The Women's Movement
Women demonstrating in Algiers and Oran in January 1992 against
the FIS election victory
Courtesy Susan Slymovics and Middle East Report
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 (see Education
, ch. 2).
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
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.
Data as of December 1993