Men and Women
Men sharing snuff in downtown Algiers
Courtesy Anthony Toth and Middle East Report
Women in traditional garb on the street
Courtesy Nadia Benchallal and Middle East Report
In Algeria, as in the rest of the Middle East, women are traditionally
regarded as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit. The honor
of the family depends largely on the conduct of its women; consequently,
women are expected to be decorous, modest, and discreet. The slightest
implication of impropriety, especially if publicly acknowledged,
can damage the family's honor. Female virginity before marriage
and fidelity afterward are considered essential to the maintenance
of family honor. If they discover a transgression, men are traditionally
bound to punish the offending woman. Girls are brought up to believe
that they are inferior to men and must cater to them, and boys
are taught to believe that they are entitled to the care and solicitude
The legal age for marriage is twenty-one for men, eighteen for
women. Upon marriage the bride usually goes to the household,
village, or neighborhood of the bridegroom's family, where she
lives under the critical surveillance of her mother-in-law. Much
marital friction centers on the difficult relationship between
mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
Because a woman begins to gain status in her husband's home when
she produces sons, mothers love and favor their boys, often nursing
them longer than they do the girls. The relation between mother
and son remains warm and intimate, whereas the father is a more
Traditionally, concern for the purity of women led to a marked
restriction of their activities. Women spent most of their adult
lives behind their courtyard walls or visiting other women in
similar courtyards. It was considered improper for a woman to
be seen by men to whom she was not related, and in many areas
women were veiled in public.
French colonizers actively opposed veiling because they viewed
it as a symbol of national and religious values and beliefs that
they sought systematically to undermine. In reaction to French
pressure, Algerians stubbornly clung to the practice and after
independence actually increased its use. Paradoxically, however,
this development also resulted from the increased freedom enjoyed
by women. The veil provides mobile seclusion, and the more frequent
entry of women into public situations called for an increased
incidence of veiling.
Within the confines of the traditional system, there was considerable
variation in the treatment of women. In Arab tribes, women could
inherit property; in Berber tribes, they could not. In Berber
society, Kabyle women seem to have been the most restricted. A
husband could not only divorce his wife by repudiation, but he
could also forbid her remarriage. Chaouia women fared much better
because they were allowed to choose their own husbands.
During the War of Independence, women fought alongside men or,
at the least, maintained the household in their absence. They
thus achieved a new sense of their own identity and a measure
of acceptance from men that they had not enjoyed before. In the
aftermath of the war, some women maintained their new-found emancipation
and became more actively involved in the development of the new
state, whereas others returned to their traditional roles at home.
After 1962 the status of women began improving, primarily because
of the increased education of family members, broader economic
and social development, and the willingness or necessity for ever-larger
numbers of women to seek gainful employment. In the mid-1950s,
about 7,000 women were registered as wage earners; by 1977 a total
of 138,234 women, or 6 percent of the active work force, were
engaged in full-time employment. Corresponding figures for the
mid-1980s were about 250,000, or 7 percent of the labor force.
Many women were employed in the state sector as teachers, nurses,
physicians, and technicians.
Although by 1989 the number of women in the work force had increased
to 316,626, women still constituted only a little over 7 percent
of the total work force. The number of women in the work force,
however, may be much higher than official statistics suggested.
Women in the rural work force were not counted; only 140 were
listed in official statistics. Among the reasons for their omission
was their position as unpaid family members; culturally, heads
of households in a patriarchal society did not acknowledge publicly
or to census workers that the women of their household were workers.
In fact, the majority of rural women worked full time and should
be considered part of the Algerian work force.
Data as of December 1993