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The Algerian war and the ‘emancipation’ of Muslim women, 1954–62
Author: Neil Macmaster

In May 1958, and four years into the Algerian War of Independence, a revolt again appropriated the revolutionary and republican symbolism of the French Revolution by seizing power through a Committee of Public Safety. This book explores why a repressive colonial system that had for over a century maintained the material and intellectual backwardness of Algerian women now turned to an extensive programme of 'emancipation'. After a brief background sketch of the situation of Algerian women during the post-war decade, it discusses the various factors contributed to the emergence of the first significant women's organisations in the main urban centres. It was only after the outbreak of the rebellion in 1954 and the arrival of many hundreds of wives of army officers that the model of female interventionism became dramatically activated. The French military intervention in Algeria during 1954-1962 derived its force from the Orientalist current in European colonialism and also seemed to foreshadow the revival of global Islamophobia after 1979 and the eventual moves to 'liberate' Muslim societies by US-led neo-imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the women of Bordj Okhriss, as throughout Algeria, the French army represented a dangerous and powerful force associated with mass destruction, brutality and rape. The central contradiction facing the mobile socio-medical teams teams was how to gain the trust of Algerian women and to bring them social progress and emancipation when they themselves were part of an army that had destroyed their villages and driven them into refugee camps.

Neil Macmaster

The French attempt to elaborate a strategy of contact was important in the isolated regions of Algeria since this is where most of the population lived and in which the Armée de libération nationale maquis found its local support. This chapter looks at the larger oeuvre of Marc Garanger, which consists of over 10,000 photographs of local women of the isolated village of Bordj Okhriss, who were coerced by the army to remove their veils in order to be photographed. It examines the direct impact of the French army on civilian populations in the zones of combat, and the destructive process of resettlement. At the core of the military pacification programme was the mass resettlement of the rural population into camps. The chapter also shows that peasant women were faced with the extraordinary ambiguities and contradictory pressures of civil war.

in Burning the veil
Making contact with peasant society
Neil Macmaster

The French army faced a particularly daunting task in its ambition to create a strategy of contact, which would enable it to penetrate into the lives of the great mass of Algerian women that inhabited the interior. The key instrument of contact that was developed during Operation Pilot and then extended to the rest of Algeria from late 1957 onwards was the mobile socio-medical teams (EMSI). This chapter considers the role of the EMSI. The Fifth Bureau and army commanders frequently expressed high hopes that the EMSI, through their ability to reach over to peasant women and penetrate the previously impermeable fortress of the Muslim family, would provide important intelligence. The chapter examines the inherent weakness and incapacity of the organisation and the extent to which the official propaganda drive, concerning an efficient, trouble-free organisation, impressive in its humanity and scope, met resistance from the Algerian peasantry.

in Burning the veil
Neil Macmaster

While some attempts to transform the position of women involved long-term change, most notably access to education and the personal status law, leant themselves to interventionism and attempts to impose radical transformation from 'above'. This chapter looks at the issue of women's franchise and examines the marriage code. The key features of Algerian marriage law and custom on the eve of the 1959 French reform meant that young single women would have a marriage arranged for them by the father or legal guardian. After the success of the women's vote in the referendum of 28 September General Salan sent a telegram to General de Gaulle noting that the 'massive participation of Muslim women' had given a green light to the next stage of emancipation. Crucial to Algerian reactions to legal reform was the fact that through many centuries Islam had adapted to the 'ground rules' that regulated marriage strategies.

in Burning the veil
Neil Macmaster

The Algerian War saw thousands of women being mobilised, in an ad hoc way, as a result of the shortage of trained nurses to tend to wounded fighters in make-shift field hospitals. This chapter examines two groups of Algerian women militants. The first is the minority of urban-based and usually better-educated commandos (the fidayate), many of whom later escaped to the maquis. The second is the tens of thousands of anonymous peasant women 'civilians' in the rural areas (moussebilate) who provided vital support to the moudjahidines (fighters in Armée de libération nationale (ALN) units). The chapter explores the extent to which the Front de libération nationale made any impact during the course of the war on the deeply embedded sociocultural, economic and political practices relating to gender. In late 1957 and early 1958, the ALN demobilised moudjahidate from the maquis, a decision that reasserted male authority.

in Burning the veil
Neil Macmaster

The final stages of the Algerian War from 1959 until 1962 saw the most overt and radical phase of women's nationalist activism and evident signs of the failure of the emancipation agenda to make any significant or durable impact on Muslim women. However, the underlying strength and continuity of conservative Islamic religion and culture shaped the post-war political order. The massive disruption and challenge to patriarchy caused by war-time conditions determined males, at independence, to reassert their domination over women and youth with a vengeance. The scale of mobile socio-medical teams and other emancipation operations was thin, under-funded and fragile and they scratched the surface of the enormous weight of social and economic problems faced by a poor and traumatised population. Contrary to popular belief, the penetration of radical Islamist currents into the Front de libération nationale regime happened in some areas of policy-making from 1957 to 1958.

in Burning the veil
Neil Macmaster

This chapter examines how it was that the structure of the 'traditional' extended family and its values, often referred to as 'neo-patriarchy', was able to adapt in a dynamic way to the challenge of rapid social and economic change. This survival helps to explain why patterns of male domination remained so all-powerful and generalised within Algerian society, so that politically vulnerable post-independence governments preferred not to challenge the status quo on the position and rights of women. One sign of the political marginalisation of women was the tolerance by government in 1967-1970 of husbands going to the ballot station on behalf of their wives, a practice eventually legalised between 1975 and 1991. The role of women during the War of Independence played a significant part in the incipient prise de conscience, as well as their ability to vote, first gained from the colonial regime in 1958.

in Burning the veil
Open Access (free)
The failure of history
Neil Macmaster

Emancipation was seen as preempting the dangers of the Front de libération nationale (FLN) itself organising women and offering to liberate them. Overall the French 'emancipation' strategy failed miserably, a failure that was linked to the extraordinary inability of European decision-makers to recognise the enormous weight and complexity of Muslim society and its deep-seated durability and powers of resistance to colonial attempts to re-shape it in its own image. Islamist groups unleashed a wave of violence against women, forcing them to wear the hijab, or to retreat from education and employment back into the seclusion of the home. The impacts of French emancipation of Algerian women had been perverse, and achieved the very opposite results from its proclaimed goals. Through the fatal association between women's liberation and the assault on the Muslim nation, the French succeeded in reinforcing the reactionary elements within the FLN and Islamist currents.

in Burning the veil
Open Access (free)
Neil Macmaster

This chapter provides a general contextualisation and interpretive framework to set the scene for the more detailed investigation that follows. The term 'emancipation' is used in the sense that it was used constantly during the Algerian War by the colonial government and military. The French emancipation agenda was built on a Eurocentric cultural model of domesticity through which Muslim women would reach true freedom by a modernisation process that would 'westernise' them in every respect. It is argued that the French army had a much stronger motivation to deploy a discourse and practice of liberation than the Front de libération nationale, which assumed a more reactive position. In the drive to bring Algerian women on side, the military had come to share one of the key ideological beliefs of Algerian nationalism, the view that women and the family constituted the last remaining bastion of religious, cultural and social identity.

in Burning the veil
The origins of the Algerian women’s movement, 1945–54
Neil Macmaster

This chapter provides a brief background sketch of the overall social, economic and political situation of Algerian women during the post-war decade. It looks at the movements to show the new forms of activism and organisation that emerged after 1944, and the differing ideological currents at work. The chapter looks at Algerian women's movements to show in more detail the new forms of activism and organisation that emerged after 1944, and the differing ideological currents at work. The chapter discusses the role of Union des femmes d'Algérie, Union démocratique du manifeste algérien, and Association des Ulema musulmans algériens. In May 1945, the colonial regime unleashed an extremely violent repression at Sétif and imprisoned thousands of nationalists, but far from bringing the independence movement to a halt this simply deepened the political crisis and drove the nationalists towards the preparation of an armed insurrection.

in Burning the veil