The third Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies:
Ethnic encounter and culture change
Joensuu, Finland, 19-22 June 1995

Definitions of Algerian Women:
Citizenship, participation and exclusion

Nelli Kopola[*]
Stockholms Universitet

NB *This is the unedited paper as given at the Joensuu conference. An updated and edited version has been published in Sabour and Vikør, Ethnic encounter and culture change, Bergen/London 1997, 164-78. Please quote or refer only to the published article.*


In 1962, when the Algerian people were in the process of fighting for their independence, the argument by the freedom-fighters was that the women would be liberated and free once they were liberated from the French man. The French unveiling campaigns with a view to creating a modern Algerian woman upset those who wanted to protect the traditions of the country from the on-going colonialism. The FLN newspaper El Moudjahid stated that the only thing Algerian women needed to become free and independent citizens was the liberation from France; "It is in an independent Algeria that Algerian women will achieve in human dignity...the full and complete development of their rights". [1] Through Algerian independence would automatically come women's independence. It is clear that Algerian women's need to become liberated from Algerian men was not considered necessary. This became clearly illustrated on the night of the Independence Declaration when men and women were out celebrating their dearly-won independence and the streets suddenly sounded with shouts "Women go home!" (Hèlie-Lucas, unpublished article, 1986). This seemingly abrupt change in attitude toward them clearly illustrates the permanence of the chasm in society in attitudes on the correct "roles" of the sexes. There was a discrepancy between the expected definition on how women should act and how the women of Algeria actually had begun to live their lives.

When these same men, the former freedom fighters of the war of liberation, created an independent state of Algeria how far have they included women into that process? Women have during these last three decades begun working and studying in ever greater numbers, but it has been clear that they have not been allowed to participate on the political arena. [2] Until very recently the electoral law permitted the family head to vote for all members of the household, which has meant that many women have not been granted the right to use even the very basics of their citizenship rights. The societal development has led to an "active" female population as far as work and education is concerned, but a population which has never been included into the official arena, the arena where decisions [3] for the futures of all Algerian citizens are taken. That official arena is further decisive in formulating directive definitions of citizenship, ie. definitions which go beyond who is included into citizenship but also define what a citizen is or how a citizen must behave. What are the dynamics between women and the official arena?

The aim of my study is to investigate the dynamics between the practices of Algerian women in their struggle for full citizenship and the normative definitions of womanhood that emanate from the official arena. What is it that the Algerian women do when they oppose those definitions imposed upon them? What are the structures the "official" consist of?

Women's Practices

The women of Algeria have been active demonstrators from the time of colonialism up to present day. Those women who ululated [4] in protest at the French are the fore-mothers (many still alive today) of the women who today go out in demonstrations against the extremists. [5] The women who worked despite their husbands' complete approval, the young aspiring students, working mothers and so on, all participated in creating a practice of active womanhood. Today, women are struggling against both the official definitions and the threats made against them by the religious groups. "Perhaps I haven't fought enough, but I will shout it in the streets if they prevent me from working because then, they touch my dignity", says the principal of a high school (Bessis, 1992, p. 252, my translation).

This active womanhood is a grassroots or bottom-up expression (rather than definition) of how women in Algeria live in the face of the structures that surround them. One of the major tasks in my project will be to (from the Algerian voices) work towards useful criteria of "practice". How do women counteract the official statements and definitions? What, for instance, is the language of women Ministers? The Women's National Union (UNFA) which was a mouthpiece for the FLN participated in the creation of an official discourse. Considering what this young woman has to say about "political work" it becomes even more interesting to uncover what Algerian women view as practice:

I'm not a political woman; however, I would like to fight for women's emancipation. But I can't. I have to belong to the Party to be allowed to join the organisation [UNFA]. And once you are in the Party you have to abide by the Party's politics, to say what they want you to say, even about women (Shaaban, 1988, p. 193). [6]
Since the late 1980s at least three different groups have formed against the family law. These groups vary in how extensive the changes are they require of the law. On one of the most recent women's day demonstrations each of these groups issued statements and bulletins; "Let us assume our feminist identities. Considering our struggle and our methods of struggle we must pronounce ourselves against religious extremism which uses verbal and physical violence in its encounters with women". [7] How the women of Algeria choose to act and how they themselves define these acts is, therefore, meaningful to this project.

In this I view three terms as significant; womanhood, citizenship and political identity. As I see it each of these practices that women engage in go toward contesting their present narrow lives. The creation of womanhood could be seen as "stating how Algerian women want to see themselves and want to be seen". These are acts which range the whole spectrum from private to public. Following Dorothy Smith's notion of the "everyday world as problematic" I feel that trying to find criteria for practice must base itself in that everyday world.

This is to constitute the everyday world as problematic, where the everyday world is taken to be various and differentiated matrices of experience - the place from within which the consciousness of the knower begins, the location of her null point (Smith, 1987, p. 88).
This focus on the everyday as the possible beginning of practice links well with the notion of creation of womanhood. However, in so doing the study also runs the risk of defining everything as a "problematic". The definition becomes so broad it becomes useless. At the same time, I believe that contestation in Algeria must be seen on many more levels than in the Western world. Looking at women's collective actions is not enough. "The most banal act becomes combat: continuing to go to the beach in a bathing suit or walking down the street in a sleeveless blouse...are victories stolen from the enemy" (Bessis, p. 252). There have also been reports since 1979 of women who have had acid thrown in their faces because they have not worn a veil (Jeune Afrique, Ndeg. 1629) Therefore, the question what counts as contestation for the women of Algeria is closely linked with an identification of "Algerian womanhood" and on-going creations of it.

What concerns "political identity" I believe this might be something that is a part of womanhood but could be said to be its more publically oriented face. The women of Algeria are by participating in acts (connected with their civil rights) contesting definitions placed upon them and actively creating a "political identity" (or identities). In order to get at civil rights acts the following questions can be asked; are demonstrations the only politically definable acts? What do they define as acts? How do the women define themselves?

This self-definition and creation of womanhood and political identity is, as I see it, geared toward citizenship and citizenship rights. I don't see it as useful to define all acts as citizenship acts (in line with Hannah Arendt). Therefore, I find this division of acts and perception of identities as useful for now. Each of these; womanhood, political identity and citizenship are not simple states of being. They are processes, or rather, series of states of being in the process of being enacted.


One way of identifying women's political identities is by examining their participation in society and politics. This term is, however, attaining catch-phrase status in discussing Third World women. Asking for "women's participation" is akin to similarly contentless discussions on "women's roles and functions" in society. In this project, participation will be closely linked to practices and women's own expressions of womanhood. The term participation is useful as long as it is well-defined and situated. In that the official discourse uses the term in a purely rhethorical manner; "[t]he Algerian woman first participated as a mother by awakening and intensifying the patriotic spirit..." (UNFA-document, Nairobi, 1985), it is important to be both critical of the term and prepared to use it.

What is clear is that the women did, due to their participation in the war of liberation, actually extend the range of their activities in society (i.e. the range of their accepted activities). The question whether that also entailed a wider understanding of women's identity is not as clear. This widening of the women's functions [8] by their practices, threatened an existing sex-power-structure in such a way that trying to force women back into their homes was apparently seen as the only option. In what ways do women simply respond to official definitions, and, in what ways are they creating their own definitions of acceptable behaviour [9] and womanhood? Here, we come across another criteria for practices, these movements can be understood as either actions or reactions. When do the women act in response to the impositions and when do they through the quotidian create new expressions of womanhood, which the official arena then reacts to?

The above could, therefore, in an intial inquiry be examined in a three-by-three matrix:

Table 1

The primary purpose would be to attempt getting behind the broad sweeps covered by "participation" on its own, or the broad theoretical characterization of a "citizen". By combining the creation of womanhood to the expressions taken by women when they demand improved civil rights, another facet of the private/public scale becomes visible. Beginning by examining "what lies behind" each of the stars in the matrix, further nuances could be uncovered by the hierarchical differences that show up in these. By then, it is possible that a matrix such as this only goes so far and will have to be discarded, but it may well be able to act as a starter into another way of seeing women's political identity formation, women's political practices in the public and the quotidian.

As an example of the type of "hierarchical" differences that might be uncovered in the above manner is in the (very) superficial division of "acts". Acts taken at official level and acts taken by a collective or single women are surely different. The first carry the weight of a formality, where the latter lack legitimacy in formal terms. What is the differing nature of state-practices and those acted out by the women? In what other ways do the formal and informal interrelate? How do various informal collectivities, for instance non-governmental organisations affect the formal (institutional) definitions? Here I would like to examine to what degree the official definitions are affected by religious movements. For instance, does the cultural [10] background contradict what is adopted by state officials? It has been suggested that Chadli Benjedid (the last Algerian President before the imposition of martial law) caved in to pressures by FIS and finally allowed them to legalize into a political party (argued by many to be anti-constitutional). How do the women collectively and singly challenge the definitions presented by the religious party; FIS? [11] As mentioned, the mere fact that women have continued working and walking about unveiled are methods of contestation. What is the range of alternatives available to women, when participating in democratic elections would have meant for them to lose the final vestiges of their citizenship rights?

Legal and discursive structures

In trying to investigate the dynamics that Algerian women are engaged in I will try to map the "structures" that surround them. These structures consist of several different parts. The easiest to identify are the legal structures that create a formal and official context within which the women live. The Constitution states in Articles 39 and 42 (the latest addition to the Constitution was effected on the 23rd of Feb, 1989): "All prejudicial discrimination based on sex, race or work is forbidden" and "[t]he rights of the Algerian women as far as politics, economics, social and cultural rights are guaranteed by the Constitution". On the other hand the family law (also called Code de Statut Personnel) whose source is the Sharia'h constitutes a definition of womanhood which places women under the direct tutelage of a man. The contradictoriness of this legal context creates a confusing structure within which women are expected to work and live their lives, active citizens on the one hand and legal minors on the other.

The legal context is in itself a discursive context but a consideration of discourse must also include the political language. What the Presidents of Algeria say when they make statements on the position, future or participation of women goes toward the structuring of women's ability to participate in the official arena. Women as moudjahidat [12] is used largely as a symbolic figurehead; it denotes the "revolutionary" mothers whose part in the future of the country is to birth its sons. Considering that women do not see this as their only future the discrepancy between official expressions of womanhood and women's lives is sharp. The discursive context is also a part of the structuring elements which surround women. It is obviously very fluid in a number of ways, a part of which is the fact that although women do not have definatory power they are included and participate in the discursive context. It is not a simple relationship of power emanating only from the discursive in a completely structuring manner onto the women. Maybe the best way to view the relationship for now is like the to and forth movement of a pendulum.

In terms of movement, the above illustrations of (some) official structures emanate into what could be seen as top-down movements. They are structures which are virtually woman-free [13] and so go towards structuring women's lives as impositions from above. However, I do not believe that these are static structures or that they succeed in molding women into the narrow definitions they express of either women's identities or their acceptable functions.


One aspect which illustrates the power relationship is exclusion. Women want to participate in the official arena, in the decision-making over the country's future and their own futures. However, exclusion in many different shapes is used to hinder women from extending their participation onto the public arena. Therefore, women's acts of contestation are often aimed at wanting to be included on the official arena (in what that arena does). Exclusion is the barrier which is used to stop them. Therefore, determining where and how women are actually excluded from the official structures, official practices of citizenship or even from the discursive power to self-define, is as important as seeing where women can act. Exclusion seems to suggest "forbidden areas". It is likely that a discussion on exclusion will lead also to subjects more closely related to culture. Areas where women cannot be because they clash with age-old social mores. [14]

Here, I believe, citizenship should be linked to a discussion of gendered nationalism. How far is the right to citizenship linked with acts of patriotism and definitions of nationalism? It seems that women and men have a different relationship (allowed) to nationalism. The acts which are demanded of women are different from the ones demanded of men. Women are excluded from citizenship because they are women. My hypothesis is that the (implicit) concept of gendered nationalism is used as one type of exclusionary barrier. Can Algerian women's right to citizenship be argued through their active past in the struggle for national independence and the continued struggle of some women for democracy today? Although, as seen from the rhethoric used by Algerian presidents, women's acts as moudjahidat are of limited value, war veterans are yet more revered than other women. The reality is, however, as so often, more compex than that since many women do not register as war veterans, nor have they been coaxed to do so. Furthermore, women who marry foreigners lose their nationality, in that they automatically get struck off their father's constituencies. An Algerian woman cannot, therefore, pass on her nationality to her children. Nationality is passed on only through fathers.

For the above reasons it is possible that "gendered nationalism" will solve the problem of having to approach citizenship for woment through their participation in the war of liberation. Citizens are asked to participate through their bodies. This demand is translated for men as being prepared to give their lives. For women, the demand is expressed by expecting them to become revolutionary mothers; "...she continuously provided the Revolution with heroes..." (UNFA-document, Nairobi, 1985). Therefore, deconstructing nationalism and nationality through a gender specific analysis may offer one solution to the dilemma.

Here, the specific situation of active Muslim women should not be forgotten. The identity of Islamic citizen breaks through the theoretical lines drawn by Western democratic/citizenship ideas:

I have six brothers and I am the only girl...Everybody asked me: 'Where were you? Where are you going?'...Now, I am freer, I go to the mosque, even at night during Ramadan. I am permitted everything now (Faiza).
An analysis of the practices and freedoms created by women for themselves within the active Islamic context is therefore important. It is necessary to ascertain the limits expereinced by Islamic women and which of their "abilities" they may express. The breakdown of womanhood, political identity and citizenship acts should be extended also the these women.

In conclusion, it is important to stress that each definition of women's practices must come from "below" rather than be imposed from above. Applying known definitions from above does nothing to further an understanding of the specific probelmatic faced Algerian women in their quest for citizenship. In these different types of practices lies what might give women different entitlements. This does, however, also mean investigating a vast array of debates, theories and ideas of politics and participation, since women and their acts of participation are in the eye of the storm of present day Algeria, and they are, getting it from all sides.


Benallègue, Nora; "Algerian Women in the Struggle for Independence and Reconstruction" in International Social Science, Vol. 35, 1983.

Bessis, Sophie and Belhassen, Souhayr; Femmes du Maghreb: l'enjeu, JCL, 1992.

Hélie-Lucas, Marie-Aimée; unpubl. "Women's struggle in Algeria during the war for independence and after", 1986.

Smith, Dorothy; The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology, Open University Press, 1988.

Shaaban, Bouthaina; Both Right and Left Handed, The Women's Press, 1988.

Other printed material:

Jeune Afrique Ndeg. 1629 - du 26 mars au 1er avril 1992. "Les Maghrebines aujourd'hui - 'Dieu ne peut être qu'un homme'".

"National Union of Algerian Women - Evaluation of the Progress Achieved in Favour of Women in Algeria" presented for the United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, 1985.


* This is a brief presentation of my PhD-project at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University.[*]

1. Cited in Benallegue, 1983. Quotation from March 1960.[*]

2. I think that 'acting' and 'acts' on the political arena may have to be defined differently in the Algerian context. It is possible that the act of voting carries deeper significance in the Algerian context.[*]

3. With official I mean the administrative, bureaucratic, legal and political structures which together create norms and regulate civil life. (There are non-official decisions which affect all Algerians taken by, for instance, the religious extremists.)[*]

4. A high yoddling sound, also called zaghreet, used traditionally by women at festivities, used by Algerian women as a sound of protest against the colonialists. The French soliders were met by veritable "walls" of ululating women.[*]

5. All terms trying to define these agents are contested; Islamists, extremists and fundamentalists, are perceived provocative.[*]

6. This statement was made in the early 1980s when one-party rule still governed Algerian politics. The question of how practices have changed from one-party to multiparty politics is therefore also important.[*]

7. Association called "Pour l'emancipation de la femme" on the 8th of March 1990. Bessis, p. 250 (my transl.)[*]

8. The term function is not intended as an essentialistic category, but refers to the functions that women are expected to perform in a society given or laid down by the ruling norms. "Men's functions" are seldom discussed in a similar fashion.[*]

9. Women's participation in the war was a unique occurrence in that the women often had to "fight" their families to be allowed to join the maquis (the camp).[*]

10. The term cultural vill be defined. At this point I very loosely wish it to indicate religious, historic and ethnic factors which go toward creating a psycho-social context.[*]

11. FIS stands for Front Islamique de Salut, which was the only officially recognised religious party, now declared illegal.[*]

12. The feminine form of the term freedom fighter.[*]

13. In the sense that there have been virtually no women in positions of power who could have represented a women's position on any question.[*]

14. In order to do this a full examination of the idea and practice of citizenship for women is required. This means investigating the ongoing discourse in Algeria on democracy. Here, the terminology of the political debate can be examined in order to ascertain what the key conceptual areas are within which a development of Algerian female citizenship can be most fertile.[*]

Nelli Kopola
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