Women on the Edge of Time: The Forces of the Extreme Right Are Everywhere on the March, and the Women of Algeria Are Fighting to Contain Them

By Mahl | New Internationalist, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Women on the Edge of Time: The Forces of the Extreme Right Are Everywhere on the March, and the Women of Algeria Are Fighting to Contain Them


Mahl, New Internationalist


AN Algerian woman writing about Muslim fundamentalism for a Western readership comes up against two big problems. First, the rise of the extreme Right in Europe-and the subsequent Islam-bashing-makes it hard for us to know quite how to denounce fundamentalism to foreign audiences without giving fuel to those who demonize Muslims. Inside Algeria we are able to wage a struggle against fundamentalists with great clarity of judgement. But as soon as we go abroad, whether as emigrants or political refugees, we experience a schizophrenic sense of betrayal of our own people and start defending some of the values and politics that we were fighting against within our country.

Second, the cowardly Western Left, for fear of being accused of racism, fails to recognize in Muslim fundamentalism the seeds of new fascisms. In this process they unwittingly work hand in hand with fundamentalists in the construction of that new demon to replace the now-buried 'Red'-'The Muslim'.

Fundamentalists promote not only their version of 'Muslimness', but also impose on us all a single forced identity at a time in history when we would rather stand for our multiple identities of gender, class, race, nationality, politics and so on. In the same way many in the Western Left fail to acknowledge that a significant percentage of people born in Muslim countries and communities may not accept religion to be an essential marker of their identity. In ex-Yugoslavia, 'Muslim' has even become a nationality. No-one seems to question this.

Muslim fundamentalism is not a religious movement but a political one. And religion is only one of the means fundamentalists use to gain power-they also use culture and ethnicity to divide people. All these movements have little to offer in terms of political and economic programs; their focus is on identity and subsequently on women who are seen as the guardians of identity, of cultural and religious values, of the purity of the blood. The control of women is therefore essential to fundamentalist politics, as Ali Belhadj shows: 'The natural place for a woman is at home. If we live in a true Islamic society, the woman is not meant to work. So, she would not leave her home, and devote her life to the grand mission of the education of men. The woman is the reproducer of men. She does not produce material goods, but this essential thing that is a Muslim.'(f.1)

The Muslim fundamentalist credo is separate development for men and women-a policy which, in South Africa, when applied to blacks under the name of apartheid, was condemned by the international community. The implications of this for women in Algeria make it imperative that we speak out, whatever the difficulties.

In Algeria, separate development started during the liberation struggle. Contrary to the myth that women were equal partners in the war, recent studies have shown that female freedom fighters were kept in subordinate positions in the political movement and totally marginalized in the liberation army.(f.2)

Shortly after independence discriminatory practices in education and jobs were introduced, together with legal discrimination in relation to the family. Since then, under three successive presidents, attempts have been made to pass a new, repressive family law. The first attempt was made only a year after independence, and the law was finally passed in 1984-21 years later. By this law, Algerian women lost their right to contract marriage-we now have to be given in marriage by a wali (tutor). We lost the right to initiate divorce (except in very rare and specific circumstances); only men can divorce and they can do so unilaterally (repudiation); polygyny (men's right to take more than one wife) is now legalized; fathers are the sole guardians of children, and women have an unequal share in inheritance.

For the first 20 years after independence, Algerian women kept silent about the abuses and discriminations they were suffering. …

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