Written Work by Graham T. Baden
Tradition, Autocracy, and the
Pursuit of Gender Equality in Algeria, 1954—2014
Algeria, a nation of social contrasts and political contradictions, stands out as an enigma in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Since its revolution during the 1950s, resting at the center of a dialectic between “tradition” and “modernity,” Algerian national identity and the women who claim it have had a tumultuous relationship. Veiled and unveiled, in public, schools, and even sports, Algerian women have been important agents of change in Algeria for half a century. Yet, Unicef, Freedom House, Gender Index, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, et al. still rank women’s rights in Algeria behind most of the world, and even behind other MENA nations like Bahrain, Morocco, and Lebanon. Although Algeria is a land among the highest ranked in Africa for its rate of female education and political participation, and women were essential elements of its drive for independence, Algerian women still struggle against its authoritarian and patriarchal structures of power; however, unlike the prevailing Western narrative of why this might be the case, research suggests this has nothing to do with religious conservatism, but with patriarchal and autocratic nepotism and neoliberalism.
To determine evidence of Algeria’s gendered cognitive dissonance, and to identify potential causes of women’s civil insecurity, this paper will outline three specific areas of women’s rights within Algeria— their political participation and representation within the state, their educational and employment opportunities, and their social rights and liberties. It will relate men and women’s positions in Algeria, taking special interest to highlight the recent waning of civil rights in general and the dislocation of the democratic process that has occurred since the end of their civil war of the 1990s. Finally, it will determine areas of concern and potential threats to the future of gender equality within a region that did not fully participate in the popular unrest of the Arab Spring.
While many colonized territories had begun to achieve sovereignty during the 1950s through non-violent political development, Algeria became the first African land to demand its independence through organized upheaval. The Algerian War, an important expression of African political and social agency, was a turning point for the Francophone world. In 1954, likely inspired by the developments in French Indochina (now Vietnam), the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) developed a strategy of violence and terror to win back the lands of Algeria from the French occupiers who had seized the territory and subjugated its peoples. In the eight dramatic years that followed, the FLN executed a successful guerrilla campaign against the French troops sent to quell the rebellion in rural areas and staged frequent acts of terror within the French Quarter of Algiers. To achieve these ends, the FLN relied heavily on the support and aid of Algerian women, who acted as nurses, messengers, porters, and even bomb planters. These efforts were not rewarded, though, and the region retained a cultural bias against women despite their war-time accomplishments.
Almost immediately after independence, military and bureaucratic elites began to consolidate power and establish patriarchal methods of control within the government. Regardless of their participation in the war, political authority was not shared with women. The FLN, established as the single governmental party, went to work constructing the state of Algeria and founding a new national identity apart from social, ethnic, or religious associations. The Union National des Femmes Algériennes (UNFA), the first official women’s organization in Algeria, founded and funded by the FLN in 1965, was pivotal in mobilizing women to back the new state policies of the sole Algerian party. In spite of these efforts, women fell back into their place of traditional inferiority, and any credibility they had secured during the revolution faded in the new light of state sponsorship.
Notwithstanding the state’s nationalist aspirations, the Algerian population remained divided along idealistic lines. Much of the established authority, belonging to the secularist, West-leaning camp, was criticized for their collusion with the imperialists and former occupiers by a growing conservative and Islamist trend in Algeria. In response to this upwelling, the state formulated the Family Code, a series of regulations based on a conservative reading of Shari’ah law that fundamentally institutionalized the inferiority of women. While their first attempt at implementation in 1981 was met with popular, grassroots resistance among women’s groups and associations, by 1984, after subtle but inconsequential edits to the document, the code was passed with little public debate. Research offers no indication to explain this unfortunate absence of women. Though one might assume this conservative turn of events led to the loss of women’s place in public and their redirection into the private sphere, as was the case in other nations of the Arab World, quite the opposite is true. In fact, women have remained important public agents since then. The code merely codified patriarchal authority over women in Algerian society and ameliorated tensions with the rising Islamic fundamentalism.
The Algerian state continued its efforts to improve its relationship with popular society, and in 1989, in response to increased pressure from international economic partners, it opened up the opportunity for democratic elections and a multi-party system. Soon, nearly sixty political parties had sprung up in Algeria, many regionally, ethnically, and religious based, and the government hosted its first governmental elections in 1991. However, when the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), a popular Islamist party, gained a majority in the polls, especially in the urbanized areas of the North, the FLN disbanded the election and refused to cede its power. The nation was soon plunged into a civil war between the old, established powers of the revolution and the new, populist Islamic movements that had evolved during the 80s.
The war lasted a decade, and it saw Algeria through some of its worst periods of civil and women’s rights. In 1994, when the military seized control of the government, and fighting between the Islamist parties and the FLN were at their peak, Freedom House ranked Algeria at its lowest ever score. The FIS even declared a fatwa in 1994 authorizing the killing of women seen without a hijab. It should be noted, though, that all factions involved in the strife were accused of war crimes. While the worst atrocities are attributed to Islamist groups, research suggests that nearly 10,000 Algerians “disappeared” at the hands of the FLN. Figures are inconsistent, but it appears between 150,000 and 200,000 Algerians died during the civil war. By far, the worst victims of the fight were ethnic and religious minorities and the women who suffered rape, torture, and forced marriage or impregnation. Despite this, women still organized into associations and formed support groups for women. The Collective against Denigration and for the Rights of Algerian Women (RACHDA), an NGO formed in 1996, is one shining example. In spite of the increased violence from both sides of the conflict, women staged protests and demonstrations against the patriarchy of the period.
Granting its decade of military chauvinism, the Algerian government appears to have pursued popular representation, and it steadily changed its practices towards democratization and gender equality. In 1996, Algeria officially established a second house of parliament, one that was to be elected, rather than appointed, and any new parties that were not determined by specific regional or religious biases could run for seats. One important change for women was their right to self-representation. Though they had held the right to vote since 1962, it wasn’t until 1997 that the patriarchal family-head lost his ability to vote for all members of the household. Further, by 2011, through a quota amended to the constitution, women were ensured at least a third of the seats in the lower house—the highest rate in the Arab World. As well, a UN report in 2008 found that 800 judges— almost half the judiciary— and nearly a third of all lawyers in the Algeria to be women.
Although these seem to have been positive movements, the single greatest political change for women since the Millennium has been the relaxation of the Family Code. In 2005, the Algerian government officially revised the code, removing clauses that discriminate against women directly. The new revisions gave women greater freedom of movement without patriarchal authorization, increased divorce rights and opportunities, and it removed the specific regulation requiring women’s obedience. The phrase “the duty of the wife is to obey the husband” was removed from the Family Code, and women saw their first signs of legal equality in twenty years.
To further confuse this gender dialectic, Algeria has one of the highest-ranked ratios in the Arab World of women to men enrolled in all levels of education. Girls and boys are represented roughly equally in elementary school, with 93 and 95 percent enrolling and graduating respectively. Yet, by secondary school, enrollment rates for males have already been overtaken by a few percent. In tertiary education, the ratio gap is even wider. Gross college enrolment is higher for women than men (36 to 25 percent), and women outrank men in graduation rates by nearly two to one. However, despite this relative overrepresentation in education, women are still severely underrepresented within the economic sphere. Women’s participation in the economy is merely 39 percent, and they make up only 17 percent of the total work force. That said, these figures may be skewed by an uncounted percentage of women working from the home or in unregulated trades like the marketplace. It is interesting to note, however, that women are rapidly joining the higher echelons of employment. Due to their college educations, many women are turning to medical, educational, judicial, and governmental fields. Despite this, studies of women in Algeria find that women still feel prevented from entering the workforce due to the social constraints of domesticity and the threat of sexual harassment.
In fact, while sexual harassment has been criminalized since a 2008 amendment to the constitution, even requiring jail time for offenders, it remains a valid constraint to women’s employment because harassment is defined only as an abuse of authority in the workplace. As well, while Unicef finds that women’s health, pre- and post-natal care, and rate of contraceptive use is increasing—even in the poorest 50 percent of the population—gross population figures are misleading because rural areas are both under-covered by facilities and under-represented by the surveys. Further, sexual violence is criminalized, can lead to two years in prison for offenders, and in 1998, women who had been rape victims of the civil war were given the right to abort their pregnancies by a fatwa of the Supreme Islamic Council in Algeria. However, sexual violence remains defined as an hatk al-’ardh, “attack of the honor,” instead of the French word viol for rape. Thus, it is considered an attack on the honor of the woman’s family, and if the offender marries the victim, he may “expunge” her families honor and will not go to trial.
Scholars are skeptical of what has appeared to be an increase of women’s rights, though. For while women are overrepresented in colleges, equally represented in judicial affairs, and occupy at least a third of the seats in parliament, they are severely underrepresented in the economy and restricted from participation in actual political development. In spite of this increased representation of women in politics, instead of improving the lives of women in Algeria, Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennesee State University, suggests, “the government will empower and support those women who do not (and will not) challenge the current political system and/or current regime.” Boutheina Cheriet, a professor at the University of Algiers, goes further, and states that women are “expected to endorse a weak and inadequate status as citizens by accepting their effacement from major decision-making processes, especially those pertaining to personal status and family legislation.”
Arab Spring sans Algeria
So why this disconnect between the governing elite and the populace of Algeria? Though it seems the government has fostered methods of popular representation since the mid-90s, despite the nation’s history of rebellion, the people of Algeria have not responded as many regions of the Middle East have and did not widely participate in the “Arab Spring.” Even as the Algerian government revised the Family Code in 2005, and offered what appears to be efforts of democratization and modernization, Algeria has not seen the development of uprisings as in its neighbors Tunisia or Egypt. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime even lifted a nineteen-year-old state of emergency, enacted in 1992 to give the government extensive powers in the interest of fighting terrorism, but the few urban protests against government corruption in 2011 were short lived and had little effect.
Journalists have suggested this might be attributed to the people of Algeria’s fear of becoming embroiled in another conflict like their decade-long civil war of the 90s. Perhaps, more convincingly, this is due to the increased restrictions of Algerian civil rights that have occurred since September 11th, 2001 and the rise of the global “war on terror.” It seems, since their civil war ended, Algerian civil rights have been consistently constricted. Human Rights Watch reports an increase in state regulation on the freedoms of assembly and association, arrests and incarceration of union members and community organizers, and careful controls of the media. The state fines and imprisons journalists for any work that “may harm the national interest.” The fundamental Algerian rights of assembly, association, and speech are fading quickly, and the limited protests that occurred in Algeria between 2010 and 2012 were suppressed by police and its organizers were arrested without hesitation.
Further, Bouteflika, who was elected in 1999, and saw the ending of the civil war in 2002, has since overseen constitutional amendments to remove limits on presidential terms. He was elected to his third term in 2009, is now the longest-serving president in Algerian history, and has actively pursued the establishment of elaborate and nepotistic networks of power behind the scenes of surface-level Algerian policy—what some have termed “the deep state.” The real power in Algeria, though, one that has maintained its authority since the revolution, is “le pouvoir.” This ruling elite, preserving power through the manipulation of wealth from the land’s surplus of hydrocarbons, has ensured a further centralization of authority despite the political articulations of the military, Islamists, or the population.
In fact, many accuse the government for their collusion with elite circles in the economy, military, and Islamists. The Peace and Reconciliation Accord, passed by a referendum in 2005, offered amnesty to war criminals, literally criminalizing investigations of war crimes that occurred during the civil war. Many, from the groups most hurt during the civil war—ethnic minorities and women—suggest this only lead to alliances between corrupt military generals, jihadists, and political elites. Their resistance to transparency, and the behind-closed-doors negotiations with corrupt oil industries like Sonatech, who avoided trial for corruption in 2010, have led to a mistrust of the government and a disdain for the state. One need only look at the 2012 parliamentary elections, where more than half the eligible voters abstained from the vote, to see what little faith the population has in the government.
The Algerian regime retains but a fragile legitimacy, standing atop a delicate balance between secular Arabs, ethnic minorities, and Islamists. Despite surface-level reforms that have offered a ruse of political development, corruption, the oppression of civil liberties, and the lack of any real political competition or representation have tarnished any progressive actions the Bouteflika regime has proposed. Further, the regime’s coopting of moderate Islamists, hidden political manipulations, and the push for a nationalist, rather than ethnic or religious identity, has ossified cultural divisions, fractured any opposition, and left many Algerians with feelings of alienation and betrayal.
The patriarchal turn of events in the sixty years since Algerian independence, alongside the questionable practices and human rights violations of the FLN during the civil war, seems to indicate that the government of Algeria is not so different from the French occupiers they had replaced. Some have even suggested that the women of Algeria were “re-colonized” by Algerian men directly after independence. Mounira Charrad, a Tunisian-born professor at University of Texas and a researcher of women’s issues in the Maghreb, told Africa Renewal that while the law has become easier to change, “what the law does not change is the social situation.”
Is this the case, though, or can it be argued that while the political authority of Algeria’s elite rests solely within male reach, both men and women have had their rights and civil liberties stripped from them, especially since the Millennium? While men and women are still not “equal” in the eyes of Algerian society or politics, both have been hindered by the authoritarian, single-party government and suffered the loss of free expression, press, and association since the end of the civil war. As Abdelkader Cheref, author and professor at Potsdam State University, New York, states, “power has never been in the hands of the people but in the hands of a powerful and hegemonic nomenklatura.” Like any autocracy, it seems those who reside within the palaces of the oligarchy are less interested in race, religion, or gender identities than they are in the mechanisms of power and in the ways of acquiring more of it.
Special thanks to Dr. Houri Berberian
Download a copy of the Presentation Below:
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 Nadia Marzouki, “Algeria,” chapter in Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, Sanda Kelly and Julia Breslin eds. (New York, NY Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 1.
 Dalia Dassa Kaye et al., More Freedom, Less Terror? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), 124.
 Ibid, 126.
 Meredeth Turshen, “Algerian Women in the Liberation Struggle and the Civil War: From Active Participants to Passive Victims?” Social Research, 69, no. 3, “The Status of Women in the Developing World” (2002), 898.
 Dassa Kaye, 126.
 Caroline Rohloff, “Reality and Representation of Algerian Women: The Complex Dynamic of Heroines and Repressed Women” (Honors Projects, French and Francophone Studies, Paper 6; Illinois Wesleyan University
Digital Commons @ IWU, 2012), 23. http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/french_honproj/6.
 Dassa Kaye, 126.
 Cheref, 66.
 Palash Ghosh, “Women in Algeria: Progress and Paradox,” International Business Times, October 26, 2012, accessed December 15, 2014. http://www.ibtimes.com/women-algeria-progress-paradox-853988.
 Mary Kimani, “Women in North Africa Secure More Rights,” UN Africa Renewal (July 2008), 8. http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/july-2008/women-north-africa-secure-more-rights.
 Doris H. Gray, “Women in Algeria Today and the Debate over Family Law”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, 13, no. 1 (March 2009): 49.
 Unicef, “ALGERIA: MENA Gender Equality Profile; Status of Girls and Women in the
Middle East and North Africa,” Unite for Children (2011). http://www.unicef.org/gender/files/Algeria-Gender-Eqaulity-Profile-2011.pdf. Accessed, December 12, 2014.
 World Bank, “Algeria,” in The Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa (2006). http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMENA/Resources/MENA_Gender_BW2007-3.pdf. Accessed December 12, 2014.
 Unicef and World Bank.
 Rohloff, 28.
 Unicef, 4.
 Mary Kimani, “Women in North Africa Secure More Rights,” UN Africa Renewal Online (July 2008): 8. http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/july-2008/women-north-africa-secure-more-rights.
 Social Institutions & Gender Index.
 Boutheina Cheriet, “Gender, Civil Society and Citizenship in Algeria,” Middle East Report, no. 198, “Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East” (1996), 25.
 Social Institutions & Gender Index.
 Human Rights Watch, “Algeria, World Report 2014,” hrw.org, accessed December 15, 2014, http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/algeria?page=1.
 Human Rights Watch.
 “Algeria: Stop Suppressing Protests,” Human Rights Watch, May 3, 2010, accessed December 15, 2014. http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/05/03/algeria-stop-suppressing-protests.
 Isabelle Werenfels, “Who is in Charge? Algerian Power Structures and their Resilience to Change” (Paris, Sciences Po – C.E.R.I University, 2010), 2. http://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/fachpublikationen/wrf_algerien_1002_ks.pdf.
 Ibid, 3.
 Marzouki, 3.
 Dassa Kaye, 135.
 Werenfels, 3.
 Palash Ghosh, “Algerian Parliamentary Election Marred by Voter Apathy, Despite Promises of Fairness, Transparency,” International Business Times, May 10, 2012, accessed December 15, 2014. http://www.ibtimes.com/algerian-parliamentary-election-marred-voter-apathy-despite-promises-fairness-transparency-697793.
 Kimani, 8.
 Cheref, 65.