Imperialism in North Africa: Interview, Djamila Bouhired
By the eve of the revolution, Algerian demands for even limited political and civil rights had been repeatedly rebuffed by the French colonial regime and the nearly one million European settlers in the country. The only possible solution was armed conflict, which broke out on All Saints Day, November 1954. Thus began one of Africa’s cruelest anticolonial wars—an immense human tragedy that endured for eight long years, one whose consequences are still felt today in Algeria and France.
Since the rebels were vastly outnumbered by the French army and had little in the way of military equipment or supplies, the fighting was mainly in the form of guerrilla operations in rural areas. Depending upon where they lived—city or village—and their level of education, Algerian women participated in the struggle in three capacities. Rural women either joined the Army of National Liberation or provided food, provisions, and havens for the guerrillas; about 80% of the women who actively participated resided in the countryside. In cities, they joined the FLN (National Liberation Front) or served in support capacities. As Marnia Lazreg’s research shows, the urban women who participated in the nationalist struggle were often young, middle-class graduates of French lycées, for example, Djamila Boupacha and Djamila Bouhired. They were particularly important during the Battle of Algiers which took place in 1957 and was later immortalized by Italian film maker, Gillo Pontecorvo, in his 1965 film, La bataille d’Alger. French-educated women, who had never worn the traditional veil, adopted it as a military strategy in order to carry bombs, money, or messages from one zone of Algiers to another without being detected. A number of women were captured by the French police or army, imprisoned, and subjected to horrible torture as was Djamila Boupacha, who was raped with a broken wine bottle. Louisette Ighilahriz, who joined the FLN after her father was seized by colonial authorities, was imprisoned and tortured in Algiers’ notorious Barbarossa prison in 1957. Djamila Bouhired, who was recruited in 1956 for the FLN by her older brother, also became a cause célèbre after her arrest in 1957 for carrying a bomb. These women were eventually released due to international pressures from human rights groups and French intellectuals—but only after terrible suffering.
Despite the enormous risks, what did participation mean for women at the time? The words of one Algerian woman who fought with the maquis reflects the experience of many.
What impact did the national liberation struggle have upon the lives of women once the treaty of peace was signed with France? During the fury of the war, Frantz Fanon had predicted that a new social order would emerge from the dreadful carnage in Algeria—but he was wrong. Rather, the urgent human need for social order and the problem of appropriate cultural models for Algerian Muslim women arose after 1962. In an effort to assert political authority and cultural authenticity as well as restore their masculinity so badly bruised by colonial rule, male nationalist leaders proved notoriously resistant to demands for female emancipation once they assumed power. After 1962, the independent Algerian government registered nearly 11,000 women as war veterans, but this figure greatly undervalued the actual number of women who actively contributed to the war effort.
How do these women who once fought for freedom from colonial rule view their situation at the present time? Today Djamila Bouhired, now a grandmother, still militates. However, her battle is of a different sort—she is actively involved in feminist protests advocating immediate improvements in the legal, political, and social status of Algeria’s women. The fact that women’s rights are more restricted and less secure than in Tunisia raises questions about women, gender, colonial violence, and nationalism. In Tunisia, independence was achieved in 1956 with relatively little upheaval, while unspeakable violence, bloodshed, and social chaos reigned for years in Algeria. Herein lies one of the greatest paradoxes of colonialism and nationalist struggles—a paradox which women and gender studies can help resolve. The greater the institutionalized violence and the violation of basic rights under an imperial or colonial system of rule, the less likely it is that far-reaching, permanent changes in women’s status, condition, and lives will occur. Indeed, women can lose precious, hard-won rights that they had secured earlier due to invasion or imperial interventions—as events in U.S.-occupied Iraq prove today in 2005.
Source: Lazreg, Marnia. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge Press, 1994, 123.
This source is a part of the North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000 teaching module.
I am happy that my life has meaning and a direction that I chose from the very beginning, which is that of the Algerian people’s struggle against colonialism and oppression by foreigners. . . . I cannot express my happiness to be in the maquis better than by briefly taking stock of my positive experiences: First, I became aware of the superiority of our organization although I already knew that our struggle needed fighters and leaders. I understood that our army encompasses everything and assigns everybody the appropriate role and gives them the necessary responsibilities.... Secondly and equally importantly, I understood that the enormous apparatus that our leaders have rapidly set up rests on solid and proven foundations such as the confidence, devotion, participation and even heroism of our civilian population.