This article was written in September 1994 and has thus dated considerably. It appeared in the Journal of Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (JAIMES), Deakin University, Vol.2, No. 2, 1995, pp. 43-54
"The first is a party (FIS). The second is a piece of fabric, the Hijjab. Both are used to weave the same material: a shroud"
- Martine Gozlan "None of us wants to wear the veil...but fear is stronger than our convictions or our will to be free. Fear is all around us. Our parents, our brothers, are unanimous: 'Wear the veil and stay alive. This will pass'".
- Fatima (a 22 year old juniour factory manager fromTlemcen) "Katia was adamant, even if she had to die she would never wear the veil...The gunman went up to them. He made a sign for the veiled girl to move away. Then he shot Katia"
- Nassima Bengana Much of contemporary western discussion of the Middle East's political condition is centred upon stability, on-going peace conferences and potential regional economic co-operation amongst former antagonists such as Israel and Palestine. Algeria provides an obvious contrast. Algeria of the late 1980s was in a similar position to that which the nations to its east now find themselves in. There was relative political stability, talk of regional economic blocs (the Arab Maghreb Union) and plans for democratisation. Five years later the country is in a state of virtual civil war. Perhaps Algeria was a still-born experiment in democratisation which received too little support or attention. More pessimistically it could be viewed as the shape of things to come for the rest of the Middle East.
This paper investigates the current Algerian Crisis, a struggle that has claimed as many as 45,000 lives in the past three years. One of several distressing trends in this conflagration is the killing of women - which increased early in 1994. Amongst these victims were three schoolgirls. Katia Bengana (17), who was shot whilst walking to high school on February 28th 1994. A month later, 18 year old Razika Meloudjemi and 19 year old Naima Kar Ali were killed by a machine-gun wielding motorcyclist, at Boudouaou. These two attacks on unarmed innocent women encapsulate much of what is taking place in Algeria during its current unnamed crisis.
In particular three issues can be viewed as central to these murders;
i) the attempt to re-establish traditional modes,The common element between these three issues is the manner in which the Algerian state has been previously disrupted and warped and how it develops from its current position.
ii) the creation of terror by unknown agents to eliminate dialogue, and,
iii) the nature of power transition within Algeria's power structure and between its population centres.
The modern state was introduced artificially into Algeria, this began with Algiers being forcibly seized by the French from the Ottomans in 1830. It took eighteen years for France to gain semblance of control over the most populated region of Algeria (and forty years to conquer the rest of Algeria) at a cost of over a million lives. The creation of the colonial state institutionalised a framework of social structure - instantly recognisable in all colonial states - with a colonising minority holding almost exclusive political and economic power over the colonised majority. More subtle gradings were brought about by the poorer French farming emigres (petits colon) and the indigenous Berbers - comprising two subsections between French landowners and dispossessed Algerians, with women forming the bottom rung of each segment. The battle for independence - a bloody unnamed war from 1955 - 1962 touted by the National Liberation Front (FLN) as a socialist revolution - was more a battle by French-educated Algerians to remove the French echelons from above them in the power structure. Casualty estimates for this exercise are placed around 600 000 - 1 million deaths, including the purging of over 100 000 collaborators after Independence by the FLN.
The advent of perestroika in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1980s affected Algeria under the nominally socialist FLN, which had incorporated itself uncomfortably within both Eastern and Western networks. "The demographic explosion, the chaotic urbanization of the society, the failure of the authorities to respond to the growing societal demands in all areas, coupled with the drop in hydrocarbons revenue in the mid -1980s, shook irreparably the foundations of the rentier state". Admist widely reported party corruption and mass unemployment amongst the youth, pressure for an alternative in this one-party country began. From the late 1970s onwards Islamist groups had appeared across the nation calling for less secular and state control of society and the economy. These groups now mobilized the young unemployed to clean up neighbourhoods, remove rubbish, plant trees and establish small businesses. The bloody suppression of riots in October 1988, provoked by water restrictions and industrial action, caused a crisis of legitimacy in the FLN and led to the creation of a multi-party system and the almost immediate formation of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) an umbrella party of neighbourhood committees. It is claimed the unnecessary and ill-calcuated introduction of multi-partyism was an attempt by President Chadli Benjadid, "to use the Islamists against the FLN...[to] allow him to define a new presidential majority whose aim would be precisely to bar altogether the extremist factions of the FLN and the FIS from power". This move to coopt moderate Islamists and exclude extremist secularists by Chadli Benjedid demonstrates the inapplicability of any simple dichotomy between the secularist socialist party and an antagonistic Islamic party.
The FLN always was and remains a nationalist party with strong Islamic tenets - the party was formed on the back of Sheikh Abdel Hamid Ben Badis' ulema in the 1930s. Following pressure from Islamists in the early 1980s (and despite heated opposition from women's groups) the Family Code of 1984 was enacted, removing most rights given to women under the Charter of Algiers established after Independence. Women were made minors until marriage,and required their husband's permission to work. Any matter not expressly legislated upon was referred to shari'a. The level of tension that exists now was not present prior to the commencement of elctions. To the contrary, just six months before the nation's first elections FIS supporters marched in favour of the government's legal stance.
The Islamist groups were the most mobilised, well-funded and readied of all political groups when elections were announced. The FIS won 55% of municipal seats in 1990. Many claimed this was due to lack of alternatives and proxy voting (a practice in which fathers vote for their wives and adult children). Certainly in areas such as the Berber Kabyle (where Berber parties such as FFS and RCD won most seats (seeTable 1)) or deep south, the vote for the FIS was small .
|PARTY||% Vote||% Seats||PARTY||% Votes||% Seats|
Source: K.Sutton, A. Aghrout & S. Zaimeche, "Political Change in Algeria: An Emerging Electoral Geography", Maghreb Review, 17: 1-2, 1992
|PARTY||No. Votes||No. Seats|
|FIS||3 260 359||188|
|FLN||1 613 507||18|
Source: F. Burgat, op cit, p. 299
Circumstances altered dramatically between the elections of June 1990 and December 1991 however. A greater number of parties were organised to run, gerrymandering had been introduced (to weigh FLN areas more heavily and FIS areas less so) and most importantly after several postponements of the poll, both Madani and his second-in-command Ali BelHadj were jailed on charges of sedition. In the first round of polling on December 26th 1991, the FIS won 10 seats for every one the ruling FLN secured. Chadli was pressured to resign by the military, and, on January 11th 1992 the second round of elections - and certain FIS majority in parliament - were cancelled and a High Council of State established.
By April the FIS was banned, most of its leaders were in jail and an armed wing run by Afghan veterans had formed (the AIS - Army of Islamic Salvation). Nevermore than a collection of groups - the FIS began to splinter. Moderates who had bet on legitimate electoral success became irrelevant. Younger radicals (the majority of FIS supporters) turned to political violence as their sole remaining means of expression - many joined the newly formed GIA (the Armed Islamic Group) which ruled out discussions and opted for the establishment of a caliphate through jihad.
The Council of State also ran into difficulties. Support from the West was divided (France greatly supported the military junta, whilst Germany and the USA called for new elections and tied heavily to Algerian acceptance of an IMF structural adjustment programme (SAP). Support for authorities came from the armed forces only on condition of the Islamists being dealt with severely. The IMF's SAP has so far brought about several devaluations of the dinar (by 40% in April 1994 alone), a rise of imports on the free market (which has much the same impact as a devaluation), the placing of essential goods on the free market in 1992 (resulting in a 50 - 400% price increase), and, demands for the shedding of up to 700 000 jobs in the public sector (despite 1.5 million Algerians (21%) being unemployed already).These pressures further fuel the fires of revolt (poverty, unemployment, hunger) and have led to fifty thousand Algerians moving abroad, not to mention a rapid succession of presidents and prime ministers. A nation which had had only two Presidents in twenty-five years has had four since 1992. The army contains both Islamists and extreme secularists (both of whom disagree with the regime's tactics). President Zeroual himself has admitted to $2 billion worth of damage having been caused and to over 10 000 people having been killed .
Information out of Algeria has become unreliable with only government presses operating fully. Government media emphasises Islamist atrocities and hides security force losses (and their own atrocities) to create proof that eradication of terrorism and 'the total re-establishment of security' is the only viable course of action. Until August 1994 Algeria's news services reported around 4,000 had died in the crisis. World press groups supported this figure by counting those officially reported as dead. Rumours circulated though of huge ambushes killing dozens of soldiers and night-time raids on villages where dozens of young bearded men were killed. French intelligence put the figure at 20 000 or more. The admission in September 1994 by President Zeroual that the death toll was actually over 10,000 raised some interesting questions. Where did the rest of these bodies come from? Were some of the rumours true? With approximately sixty people being killed each day (as of mid-1995) the figure has recently been estimated at 48 000 deaths. More and moreso it becomes evident that this is not the limited terrorist campaign the Algerian government suggests it is but a war : one in which the army is not maintaining its ground.
Submerged in the murky waters of information regarding Algeria are the murders of Katia, Razika and Naima. The GIA had warned women not to go about in public unveiled a month before their deaths. Meanwhile a secular group called the Organisation of Young Free Algerians (OJAL) promised to kill 20 veiled women (or bearded men) for each unveiled woman murdered. Algeria's media reported that all three women were unveiled when killed. Eyewitnesses claim that Razika and Naima were actually veiled. This was reported by French radio and Antenne 2 TV. The government story was run by RFI and subsequently Reuters and the New York Times. The FIS was quick to blame the military for Razika and Naima's deaths and reassured its "believing sisters... that all appeals to kill women come from this category of heathen and bloodthirsty people to achieve their ignoble aims" .
Who committed these murders is difficult to say. The Algerian analyst Qusai Saleh Darwish of the Saudi paper Al-Sharq al-Aswat proposes three possibilities for the killing of an unveiled woman;
In addition hundreds of media personnel have been threaten or killed, as have "civil servants, officials of state enterprises... university teachers... [&] private entrepreneurs" all seen as indispensable for the running of the state and inherently hostile to the Islamists. Any member of these groups seen to take sides, or failing to take the right side, are targeted. The threat posed by terrorists from both sides has been made against the poets, actors, playwrights and even pop singers of Algeria. Tahar Djaout, poet and editor of Ruptures, was gunned down in May 1992, Algeria's national theatre director, was assassinated. Actresses have fled to France after receiving death threats, as have female singers including Chaba Fadela and Malika Domrane.
The targeting of musicians for political violence is less surprising than it might seem. Rai - the popular music of Algeria - is immensely successful amongst the young men the Islamists and secularists seek to seduce. This became evident in September 1994 when well-known Berber singer Maatoub was kidnapped and put on trial for suspected apostacy. He was later released. The 'Prince of Rai', 26 year old Shakroune "Cheb" Hasni - one of the few Rai singers not based in Paris - was not so fortunate. He was assassinated as he sat in a cafe in Oran on September 24th 1994. Whereas Hasni's fame was presumed to protect him it is now obvious that, "to create greater impact, they prefer to kill famous performers".
As military and Islamist forces step up their security, as easily spotted foreigners leave Algeria and their embassies employ more guards or shut up shop - it is women on their own that have become the soft targets, attracting poor youths earning bounties or professionals looking for public spectacle. As Marnia Lazreg accurately observes: "Algeria is the only nation in the Middle East where women are killed as women because they are women. Women have lost their lives for not wearing the veil, as well as wearing it. They appear now as either the symbols of Islamic authenticity or of modernity".
From another perspective, the terrorising of women can be seen as an attempt to gain control of a very important section of Algeria. Women are seen as the custodians of Algeria's "profound" traditional values. If women take to either the Maghrebi head scarf (haik) or veil (hijab and/or jilbab) - even out of fear - then it re-affirms tradition's strengths. All the veil stands for: modesty, obedience, sexual probity, conformity - are expressed publicly and overtly when worn. If the veil is evident and widespread, if women appear traditional, then the message is sent - tradition is in ascendancy. The successors of the FLN's secular struggle - OJAL - are not targeting women per se, but an evident symbol of fundamentalism: the veil (and also the beard). They wish to remove from public view the very signs of support for tradition that the GIA seeks to engender.
Women have become a commodity between two antagonising forces. The bickering over whether Razika and Naima wore veils or not as they were gunned down at a school bus stop illustrates how their political usage quickly eclipsed all humanitarian concern for their deaths. One's survival cannot be secured by accommodating the demands of one terrorist group. It is inconsequential whether guilt lies with the Green Death Company, OJAL, the Death Phalanx or the eradicationists - the reality remains that someone will want you dead if you are female and walk out the door. The result is that women are either fleeing Algeria or remaining indoors- rarely straying from male protection when in public. Many women who venture into public (to work or study) react by taking to the hijab. Whilst this reflects the emphasis on Islamist outrages by government presses and understating of the threat posed by OJAL, in light of recent militant programmes, it is not without cause (few veiled women have been killed, regardless of perpetrators).
That this reaction of fear fits perfectly within traditional perspectives of women's proper sphere of influence is a boon for Islamists. In turn this inflames feminist reaction. In the 1960s Algeria was one of the leading Arab states in terms of female rights and advancement. Female empowerment (apparent from time to time in Algerian history in figures such as Berber resistance leader Kahina in the 7th century AD or Zaynab Lalla who ran the powerful Rahmaniyya Sufi order in the 1890s) came to the fore within the FLN during liberation, where more than ten thousand women fought for independence, including such heroes as Djamila Boupacha, Zohra Driff and Hassiba Ben Bouali. In a reverse situation to the 1990s there was during the War of Independence, the battle of the veil, where pro-FLN women removed the hijab as a sign of protest. Hassiba Ben Bouali dressed as a European and ran guns into the casbah from 1956 until her death the next year. Following Independence the women's movement produced the powerful Union Nationale des Femmes Algerienne (UNFA) which succeeded in having 90 000 women in the work force by 1966. Despite the union's cooption into the FLN, by the 1980s 365 000 women were working in Algeria, and more importantly 1.5 million girls were attending school (1979 figures). Women's education has had several flow-on effects; women are marrying at a later age, they are seen out in public (the earliest Islamist protests were against women on university campuses, some of which involved acid being thrown in unveiled women's faces), and, they are fulfiling the preconditions for employment within the technocratic elite. This not only challenges traditionally conceived roles for women but also the employment prospects of male graduates. Despite obvious inroads (for example, the magistrate who read out the court order that dissolved the FIS in March 1992 was female) Algerian women have not secured a strong position in society or state. The advances that had been made came to a total stop with the serial capitulation of President Chadli BenJadid to Islamist pressure in the 1980s. The fall from power of the FLN in 1992 left the UNFA with little influence either.
Since the formation of the FIS in 1989, forty women's groups have been created in Algeria (among them; the Algerian Union of Democratic Women and the International Support Group for Algerian Intellectuals) to voice protest agsinst the curtailing of women's liberties and rights. Their members regularly receive death threats and have been targeted for assassination along with others opposed to the FIS and GIA. Junior Minister Leila Aslaoui - the Secretary of State for Family and National Solidarity quit her post upon the commencement of dialogue between the government and the FIS, and days after her bodyguard was killed. Leading feminist and author, Nabila Diahnine, was shot shortly before a planned trip to Paris for International Women's Day (March 8th) 1995. Monique Afri was targeted because of her blonde hair (ie. foreign in appearance), and, 94 year old Keltoum Boudjar was killed because her son was a policeman Yasmina Drici (a part-French proof-reader for anti-Islamist paper Le Soir d'Algerie) was murdered in July 1994 whilst accompanied by a Polish woman. Both were foreign in appearance and unveiled, but the Pole was unharmed. Her work with a paper hostile to Islamists was the main motivation in the killing. As is clearly evident, clothing is not the sole reason women are selected as sacrifices to political change.
Revolution is the aim of the Islamists: a temporary inversion of societal values and attitudes bringing about a transfer of the control of the state from the educated men in their 50s running the country now, to men in their 30s educated in Koranic schools.
The decision by young Islamists to lay seige to the Algerian state limits possible reactions. The creation of terror by murder and threats spurs those with most to lose to fight fire with fire. Four of the army's top generals have made it clear they will not allow discussions with the FIS or GIA - they are called the eradicationists. With these generals and OJAL on one side and the GIA and AIS on the other, there is little opportunity for interchange between Algerian political groups that does not involve weapons. Should moderate secularists in the government and the FIS fail to create a strong enough alliance through debate and conference Algerian politics will once more be reduced to operating exclusively within the narrow 'space of death'.
So where to now for Algeria? External observers such as Italy, Germany and the United States wish to see a compromise that will staunch the flow of blood. To this end Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi (a descendant of a notable religious family) has been mentioned as a consensus President, as was moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sahraoui before he was gunned down in Paris in July 1995. Sahraoui's pupil, Abbas Madani (under house arrest) is left out of official talks - such as the fourth national conference in early October 1994, whilst the FIS's power fades continually. The extremists on either side gain power, while an alliance by moderates is only tentatively broached. President Zeroual (careful of reactions by the eradicationists who could split the armed forces) has created a dichotomy between those Islamists to be talked to and those to be eradicated. In the midst of the first confirmed dialogues between the FIS and the government in July 1995, Zeroual still openly remarked on the necessity of "'the final destruction of terrorism' in order to safeguard Algerian 'democracy', [and] that the 'total re-establishment of security' was his government's aim". To this end, within a fortnight of Madani and Belhadj being moved to house arrest in September 1994, the leader and third-in-command of the GIA were both killed in clashes with security forces.
The collective violence that creates states - evident in Algeria' turbulent history - never goes away. The politics of torture, terrorism and massacre re-appear whenever two groups battle over the power relations that allow the control of a modern state. In August 1994, the GIA declared itself an alternative goverment (a caliphate in fact). Since that time its communiques have utilised the legitimacy they have given themselves to back up prohibitions and threats of violence. As to the policies of this alternative government, they seem not to extend past prohibitions and the naming of jailed Islamists in current favour as cabinet members. Sudanese Islamist leader, Hassan al-Turabi (often accused of wielding enormous power amongst the Algerian brethren) has said he cannot understand the Algerian Islamist leaders: "They will not talk about the future".
Whilst the future intent of the GIA may be cloaked, the controls they currently seek are evident in the three points contained in their declaration of the caliphate;
Much of the discontent in Algeria stems from the inability for the current political framework and institutions to accommodate these masses. Passing authority contained in a small technocratic elite to a massive younger generation is problematic. Similar tensions arose when the 'babyboom' generation came to maturity in the USA and France in the late 1960s for example. The demand for accommodation took the form of social disobedience and political protest. In Algeria it has turned to religious and ethnic bloodletting.This accommodation of a youth-heavy polity is a trial most `Third World' states will face in the near future: Iran, Palestine, Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia to name but a few. How they will cope when their time comes is a matter either for further research or simple conjecture.
That Algerian women are victims and targets in this battle for power is not surprising. They and other politically disenfranchised peoples like the Berbers are the first to be sacrificed by those in power and those hoping to obtain it. The dialogue that is unwanted by many of the groups involved can be avoided by counter-accusations of femicide. The symbolism of women as either upholders of tradition (modest, obedient, veiled and at home) or as the vanguard of social change (modernising, liberated, working and clothes horses) makes them an obvious indicator of who is in control.
Violent conflict within a state poses many challenges to personal liberty and choice. Targeting women on the basis of their clothing is a more noticeable and cruel limit on expression. What has come to pass on the streets of Algiers is an impossible decision - to veil or not to veil. Poet Tahar Djaout's maxim that;
"If you speak out you die, If you do not speak out you die, So speak out and die",could just as easily be applied to the wearing of the veil. A bad situation has been made impossible and the 'Catch 22' of whether or not to don the hijab will not be resolved quickly if Algeria's history is to serve as any sort of reference.