- Women’s Writing between Two Algerian Wars
Friday, 10 April 1998: the Algerian television program “Right to Life” (“Le droit à la vie”) opens with the testimony of women who have been wounded and tortured. Horra, a mother of eight, recounts her terrible story. Abducted by three men, held captive for three weeks, she suffered the worst of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses. She says that she was caught as one hunts down a beast of prey, broken by terror and human lunacy: “I preferred to die from a bullet rather than yield to the torture of those savages.” Djamila recounts that after the massacre of the men in her village, people claiming to be fighting under the banner of Islam ordered all the women to come out and then took them away by force. They were to carry the supplies and march with the stolen flocks: “We marched for two hours all the way to the center of Mellaha, then for five hours more before reaching the transit point where we spent the night.” There, Djamila was raped by eight men. Amal and Meriem, 17 and 18 years old respectively, endured the same hell.
Women in war—the subject is somber, cruel, difficult. Images of abductions, rapes, and imprisonments immediately come to mind. This paper focuses on the troubles inflicted upon women during the two conflicts that have bloodied Algeria’s territory in this second half of the twentieth century. In both the colonial war against France (1954–62) and the current struggle among Algerians (openly begun in 1992), women have experienced this male violence through wars conducted by men. This historical study will evoke the state of violence inflicted by the masculine upon the feminine. But it will also discuss the women’s war, their engagement and status on the front lines, the possible exchanges of viewpoints between camps, as well as the effects of fearsome memories on attitudes toward these conflicts.
Women have been victims, enlistees, and committed fighters in these wars, in spite of themselves. This situation accounts for the institutional, imaginary, and political schemas operating within a Mediterranean, Muslim, Arab, Berber society, where the bonds between man and woman are experienced in a rough manner. Within a violent context (private wars, defiance against the State, living conditions, the difficulties for possible meetings), the political, the religious, and the juridical work to maintain a kind of copresence that is laden with an obvious inequality. Women’s fate and status, from one phase to another, from one Algerian war to another, allow us to read “une société non figée mais fort déterminée” ‘a society that is not fixed, but strongly determined.’ At the same time, “on y distingue des lieux du possible, des inventions, des détachements d’avec la norme” ‘one can distinguish loci of the possible, of inventions, of detachments from the norm’ (Farge 86). 1 [End Page 78]
Thus, Algeria today is unique as the country where the violence is the most atrocious as well as the country where the presence of women is so much behind as well as at the forefront of the conflict. In which Muslim Arab country of the world is it possible to find at the same time a woman who is a director of a major newspaper (Salima Ghezali), a head of a political party (Louisa Hannoune), a proponent of secularization (Khalida Messaoudi), an internationally known writer (Assia Djebar)? In yesterday’s and today’s tragedies, these very different figures speak hope for a wounded society. The routes taken by these women, so diverse in their positions, including alliance with or defiance against the regime and the Islamists, are a sign of a political pluralism, and they especially signal women’s coming out, their occupation of public space.
Of the overall figure of works dealing with the “first” Algerian war, barely 10 percent are by women (approximately 240 out of 2,200). The description of the world of war thus remains the privilege of the men who made it. The same is true for today’s conflict. But that figure itself leads to other questions: is...