A proclamation in support of women to carry or metaphorically shoulder the weight of half of all life’s endeavours and Mao Zedong was its author. It is nowadays used in arguments aimed at trying to lower gender inequality and potentially turn oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. The infamous political glass ceiling has yet to get rid of and prove that women are a resource that ought to be deployed. Women empowerment and leadership have made strides in the workplace, but a lot remains to be done, especially in MENA countries.
The story below from An Englishwoman in Algeria is a good point in case, for today, March 8, International Women’s Day, in Algeria, where as it happens, there will coincidently be massive street demonstrations against the reconduction of an aging and ailing male president to yet another and fifth term in office.
Amidst the chaotic swirl of colour and noise that was our wedding, I had found a quiet corner where I could chat to two of T’s young cousins. They were like teenagers anywhere, giggly and bespectacled, showing off their best party frocks, and for me, they brought a reassuring air of normality to proceedings.
Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder — one that demanded my immediate attention. I turned around to meet a pair of shrewd black eyes belonging to a small woman who was scrutinising me, hands on hips, head thrown back and feet planted wide apart. My mother-in-law, fluttering anxiously next to the unknown woman, eyes darting from me to her, was wringing her hands and smiling tremulously.
Both of them seemed advanced in years to my twenty-two-year-old eyes, but they were probably only in early middle age, my mother-in-law in her late forties and her aunt, her father’s sister, for so her companion turned out to be, perhaps ten years older. But there the similarities ended.
My mother-in-law had skin like crumpled white silk, moist blue eyes and the comfortably rounded contours of someone who had been cosseted practically all her life. By contrast, her aunt, Fatouma, or NaF’touma, as she was known, seemed much older, her frame spare and rawboned, her weatherbeaten skin withered like that of an overripe apple. Her nose was a hawk’s beak, her small eyes sharp as she scanned the room.
Her dress hung off her shoulders — no womanly curves for her — and her headscarf was devoid of the customary decorative fringe and embroidered edging. It was rusty black, embellished only with a few forlorn woollen tassels, from under which poked wispy strands of greying hair, all that was left of what had once been a shimmering black curtain, cloaking her shoulders and curling down her back.
NaF’touma’s past had been full of the worst memories any life can offer — those of war and loss. At the outbreak of the independence struggle, she had taken up her shotgun and fought like a man with the other moudjahidine. Not for her the role usually carved out for women in the maquis — that of a nurse or a cook.
She was not a city-dweller, like those other young girls who had planted bombs in the bustling cafés and ice-cream parlours on the elegant rue d’Isly, but a highland Berber with the blood of generations of warriors running through her veins. Her battlefield had been the inhospitable mountains of Kabylie. She had greeted T, when he had ventured back up to the village after the cease-fire, with the words,”Why aren’t you dead…” — leaving the rest of the sentence — “….like all the others?” —unspoken.
I realised that it was important to my mother-in-law that her son’s choice of a bride meet with her aunt’s approval. I seem to have passed the test with flying colours, as every time I saw her at family weddings during the ensuing years, she would envelop me in a bear hug, thump me on the back and bellow greetings in my ear. She had an irrepressible joie de vivre and lived every day as a gift, something extra she had never expected, but had been given. I think that is why she lived to such a ripe old age. She was a woman of steel, refusing to be beaten down by the years.
There have been many such women of steel in Algeria. Berber women had a reputation for being in the vanguard of any battle alongside their men, and later, when I was to learn more about Algerian history, I became familiar with the stories about the legendary Berber queen, Dihya, called the Kahina, (the Seer), the fabled Tin Hinan, Tuareg Queen of the Campfires, as well as countless heroines who had taken up armed combat to resist the French, like the nineteenth-century Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer.
Dihya had become the war leader of the Berber tribes in the latter part of the seventh century, ferociously opposing the encroaching Arab armies, who had already captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage. Searching for another enemy to defeat, they had been told that the most powerful monarch in North Africa was “the Queen of the Berbers” and accordingly marched into what is now Algeria. The armies fought the Battle of the Camels in the present-day province of Oum el-Bouaghi, and the Arab armies were soundly defeated, only to return four or five years later.
Parallels can be drawn with Boudicca, as Dihya then embarked on a desperate scorched earth campaign. She was finally defeated at Tabarka, near the Tunisian border. According to legend, she died fighting the invaders, sword in hand — a warrior’s death. Other accounts say she committed suicide by swallowing poison rather than be taken by the enemy.
While there are no contemporary likenesses of the Kahina, she is often represented in idealised portraits and statues. For Berbers, these serve as confirmation that they, as a people, are strong and will not be conquered or diminished by others, and shows their support for the progressive ideals Dihya represents.
Even less is known about Tin Hinan, the mythical Tuareg Queen of the Campfires. The Berber Tuareg are a matriarchal society, and she was supposed to have been a fourth-century Tuareg queen. Many historians believed that she had not really existed, but her monumental tomb was discovered in the early twentieth century near an oasis over a thousand kilometres south of Algiers.
The tomb, of which the walls were decorated with inscriptions in tifinagh, was found to contain the skeleton of a tall woman, belonging to a Mediterranean race, lying on a wooden litter with her head facing east. She was wearing heavy gold and silver jewellery, some of it adorned with pearls. The funerary artefacts found buried with her all date from the third and fourth centuries.
I have already written about Fadhma N’Soumer, who led the Kabyle armed resistance against the French, who were seeking to bring Kabylie under their control in the nineteenth century. She was finally defeated at the Battle of Icherriden, a few kilometres from my husband’s village, in 1857. Once captured by French forces, she was imprisoned until her death six years later. She is known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.
Of course, strong Algerian women are not confined to the Berbers, not do they all belong to ancient history. The bravery of the young women who fought during the independence struggle, including Zohra Drif, Djamila Boupacha, Djamila Bouhired, Hassiba Ben Bouali and others, like NaF’touma, cannot be praised enough, even though many of them have been forgotten since.
But there had been a strangely ambivalent attitude towards women. Externally, the FLN pursued policies that highlighted women’s participation in the war. El Moudjahid, the FLN newspaper, sought to propagate the idea of the female warrior, venerating her as a martyr if she were killed, and extolling her as a linchpin of the independence struggle.
Internally, however, a statement made by an FLN commander best illustrates attitudes towards women. He said, and I quote: “In an independent Algeria, Muslim women’s freedom will stop at the door of their home. Women will never be equal to men.” The involvement of women in the war effort, especially those who were literate and from an urban environment, sometimes made their often-illiterate male counterparts uncomfortable.
After the war, although their help and support had been vital, women, regardless of their involvement and contributions to the conflict, were forced back into their pre-war subservience by Algeria’s prevailing social, religious, and cultural climate. It was as if they were being told, “Mission accomplished. Thank you for your help. Now get back to your kitchens.”
I have come to the conclusion that if some Algerian men are like this, it’s because Algerian women are strong, resourceful and brave and men find them too assertive, seeking to curtail their development by any means, even by the infamous 1984 Family Code, which reduced women to the statute of minors, to be under the authority of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons for their whole lives. For me, this male attitude is a betrayal of those heroic Algerian women who have fought for their own freedom and that of their country throughout the centuries.