- Burning the Veil: the Algerian War and the ‘emancipation’ of Muslim women, 1954–62
In Burning the Veil, Neil MacMaster examines the so-called emancipation programme of ‘Muslim’ women that was deployed by the French colonial authorities and the French army during the Algerian decolonization war. The programme is defined here as an extensive reformist agenda directed toward Algerian women in order to ‘emancipate’ them; that is, enable them to ‘catch up with their European sisters in metropolitan France with regard to voting rights, education, professional training, employment opportunities, health care and welfare’ (p. 3). Its strategic goals included ‘reform of the personal status law, granting of the franchise, health and social security programmes, educational provision and unveiling’ (p. 3).
MacMaster bases his research primarily on French colonial and military archival sources. The first chapter, covering the period between 1945 and 1954, focuses on women’s political organizations. In chapters 2 to 7, the core of the book, MacMaster traces the origins of the emancipation agenda, which he dates back to 1956. In particular he unravels the May 1958 demonstration during which the army-orchestrated unveiling episode took place. In examining the role of the military in the campaign, he is attentive to the contact strategy the army adopted in order to reach out to women in rural areas. The final chapters discuss the personal status law adopted in 1959, the participation of the FLN and women during the war, and the status and role of women in post-colonial Algeria.
In this meticulously documented study MacMaster highlights the complexity and contradictions of the French reformist programme, in which actors ranging [End Page 668] from ethnographers, Muslim notables, administrators and policy makers were involved – not to mention the wives of prominent army officers. Indeed, an especially interesting aspect of this period, one I would like to have seen MacMaster discuss in greater depth, is the role of European women in designing and implementing the ‘emancipation’ programme and campaign. I most appreciated the chapter on the Mouvement de Solidarité Féminine, which highlights the sincere belief of the French in the superiority of their own culture, and the extent to which the reformist programme was modelled on a Eurocentric cultural ideal of domesticity – a core argument of his book.
While the ‘emancipation’ programme has up to now been studied almost exclusively in the context of the Algerian war, MacMaster argues that the French army’s reformist agenda can be better understood within a wider historical context, from a comparative perspective and as a project of state building similar to other ‘male-driven state reform programmes’ in the Middle East – witness Ataturk’s Turkey and Reza Shah’s Iran. A drawback of this approach is that it tends to downplay the immediate context of the war and thereby lose sight of one of the main objectives (perhaps the main objective) of the ‘emancipation’ campaign: winning over women in order to defeat the FLN-ALN (to his credit, MacMaster does discuss this angle, but only briefly). In addition, the unusual lack of available funding and, in some cases, lack of interest in the reformist programme on the part of the French military – as well as the numerous racist and sexist comments that can be found in military reports – should lead one to wonder how hard the French in Algeria were actually trying to ‘emancipate’ Algerian women or turn them into ‘civilized’ and ‘Westernized’ women – a point of interest little discussed by MacMaster.
A surprising aspect of the author’s analysis is his portrayal of Algerian women. Throughout the book, MacMaster again and again refers to the majority of Algerian women as ‘uneducated’, ‘silent’, ‘secluded’, ‘ignorant’, and on one occasion ‘superstitious’. While it is true that over 90 per cent of Algerian women were illiterate, this does not mean they were dupes, a-political and unaware of what was happening around them. His depiction of these women is problematic to say the least. It is also unfortunate that MacMaster has...