women, 6 November 1994. Professor Fatiha stressed that women are still teaching at the University of Blida despite the tremendous risks and constant threats.
 Interview conducted by the author with Professors Fatiha X and Zohra X in Amman, Jordan, 5 November 1994.
 Fatima B, ‘Perspective on Human Rights: Wearing the Veil, Under Penalty of Death; In their Quest to Root Out ‘Western Corruption’ Islamic Fundamentalists Declare Open Season On Algerian Women,’ Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1994, p. 7. Fatima B. is the pseudonym of a 22-year old Algerian woman. The article was translated into English by the French Committee for Intellectuals.
 For example, Z’hor Meziane, director of Si El Haoues primary school in Birkhadem, a suburb of Algiers, was shot and killed inside her school on 27 February 1994. Ms Meziane, who was married and had three children, was a veteran of the war of national liberation and a practicing Muslim. She had been a teacher for 20 years and had served as school principal since 1980. Prior to the attack, she had received death threats. See Hassane El-Cheikh, ‘Terrorisme, une directrice assassinée: le corps enseignant visé,’ L’Hebdo Liberé, reprinted in Rassemblement Algérien des femmes Démocrates (RAFD), Pour une Algérie debout.
 See ‘Militants Suspected of Killing Feminist,’ New York Times, 16 February 1995, p. A7.
 A 60-year-old woman fortune teller was raped and had her throat cut in Kherrouba near Boumerdes on 15 December 1993. See Ghazi, ‘Terrorisme: ces femmes qu’on assassine,’ op. cit., p. 1. A 38-year-old woman from Berrouaghia who ran a small business as a herbalist reported that she had received a letter containing death threats and accusing her of witchcraft. ‘Fiche de Synthèse de Zohra X,’ October 1994, ONDH.
 See, e.g., National Human Rights Observatory, ‘Fiche de Synthèse, Affidavit of Zohra A., 38 years old and a widow.’ Complaint from 10/94.
 See Bennoune, ‘Algerian Women Confront Fundamentalism,’ op. cit., p. 28.
 Comment from Ouessila Si Saber after attending the exhumation of the body of the mother from Birtouta, described above.
 Amel Boumedienne, ‘Quand les femmes sont un butin de guerre: le martyre de Kheira,’ El Watan, reprinted in Le Nouvel Observateur, No. 1576, p. 30.
 See National Observatory of Human Rights, ‘Attentats contre les personnes,’ op. cit. See also, Ghazi, ‘Terrorisme: ces femmes qu’on assassine,’ op. cit., p. 1.
 See ‘Attentats Contre les Personnes,’ op. cit., which among other atrocities, details the rapes of a 60-year-old fortune teller named Zohra Semmir in December 1993 in Kherouba and two 17-year-old girls, identified only as Fadhila and Fatma B, on 5 December 1993 in Relizane. The rape of Fadhila and Fatma is also discussed in Ghazi, ‘Terrorisme: ces femmes qu’on assassine,’ op. cit., p. 1.
 See Le Martyre de Kheira’, p31.
 National Human Rights Observatory, ‘Fiche de Synthèse,’ 26 October 1994, on file with author.
 Zazi Sadou, ‘Les ravages de l’intégrisme: le martyre des femmes violées,’ El Watan, 24 January 1995, p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 1.
 This is exactly the condition described by a young woman participating in the large 22 March 1994 anti-fundamentalist demonstrations in Algiers. She was quoted as saying, ‘There’s a national psychosis.’ ‘Algeria: Terror at Large,’ The Economist, 26 March 1994, p.46.
 Most recently, on 21 March 1995, television journalist Rachida Hammadi, 32, was seriously injured by gunmen when leaving her parents’ home. Her sister Meriam, 36, was killed when she tried to protect Rachida by throwing herself in front to shield her. See Nora Boustany, ‘Journalism: Algeria’s Fatal Profession,’ Washington Post, 23 March 1995.
 Interview conducted at La Maison de la Presse, 28 November 1994, Algiers with Nabila X.
 See Human Rights Watch, op. cit., p. 257.
 This threat was shown to author in February 1994. See Bennoune, ‘Algerian Women Confront Fundamentalism,’ op. cit., p. 28.
 Interview with Sadia X, Algiers, February 1994.
 Affidavit, ‘Menaces de mort,’ document from the National Observatory of Human Rights, on file with the author.
 Fiche de Synthèse, ‘Menace de mort,’ on file with the National Human Rights Observatory in Algiers, Algeria. Affidavit taken on l6 May 1994.
 Interview conducted by the author in La Maison de la Presse, Algiers, 28 November 1994.
 Sadou, op. Cit., p. 3.
 For more background, see generally Karima Bennoune, ‘Between Betrayal and Betrayal: Fundamentalism, Family Law and Feminist Struggle in Algeria,’ Arab Studies Quarterly, Winter 1995.
 See Aicha Lemsine, ‘Women in Algeria: Stake or Alibi’ (Part II), Friends of Algeria, 1, 3 (1993), p. 1.
 See Miriam Shahin, ‘Algerian Women fight Terror,’ The Jordan Times, November 1994, p. 1.
 See generally ‘Comité National Contre la Torture,’ Cahier Noir, (October 1989) and Abed Charef; (October 1989).
 Cited in Nora Boustany, ‘Muslim Right Presses for Battle in Algeria’, Washington Post, January 1993, p. Al2.
 The author does not mean by including this statement to condone the military intervention which halted the elections in 1992. However, it is important to listen to divergent perspectives on the impact of this event on many Algerian women.
 On this incident see, ‘Des ‘Justicier’ aux portes de la citè,’ Alger Rèpublicain, 1 January 1991, p. 1.
 See ‘Existe-t-il des milices islamiques à Blida?,’ Algèrie Actualitè, 128 April 1990.
 Papers from the Algerian Women’s Movement,’ in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, 11/12/13 (May 1993), p. 22.
 See, e.g., ‘Sports for Women: Banned at Tiaret University,’ Alger Republicain, January 1990, reprinted in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, op. cit., p. 27. This article details how a 19-year-old student and member of the national judo team was physically assaulted and thrown out of the university’s sports hall when she attempted to continue training despite the ban imposed on women’s sports. When the male president of the sporting association attempted to assist her, he too was assaulted.
 Open Letter from the students of the Polytechnical School of Architecture and Urbanism, printed in AITDF1 Bulletin, reprinted in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, op. cit., p. 22.
 Intolerable Pressure,’ Independent Association for the Triumph of Women’s Rights, press release, reprinted in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, op. cit., p. 27.
 See Bou-Saada, ‘Cinq veuves et leurs enfants violemment agressès a l’heure du f’tour,’ Horizons, 11 April 1990.
 Zenati, ‘En Algèrie, le dèbat sur la mixitè tourne au dialogue de sourds,’ Agence France Presse, 27 August 1989, reprinted in M. Al-Ahnaf et al., L’Algèrie par ses islamistes (1991), p. 253.
 Horizon, 22 November 1989, Reprinted in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, op. cit., p. 29.
 Interview conducted by the author with Algerian woman journalist, La Maison de la Presse, Algiers, 28 November 1994.
 Interview with Zohra X, op. cit.
 See ‘What the FIS is Saying,’ GET NEWspaper, 14-20 December 1989, reprinted in Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier, op. cit., p. 28.
 H. Zerrouky, ‘Femmes: l’edito,’ Le Matin, August 1994, reprinted in RAFD, Pour une Algerie debout. The particular impact of misogyny in education to which Zerrouky refers was magnified by the large numbers of fundamentalist teachers. Many of these were immigrants from Egypt whom Nasser was trying to get rid of by exporting them to Algeria, which lacked Arabic-speaking teachers after independence given the impact of French cultural imperialism. During the 1980s, the Algerian press reported that some fundamentalist teachers were asking school children about their parents’ activities and telling them that their parents were going to hell because their mother appeared in a bathing suit at the beach.
 A grenade was thrown into the June 1994 demonstration of the MPR (Mouvement Pour la République), killing two people and injuring many others, including feminist organizer Khalida Messaoudi, President of the Independent Association for the Triumph of Women’s Rights. Professors Fatiha and Zohra stressed to me that this demonstration had continued after the grenade attack, largely at the insistence of women participants. However, the attack has somewhat chilled the atmosphere for demonstrations.
 On women’s demonstrations, see also, LaFranchi, op. cit., p. 5. Popular demonstrations against the violence have been frequent despite the associated risks. Some of these have clearly been government organized, while others appear to be the spontaneous response to various atrocities. See, e.g., ‘Marches populaires: le défi au terrorisme,’ El Watan, 9 November 1994, p. 3.
 Interview with Fatiha X, op. cit.
 Fatima B., op. cit., p. 7.
 On Islamic humanitarian law, which includes prohibitions on the killings of women, children and other non-combatants during war, see Karima Bennoune, ‘As-Salaamu ‘Alaykum: Humanitarian Law in Islamic Jurisprudence,’ Michigan Journal of International Law, 15, 2, p. 605.
 Shahin, ‘Algerian Women fight Terror,’ op. cit., p.1.
 Update on the Crisis in Algeria,’ printed in Middle East Policy (some time between April 1994 and September-November 1994), pp. 188-9.
 Ibrahim, ‘As Islamic Violence Accelerates, Fears of a Showdown in Algeria,’ op. cit., p.A1.
 Originally published in the London-based Arabic language newspaper, Al Hayat, the statement was reprinted by Youssef Ibrahim, ‘Islamic Rebels Say They Set Off Bomb in Algiers,’ New York Times, 6 February 1995, p. A5.
 Ibrahim, ‘As Islamic Violence Accelerates, Fears of a Showdown in Algeria,’ op. cit., p. A1.
 Interview with Zohra X, op. cit.
 Interview with Fatiha X, op. cit.
 Declaration of the Participants in the Arab Regional Preparatory Conference for the Beijing Conference on Women, Amman, Jordan, 3-10 November 1994.
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