The Women's Movement

The Women's Movement

The Algerian women's movement has made few gains since independence, and women in Algeria remain relegated to a subordinate position that compares unfavorably with the position of women in such neighboring countries as Tunisia and Morocco. Once the war was over, women who had played a significant part in the War of Independence were expected, by the government and society in general, to return to the home and their traditional roles. Despite this emphasis on women's customary roles, in 1962, as part of its program to mobilize various sectors of society in support of the socialism, the government created the National Union of Algerian Women (Union Nationale des Femmes Algériennes-- UNFA). On March 8, 1965 the union held its first march to celebrate International Women's Day; nearly 6,000 women participated.

The union never captured the interest of feminists, nor could it attract membership among rural workers who were probably most vulnerable to the patriarchal tradition. In 1964 the creation of Al Qiyam (values), a mass organization that promoted traditional Islamic values, delivered another blow to the women's movement. The resurgence of the Islamic tradition was largely a backlash against the role of French colonists in the preindependence period. During the colonial period, the French tried to "liberate" Algerian women by pushing for better education and eliminating the veil. After the revolution, many Algerians looked back on these French efforts as an attempt by the colonists to "divide and conquer" the Algerians. Islam and Arabic tradition became powerful mobilizing forces and signs of national unity.

Women's access to higher education has improved, however, even if their rights to employment, political power, and autonomy are limited. For the most part, women seem content to return to the home after schooling. Overall enrollment at all levels of schooling, from primary education through university or technical training, has risen sharply, and women represent more than 40 percent of students.

Another major gain of the women's movement was the Khemisti Law. Drafted by Fatima Khemisti, wife of a former foreign minister, and presented to the APN in 1963, the resolution that later came to be known as the Khemisti Law raised the minimum age of marriage. Whereas girls were still expected to marry earlier than boys, the minimum age was raised to sixteen for girls and eighteen for boys. This change greatly facilitated women's pursuit of further education, although it fell short of the nineteen-year minimum specified in the original proposal.

The APN provided one of the few public forums available to women. In 1965, following the military coup, this access was taken away when Boumediene suspended the APN. No female members were elected to the APN under Ben Bella, but women were allowed to propose resolutions before the assembly (e.g., the Khemisti Law). In the early postindependence years, no women sat on any of the key decision-making bodies, but nine women were elected to the APN when it was reinstated in 1976. At the local and regional level, however, women's public participation rose significantly. As early as 1967, ninety-nine female candidates were elected to communal assemblies (out of 10,852 positions nationwide). By the late 1980s, the number of women in provincial and local assemblies had risen to almost 300.

The 1976 National Charter went far toward guaranteeing legal equality between men and women. The charter recognizes women's right to education and refers to their role in the social, cultural, and economic facets of Algerian life. However, as of early 1993, the number of women employed outside the home remained well below that of Tunisia and Morocco.

A new family code backed by conservative Islamists and proposed in 1981 threatened to encroach on these gains and drew the protest of several hundred women. The demonstrations, held in Algiers, were not officially organized by the UNFA although many of the demonstrators were members. The women's objections to the family code were that the code did not contain sufficient reforms. The debate over the family code forced the government to withdraw its proposal, but a conservative revision was presented in 1984 and quickly passed by the APN before much debate resurfaced. The 1981 proposal had offered six grounds for divorce on the part of the wife, allowed a woman to work outside the home after marriage if specified in the marriage contract or at the consent of her husband, and imposed some restrictions on polygyny and the conditions in which the wives of a polygynous husband were kept. In the revised code, provisions for divorce initiated by women were sharply curtailed, as were the restrictions on polygyny, but the minimum marriage age was increased for both women and men (to eighteen and twenty-one, respectively). In effect, however, although the legalities were altered, little changed for most women. Further, it was argued, that the enunciation of specific conditions regarding the rights of the wife and the absence of such specifications for the husband, and the fact that women achieve legal independence only upon marriage whereas men become independent at age eighteen regardless of marital status, implicitly underline women's inferior status. Protest demonstrations were once again organized, but, occurring after the fact (the code had been passed on June 9), they had little impact.

A number of new women's groups emerged in the early 1980s, including the Committee for the Legal Equality of Men and Women and the Algerian Association for the Emancipation of Women, but the number of women actively participating in such movements remained limited. Fear of government retaliation and public scorn kept many women away from the women's groups. At the same time, the government had become increasingly receptive to the role of women in the public realm. In 1984 the first woman cabinet minister was appointed. Since then, the government has promised the creation of several hundred thousand new jobs for women, although the difficult economic crisis made achievement of this goal unlikely. When the APN was dissolved in January 1992, few female deputies sat in it, and no women, in any capacity, were affiliated with the HCE that ruled Algeria in 1993, although seven sat on the sixty-member CCN. The popular disillusionment with the secular regime and the resurgence of traditional Islamist groups threaten to further hamper the women's movement, but perhaps no more so than the patriarchal tradition of the Algerian sociopolitical culture and the military establishment that heads it.

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