Algeria: Algeria's quiet revolution: Gains by women

International Herald Tribune
Michael Slackman assesses the status of Algerian women.
In this tradition-bound nation scarred by a brutal Islamist-led civil war that killed more than 100,000, a quiet revolution is under way: women are emerging as an economic and political force unheard of in the rest of the Arab world.
Women make up 70 percent of Algeria's lawyers and 60 percent of its judges. Women dominate medicine. Increasingly, women contribute more to household income than men. Sixty percent of university students are women, university researchers say.

In a region where women have a decidedly low public profile, Algerian women are visible everywhere. They are starting to drive buses and taxicabs. They pump gas and wait on tables. Although men still hold all of the formal levers of power and women still make up only 20 percent of the work force, that is more than twice their share a generation ago, and they seem to be taking over the machinery of state as well.

"If such a trend continues," said Daho Djerbal, editor and publisher of Naqd, a magazine of social criticism and analysis, "we will see a new phenomenon where our public administration will also be controlled by women."

The change seems to have sneaked up on Algerians who for years have focused more on the struggle between a governing party trying to stay in power and Islamists trying to take that power. Those who study the region say they are taken aback by the data but suggest that an explanation may lie in the educational system and the labor market.

University studies are no longer viewed as a credible route toward a career or economic well-being, so men may well opt out and try to find work or to simply leave the country, suggested Hugh Roberts, a historian and the North Africa project director of the International Crisis Group. But for women, he added, university studies get them out of the house and allow them to position themselves better in society. "The dividend may be social rather than in terms of career," he said.

This generation of Algerian women has navigated a path between the secular state and the pull of extremist Islam, the two poles of the national crisis of recent years. The women are more religious than in previous generations, and more modern, sociologists here said. Women cover their heads and drape their bodies with traditional Islamic coverings. They pray. They go to the mosque - and they work, often alongside men, once considered taboo.

Sociologists and many working women say that by adopting religion and wearing the Islamic head covering called the hijab, women here have in effect freed themselves from moral judgments and restrictions imposed by men. Uncovered women are rarely seen on the street late at night, but covered women can be seen strolling the city after attending the evening prayer at a mosque.

"They never criticize me, especially when they see I am wearing the hijab," said Denni Fatiha, 44, the first woman to drive a large city bus through the narrow, winding roads of Algiers.

The impact has been far-reaching and profound. In some neighborhoods, for example, birth rates appear to have fallen and class sizes in elementary schools have dropped by nearly half. It appears that women are delaying marriage to complete their studies, though delayed marriage is also a function of high unemployment. In the past, women typically married at 17 or 18 but they now marry on average at 29, sociologists said. Fatima Oussedik, a sociologist, said, "We in the '60s, we were progressive, but we did not achieve what is being achieved by this generation today." Oussedik, who works for the Research Center for Applied Economics and Development in Algiers, does not wear the hijab and prefers to speak in French. Researchers here say the change is not driven by demographics; women make up only a bit more than half of the population. They said it is driven by desire and opportunity.

Algeria's young men reject school and try to earn money as traders in the informal sector, selling goods on the street, or they focus on leaving the country or just hanging out. There is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes, - the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.

Increasingly, the people here have lost faith in their government, which draws its legitimacy from a revolution now more than five decades old, many political and social analysts said. In recent parliamentary elections, turnout was low and there were 970,000 protest votes - cast by people who intentionally destroyed their ballots - nearly as many as the 1.3 million votes cast in support of the governing party.

There are regular protests, and riots, all over the country, with people complaining about corruption, lack of services and economic disparities. There are violent attacks, too: bombings aimed at the police, officials and foreigners. A triple suicide bombing on April 11 against the prime minister's office and the police left more than 30 people dead.

In that context, women may have emerged as Algeria's most potent force for social change, with their presence in the bureaucracy and on the street having a potentially moderating and modernizing influence on society, sociologists said. "Women, and the women's movement, could be leading us to modernity," said Abdel Nasser Djabi, a professor of sociology at the University of Algiers.

Not everyone is happy with those dynamics. Some political and social analysts say the recent resurgence in radical Islamist activity, including bombings, is driven partly by a desire to slow the social change the country is experiencing, especially regarding women's role in society. Others complain that the growing participation of women in society is a direct violation of the faith.

"I am against this," said Esmail Ben Ibrahim, an imam at a neighborhood mosque near the center of the city. "It is all wrong from a religious point of view. Society has embarked on the wrong path."

The quest for identity is a constant undercurrent in much of the Middle East. But it could be the most complicated question in Algeria, a nation whose borders were drawn by France and whose people speak Berber, Arabic and French. After a bitter experience with French occupation and a seven-year revolutionary war that brought independence in 1962 at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, the leaders here chose to adopt Islam and Arab identity as the forces to unify the country. Arabic replaced French as the language of education, and the French secular curriculum was replaced with a curriculum heavy on religion.

More than four decades later, Algeria's youth - 70 percent of the population is under 30, researchers said - have grown up with Arabic and an orientation toward Middle Eastern issues. Arabic-language television networks like Al-Jazeera have become the popular reference point, more so than French television, observers here said. In the 1990s, radical Islamist ideas gained popular support, and terrorism was widely accepted as a means to win power. More than 100,000 people died in years of civil conflict. Today, most people say the experience has forced them to reject the most radical ideas. So although Algerians are more religious now than they were during the bloody 1990s, they are more likely to embrace modernity - a partial explanation for the emergence of women as a societal force, some analysts said.

That is not the case in more rural mountainous areas, where women continue to live by the code of tradition. But for the time being, most people say that for now the community's collective consciousness is simply too raw from the years of civil war for Islamist terrorists or radical Islamic ideas to gain popular support.

There is a sense that the new room given to women may at least partly be a reflection of that general feeling. The population has largely rejected the most radical interpretation of Islam and has begun to return to the more North African, almost mystical, interpretation of the faith, sociologists and religious leaders said.

Whatever the underlying reason, women in the streets of the city are brimming with enthusiasm. "I don't think any of this contradicts Islam," said Wahiba Nabti, 36, as she walked through the center of the city one day recently. "On the contrary, Islam gives freedom to work. Anyway, it is between you and God."

Nabti wore a black scarf covering her head and a long black gown that hid the shape of her body. "I hope one day I can drive a crane, so I can really be financially independent," she said. "You cannot always rely on a man."

May 26, 2007