Women of the Left: Djamila Bouhired

Djamila Bouhired, the only daughter of her Tunisian mother and Algerian father’s eight children, was born in the Al-Qasaba area of Algeria in 1935.  An active revolutionary in the National Liberation Front she was arrested after a bombing and tortured in detention.  Her trial and conviction drew international condemnation. After her release and on into her senior years, she continues to agitate for womens rights in a country which had forgotten the legacy of its female liberators.

When Bouhired was ten, a celebration planned by the French colonial authorities to mark VE day turned into a massacre, when  attempted to seize banners attacking colonial rule.  Tens of thousands of Algerian citizens were massacred in Setif and a further massacre at Guelma where the army dropped bombs on the civilian population, marked the start of the uprising for Algerian Independence.   Still in school, Bouhired found herself repeatedly punished for refusing to sing the colonial anthem “France is our motherland” : replacing “France” with “Algeria“. Women were critical players in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).

The National Liberation Front (FLN) included a large number of women activists and were sympathetic to the ongoing demands for womens’ rights in the context of a largely patriarchal society.  Picking up on the increasing demands of women within Algerian society, the French authorities became concerned that this was being associated with national liberation, rather than identified with colonial benevolence and adopted a deliberate strategy to undermine the anti-colonial movement by appealing to women.  Establishing, promoting and funding joint organisations for Algerian and French women, they sought to try to break community relations encouraging Algerian women to see their liberation in subservience to French colonial norms, rather than as autonomous agents.  The mass “unveiling ceremonies” where women, some of whom had never worn a veil prior, were unveiled in front of a crowd as the French authorities fetishised the veil and their domination over the women of Algeria by its removal.

The right of French men to Algerian women was also noted in the extent of military rape which was conducted against Algerian women throughout the war.  Particularly in rural communities where patriarchal norms saw a raped woman as worthless, French soldiers systematically used sexual violence to disrupt community bonds.  The “honour conscious” traditions, which saw women’s virtue located in their hymens and the strict rules of the FLN against collaboration with the enemy meant that a raped Algerian woman faced both dishonour and accusations of collaboration.  However the frequency of these rapes and exchanges of sexual favours for survival in a destitute population led to a re-evaluation of gender norms, with their experiences described not in sexual terms but in military terms – as martyrs and temporary prisoners of war who had undergone torture.

Bouhired, a feminist and an anti-colonialist from her student days when she joined the FLN, worked as a liaison officer and personal assistant of FLN commander Yacef Saad.  Her pale skin and European features proved an advantage in allowing her to move around relatively unrestricted   In 1956, she and two others planted bombs in the European areas of Algers, triggering the Battle of Algers which raged through 1957.  Arrested in April 1957 while in taking refuge in the mountain revolutionary camps, she was shot in the shoulder.  Her torture began as she was on the operating table to remove it, as electrodes were attached to her breasts, genitals and mouth while the unanthestised surgery was taking place. Seventeen further days of torture then followed.  In addition to the electrocution, cigarettes were extinguished all over her body, in torture sessions which lasted for up to eighteen hours at a time.   Sexualised torture, a feature of detention in wartime Algeria, found Bouhired along with many of her contemporaries, both male and female, abused in custody  The torture caused severe burns and bleeding which lasted fifteen days,  and left her with a permanent injury to her left arm.

The French colonial authorities leaked to the FLN claims that Bouhired had fallen in love with her prison guard, and had willing given strategic information about other members to demoralise the struggle, however the extent of her torture and her ongoing resistance became clear as she walked into the courtroom chanting “Our Algeria”. The trial was designed as a show trial of a prominent activist, but increasing awareness of the extent and brutality of the French torture regime in Algeria formented a campaign which drew international support including from Nasser, Nehru and Khrushchev as well as popular street demonstrations throughout the country.  Originally sentenced to death, it was  commuted to life imprisonment as a result of the regional and international attention.  She was released from prison in 1962 as part of the Evian Agreement which gave Algeria its independence.

After release she continued to struggle for the rights of women, assuming the position of Chair of the Algerian Womens Organisation, promoting womens rights under a new system of independence government that had all but forgotten the contributions of women to the struggle.    Only 11, 000 women, compared with 40, 000 men were acknowledged as fighters in the resistance movement belying a lack of acknowledgement of the supportive role of women in the liberation struggle in hiding and sustaining fighters, despite this support leaving them vulnerable to colonial targeting, and a demand that all those considered resistance fighters must be literate, excluding many rural women who had had little formal education.

Post-colonial Algeria, traumatised by the brutal war found the new leadership seeking to cement the lost masculinity of their society and address the disempowerment that they had felt under colonial rule and intense subjugation.  Cultural identity, integrity and cohesion were presented as being dependent on the proper compartmentalisation of women: veiling, modesty and the role of the woman in the family was promoted …and the feminist element of the Algerian Independence Movement was lost; by the 1990s, women comprised only 8% of the Algerian workforce.

In the aftermath of Independence,  Djamila Bouhired and Zahra Draif, another female revolutionary, drafted a progressive family law which enshined the rights of women within the family within the constitution, proposing it for adoption by the newly liberated Algerian State in 1967. It was rejected.  By the 1980s, Bouhired again became a prominent political figure, struggling against the imposition of the “Family Code” of Algeria, a manifesto diametrically opposed to all that she had fought for, instigating a patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching and made it the basis of law.  After two decades of controversy, it was adopted in 1984.

I’m still outraged because the Arab woman holds axe to build in her right hand while shedding a tear in her eye hoping to move the men of the nation

Djamila Bouhired, 2009

Women of the Arab world are rising, demanding an end to the patriarchal systems of dominance to which they have been subjected, while simultaneously rejecting Western interventions to “liberate” them through identification with Western norms and values.  Rejecting both the hyper-sexualisation of women in Western patriarchy, and the honour codes of reactionary Arab patriarchy, they demand bodily and cultural autonomy at the same time.  Djamila Bouhired provides a new generation with a role model of an active anti-colonial fighter who continues to agitate for womens rights.

First published by the International Socialist Group as part of their Women on the Left series on 23rd February, 2013

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