Family Law At The Crux Of Algerian Women's Futures

May 14, 2011

Eleanor Beardsley

Eleanor Beardsley
An Algerian family enjoys a picnic in Tipaza, a vacation town about 40 miles from Algiers. Many Algerian women say that wearing the veil is not an issue in their emancipation; what matters is their family situation, which is influenced by a strict code that governs marriage and family life.

Algeria, which shares a border with both Tunisia and Libya, is so far just watching the upheaval across the Arab world. Most Algerians say their country is still too scarred by a decade of violence in the 1990s to endure another uprising.

Nearly every Algerian now calls that a lost decade, but no one feels it more acutely than Algerian women.

At the end of the 1980s, massive protests brought many political and personal freedoms to civil society in Algeria, but the gains were short-lived. With Islamists poised to win elections in 1991 and institute Shariah law, the government canceled the elections.

After that, the Algerian state battled an Islamist insurgency and nearly 200,000 people died.

During that time, women's position in society regressed, feminists say, and the country has turned more conservative. Now, women say they feel like they're waking up after a long sleep.

The Family Code

Children play in the crowded lanes of the Algiers Casbah, a hilly neighborhood of mosques and cramped houses that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the women there are veiled; some even cover their faces.

But the traditional quarter is also the birthplace of Algerian female emancipation. It was in the Casbah that women joined men to fight the French during the war for independence in the late 1950s.

The famous Battle of Algiers took place in the Casbah in 1957, and photos of the female martyrs hang on tea house walls.

Across town, in a more modern neighborhood, Nadia Ait Zai runs a women's association. She says Algerian men and women are equal under some laws, like the ones governing the workplace. But a special law called the family code keeps women from true emancipation.

"Algeria and Morocco still have these archaic, rigid Muslim laws that govern family life," she says. "They allow the husband to be able to unilaterally divorce his wife, and permit polygamy for the man. So it's these kinds of things that are holding us back."

Ait Zai says in real life, Algerian women take more rights than they are given on paper. The protests at the end of the 1980s brought political reform and greater freedom for everyone, especially women, with increased female literacy and employment.

But that era of hope and openness ended when the Islamist insurgency plunged the country into a brutal civil war that lasted through the 1990s. Ait Zai calls that decade a devastating setback for women.

"It was horrible because the Islamists' first targets were women," Ait Zai says. "For them, the change in society began with the total submission of women. They wanted women to stay home, wear the veil and just be procreators."

Proving Themselves In The Classroom

Ait Zai and other women say they're only just now regaining what they lost during the civil war, known as the Black Decade. While most people reject extremist Islam, society is more conservative now, says Ait Zai.

She says more women wear the Muslim veil, and most don't work outside the home. One exception is the medical profession; more than half of Algeria's doctors are women.

Dr. Amel Abbess practices forensic medicine at one of Algiers' main hospitals, and she also teaches at the local university. Abbess says Algerian society is macho, like the rest of the Mediterranean world. But she says young women are proving themselves today by excelling in their studies. Most of her female students might wear the veil, but it doesn't mean they don't stand up for their rights, she explains.

"I see their reactions when I teach some things about our criminal code. They're revolted. They don't agree. And they show their disgust with the male students who are generally more conservative," she says.

Abbess is referring to Algeria's laws that don't allow victims of rape to receive an abortion, unless the rapist is a terrorist. Abbess says that caveat was added by the government during the warped decade of the civil war.

True Emancipation

On the streets in Algiers, many women wear the veil; others don't. But Algerian women say the veil is not an issue in their emancipation — what matters is their family situation. Unlike most Algerian women her age, 40-year-old Salima Benhadid is not married and she has a paying job. Both give her a rare independence.

"The Algerian woman is always dependent on a man, especially if she doesn't work," Benhadid says. "And if she divorces, she may end up with nothing and then be dependent on her brothers or her parents. That's the real problem."

Benhadid, feminist Ait Zai and other women here say their lower status within the family is at the core of their inequality. They say true emancipation will come with work, independence and, of course, amendments to the family code. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.