Women and the Algerian Hirak: Resistance and Negotiation

Seréna Nilsson Rabia, University of Bergen

 

Introduction

In February 2019, Algerians started taking to the streets every Friday to voice their dissatisfaction with the country’s sociopolitical situation. They demanded the fall of the regime, including the military, and the destruction of the clientelist and bureaucratic system encompassing what the Algerians refer to as le pouvoir (the power) (Guemar et al. 2019). The movement, called the Hirak, was the first since the war of liberation from the French (1954–1962) to involve the active presence and participation of women contesting and protesting the country’s status quo and political structures (Filiu 2019, 75).[1] The demands of the Hirak had been building up in Algeria for years. The dissatisfactions were the same as those that led to the 2011 uprisings across the region, but the goals and methods used were distinct (Ottaway and Ottaway 2020, 39).

When some Hirak protesters made demands about women’s rights, identities, and religion, however, they were not seen as “political” enough by other protesters and vocal public figures of the movement.[2] Protestors saw such demands as unrelated to institutional changes and as therefore divisive (Abbas-Terki 2021, 11-12). For example, when feminist activists established a “feminist square” in the capital of Algiers to demand more rights for women, the square was portrayed as a resistance movement against the Hirak and its social discourse, and the female activists suffered physical and verbal harassment as well as smear campaigns on social media (Haddag 2021, 6).

This paper draws on interviews I conducted with women in the Kabilya region who participated in the Hirak. The women shared the protest’s demands for the fall of le pouvoir and all its structures. I argue that out of fear of depoliticizing the Hirak, these women shifted their demands outside of the discourse of the protest to instead focus on their own daily life concerns. I argue that the collective assembly of women from different regions, social classes, and backgrounds in the Hirak’s weekly Friday marches allowed them to come together to perform their agency by expressing their demands and dissatisfactions with authoritarian and patriarchal structures at all levels of society. Women were able to separate their demands as Algerian women from the ones they made as part of the Hirak. Their collective action was not organized or situated around a specific location. Instead, they were present in different spaces of the Hirak protests where women assembled as well as in spaces where women would routinely gather during the day such as at school pick up, grocery stores, and female gatherings at home—locations that Asef Bayat (2013) suggested constitute “sociospaces”  which are spaces where these individuals legitimate illegitimate actions which in this case are demands made outside of the movement (Bayat 2013, 12-13). Additionally, women from all social classes wanted women’s unpaid work in the household to be acknowledged by the government in the form of a monthly salary derived from the state’s oil money, which they saw as being unfairly used by the state. Hence, the women are asking for the state and society to recognize that women are workers who can bargain, resist, and negotiate their terms of work not just tokens of the patriarchy (Federici 1974, 76).

Methodology and Postcolonial Feminism

This study is based on 25 unstructured interviews and observations in the region of Kabylia in the commune of Tizi Ouzou conducted in 2019, in the months leading up to the presidential election on December 12, 2019. I translated all quotes by the participants from French, Algerian Arabic, Tamazight (Berber), or a mixture of all three (Darija). This article adopts feminist intersectionality theory, which looks at women’s experiences through different but overlapping forms of oppression such as ethnicity, gender, education, and class (Crenshaw 1991). This theory is applied to recognize the diversity of women’s demands and dissatisfaction with patriarchal and authoritarian structures. Hence, this article is written from a postcolonial feminist perspective. Algeria was colonized by the French in 1830 and did not gain independence until 1962. Colonialism shaped social and political structures within Algeria and had a greater effect on women than men, similar to how women are most impacted by authoritarian structures (Tripp 2019). The status of women in post-colonial nations has been shaped by the discourse of colonial powers.

Postcolonial scholarship examines the resistance against colonial powers that has shaped many cultures, structures, and individuals in formerly colonized states (Lazreg 2019; Tyagi 2014, 45). The lens of postcolonialism deconstructs the colonizer’s power and discourse to understand formerly colonized individuals’ experiences (Mohanty 2003). A feminist postcolonial approach focuses on women and tries to identify gender differences and constructions of women and their roles (Tyagi 2014, 45), while strongly criticizing the homogenization of women’s experiences in the Middle East and North Africa by Western “white” feminists during and after colonization (Mohanty 2003).

Women’s Demands and Dissatisfactions

The collective assembly of women from different regions, social classes, and backgrounds during the Hirak’s weekly marches allowed women to come together in groups in unprecedented ways. Beyond their criticisms of the regime, they also shared a broad dissatisfaction with the patriarchal norms and values in Algerian society. However, women kept those dissatisfactions and demands separate from the ones they made as part of the Hirak. Their demands against the patriarchy were articulated in sociospaces that manifest in different places in public and private where women engage in what Bayat defines as “street politics” (Bayat 2013, 12).

Typical daily life practices of Algerian women include grocery shopping, picking up kids from school, and attending female gatherings in the home following a protest or general gathering of women. Such behaviors created sociospaces in both public and private spaces where women conveyed their dissatisfactions and made demands against the patriarchy together. These sociospaces, including women’s engagement in street politics, provided women with safe spaces to perform their agency and verbalize their ‘illegitimate’ demands and dissatisfaction under the radar of the Hirak. Such a safe space was necessary because of the discontentment of many male protestors who did not accept that women’s demands and women’s rights were part of the Hirak. Instead, many men believed these issues were dividing and depoliticizing the movement (Abbas-Terki 2021, 11–12). As seen with the case of the feminist square in Algiers, women’s inclusion of other demands outside of their usual sociospaces could even be met with violence by Hirak supporters who intended to make women comply with the discourse of the Hirak.

Due to the different barriers faced by women in Algeria, their demands and dissatisfactions expressed in public and private spaces varied. Women demanded a part of the state’s oil money and a monthly allowance for Algerian housewives. The women, as well as protesters, argued that the state had been misusing state resources for their own benefit, as expressed by Maya, a 23-year-old student, “I hope the people will be able to take advantage of their wealth.” All women in the study (housewives, homemakers, students, and working women) felt entitled to the oil money and wanted it to be spent on giving women economic independence from the patriarchal figures in their lives. Zohra, a 56-year-old housewife, shared her dissatisfaction with her economic dependency saying,

Are you just supposed to wait for your husband? Every time you want something, you have to wait for the man. Once he gets his salary, he will give you the money, but when he does, he will ask you; what will you do with it, what are you going to buy with the money? He will not give you the money until you pass the investigation. We live in misery, women who don’t work live in misery.

Women want housewives to have economic independence and to be able to move away from the household and their husbands to participate in the protest in a public space on a Friday. Another reason behind this demand lies in women’s understanding of family dynamics and their role as mothers and wives, as shared by Karima, a 62-year-old housewife, “I want housewives like myself to get money for educating and raising the future leaders and the future Algerian generation. Hence, the state should reward us [mothers and wives] for our work.” The women’s narratives and demands demonstrated a back-and-forth between resisting patriarchal norms and supporting values that subordinate women in the household of the umma (meaning community)even as they were demanding economic independence from the patriarch. The household of the umma refers to the binary division of the role and space of women within the ideological division of Muslim societies,  i.e., the public is often seen as male-dominated and the binary world of the household and home  is seen as private and belonging to women and the family (Mernissi 2003, 15).

These kinds of paradoxical demands are deconstructed in Silvia Federici’s (1974) seminal research on wages and housework. Federici argues that asking for a wage gives a worker the impression of making a fair deal by being paid for their work. The wage would be recognition that the women are workers and with this status they can bargain, resist, and negotiate around the terms and quantity of their work (Federici 1974, 76).[3] By demanding a wage for their housework, Algerian women demanded an end to work that is unpaid simply because it is being done by women. By making this demand the women were not implying they would continue to do the same work in the same way should they get paid. Instead, it is the first step in refusing to do housework and in making their housework a visible and legitimate job (Federici 1974, 81).

As expressed by Tassadit a 39-year-old housewife, “Housewives should get paid, they are also working and doing a job. Even though it is at home it is a legitimate job.” The interviewed women, however, still supported patriarchal ideals of the “Muslim family,” which reinforces women’s traditional role in the household as part of the umma. This was voiced by women of all generations even students such as Malak, a 25-year-old student, “This allowance should be given to mothers and housewives as they are the ones taking care and raising us the new generation of Algeria, we are its future and they [mothers and housewives ] should be rewarded for their work. “ Women negotiated by using the Algerian state’s own narrative of being a feminist and paternalist state that provides for women (Cheriet 2014, 152; Hatem 1992, 232).

The Algerian state’s cooptation of women and women’s rights through reforms and laws such as the family code has influenced the way women view themselves in Algerian society. The ideals and values that women often uphold as their part of the Muslim family reinforce patriarchal structures and heteronormative gender relations where women are subordinate (Moghadam 2003, 137). These ideals can be traced back further than the authoritarian regime. The role of women in post-colonial nations has been shaped by the discourse of colonial powers. Women were racialized and gendered by the colonizers who imposed stereotypes that objectified women and portrayed them as inferior (Elsadda 2019, 53; Fanon [1959]/2011, 21). These stereotypes were used by many Algerian women, who have internalized those stereotypes and become accustomed to being dominated by men as a result of the colonial structures of power (Golay 2007, 408). Arab feminists argue that the challenges and burdens of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and Westernization have shaped their lives and the lives of women in the post-colonial authoritarian states (Elsadda 2019, 53). Arab feminists such as Hoda Elsadda maintain that the Arab state represses women, and they contest the hegemonic power structures within the authoritarian state that have socially and politically controlled and appropriated women’s rights questions (2019, 54).

By demanding a monthly allowance, women were negotiating a new social contract between the paternalistic state and women in Algeria. Hence one could ask the question, would women disregard their other dissatisfactions and demands if the regime complied with this demand? And would women stand behind the regime if they got their monthly allowance?

Gender Segregation and Islamic Morality

Women’s dissatisfactions were not restricted to umma and the household. Women were dissatisfied with their exclusion from certain public areas as well as days of the week and times of the day. My participants explained that they were usually never outside in public on Fridays until the start of the Hirak, as expressed by Karima, a 62-year-old housewife, “I won’t go out to do anything that’s not appropriate, such as going out when it is dark outside. But I only go out when I have to.” The Hirak opened up Friday spaces and cities for women, which until the Hirak were male-dominated, as expressed by Tassadit a 39-year-old housewife,

Fridays are religious days. Men go to pray in the mosque and some women as well, but most women stay at home, pray, and prepare lunch for their husbands so that they can find lunch ready for them when they come back from the prayer. I never used to go out on Fridays before the Hirak, maybe once to buy milk, as it is completely empty. Only men and weirdos are outside on Fridays.

Hence, the Hirak made it possible for women to reappropriate public spaces on Fridays by walking in the protests alongside men but especially other women who do not usually occupy this space.

Other times and spaces restricted to women were public spaces after salat al maghrib (sunset prayer) and the kahwa, which is a male-dominated coffee house. Women were scrutinized and faced social pressure when in these spaces as their presence was seen as inappropriate due to the increased potential for men and women to interact. Their presence challenged Islamic morality because cross-gender interactions could lead women to violate social norms of permissible behavior (Shahrokni 2020,1).[4]Furthermore, because women are the symbols of Islamic morality (Ibid), they are the ones that need to be prevented from sinning by men who can monitor and protect them. Consequently, religious values exert a strong influence on how patriarchal structures in Algeria are shaped around Islam to justify gender segregation, which reinforces the division of the umma (private sphere) and the male-dominated public spaces (Mernissi 2003, 15). These restrictions on male-female interactions were not only present in the household but were also explicit in public spaces. This because social norms and legal systems such as family law and personal status law regulate women, which reinforces the division of the umma into the private sphere on one hand and male-dominated public spaces on the other. There is a clear connection between the authoritarian state’s regulation of women’s bodies through reforms and laws and the women’s challenges and dissatisfaction in Algerian society.

Neopatriarchy is a combination of traditional and modern forms of patriarchy and reinforces the domination and authority of men in post-colonial societies. It emerged as a new form of governance in the Middle East and North Africa following failed attempts to modernize that left societies in limbo between traditionalism and modernism and where power remains in the hands of men in both the public and the private spheres (Sharabi 1988, 28–32). However, despite the regulation and control of women in both spheres, some women face more restrictions than others.

Working women and students have more freedom in public spaces as their occupations justify their presence. Working women also have a salary, which they can spend in the cities. They can prove that they are out in public for a reason beyond cross-gender interactions and going against Muslim family values and Islamic morality. Uneducated women and housewives do not have the occupation nor the money to justify their presence in and access to various public spaces. As Lindsey Benstead argues, poor women are limited in their autonomy while wealthy women have more freedom, and the same limitations were also seen with educated and uneducated women, as well as between working women and housewives (2020, 3).

Conclusion

In this article, I have explored the different ways women relate to authoritarian and patriarchal structures in the Hirak and their daily lives. Understanding women’s interests and demands concerning social norms, religion, and traditions is important for understanding how they convey their dissatisfactions through street politics and sociospaces in the household and in public. Women’s demands were shaped by public and private patriarchal structures, which restrict women’s movement and agency in the neopatriarchal Algerian society. These patriarchal structures were shaped by traditional gender roles, the umma, and Islamic morality (Shahrokni 2020, 1; Mernissi 2003, 15). Nonetheless, the country’s history of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and Westernization contributed to the women’s current experiences of oppression (Elsadda 2019, 53).

Women’s educational background and profession or occupation shape how much privilege, autonomy, and agency women have in Algerian society. Women’s demands for more rights and participation in the Hirak were interconnected due to the connection between the authoritarian and patriarchal structures constituting the neopatriarchal society (Sharabi 1988). Hence, women’s demands and resistance vis-à-vis the regime is resistance and negotiation against the patriarchy and vice-versa. Women were challenging, yet at the same time using in their favor, neopatriarchal structures by demanding an end to work that is unwaged because they are women. By making this demand, women want their work as part of supporting an Islamic morality to be acknowledged, which is the first step to later refuse, resist, or bargain to do the job or certain tasks (Federici 1974, 81).

Women resisted the social discourse of the Hirak by demanding that women live better lives in all spaces and structures of Algerian society. Women negotiated a new social contract with the state where women abide by the ideals of the Muslim family in return for a monthly allowance from the state that will provide women with more liberty in the tasks they choose to do as part of housework as well as legitimize their working conditions, tasks, and wages. Consequently, these demands and dissatisfactions of women in the Kabylia region would not have come to light without women’s reappropriation of Algerian public space by participating in the Hirak on Fridays, a day that was previously male-dominated and reserved for the Friday prayer when women were expected to be home taking care of the household umma.

Bibliography

Abbas-Terki, Karima. 2021. “Le Hirak: nouvelle opportunité pour les droits des femmes Algériennes,” Dossier: Femmes Dans les Révolutions Arabes. La revue étudiante de sciences humaines et sociales consacrée au monde arabe, no.1, 10–21.

Bayat, Asef. 2013. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Benstead, Lindsay J. 2020. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Patriarchy: The Importance of Feminist Theory.” Mediterranean Politics, 1–13.

Cheriet, Boutheina. 2014. “The Arab Spring Exception: Algeria’s Political Ambiguities and Citizenship Rights.” The Journal of North African Studies 19, no. 2, 143–156.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6, 1241–1299.

Dris Aït-Hamadouche, Louisa, and Chérif Dris. 2019. “Le face à face hirak-pouvoir: La crise de la représentation.” L’Année du Maghreb 21, 57–68.

Elsadda, Hoda. 2019. “Against All Odds: A Legacy of Appropriation, Contestation, and Negotiation of Arab Feminism in Post-Colonial States.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 16, no. 16, 53–64.

Fanon, Frantz. 2011 [1959]. L’An V de la Révolution Algérienne. La Découverte Poche.

Federici, Silvia. 1975, Wages Against Housework. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.

Filiu, Jean-Pierre. 2019. Algérie La Nouvelle Indépendence. Paris: Éditions Du Seuil.

Golay, Annabelle. 2007. “Féminisme et Post-colonialisme: Beauvoir, Fanon et la guerre d’Algérie.” International Journal of Francophone Studies 10, no. 3, 407–424.

Haddag, Lydia. 2021. “Hirak and Feminism: An Equation with Two Unknowns.” Arab Reform Initiative, June 22, 2021. https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/hirak-and-feminism-an-equation-with-two-unknowns/

Hatem, Mervat F. 1992. “Economic and Political Liberation in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 2, 231–251.

Lazreg, Marnia. 2019. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Mernissi, Fatima. 2003. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in the Modern Muslim World. London: Saqi Books.

Moghadam, Valentine. 2003. Patriarchy in Transition: Women and the Changing Family in the Middle East. Boulder: Lynn Rienner Publisher.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ottaway, Marina, and David Ottaway. 2020. “The New Arab Uprisings: Lessons from the Past.” Middle East Policy XXVII, no. 1, 30–40.

Photiadis, John D. 1965. “The Position of the Coffee House in the Social Structure of the Greek Village.” Sociologia Ruralis 5 no. 1, 45–56.

Shahrokni, Nazanin. 2019. Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran. Oakland: University of California Press.

Sharabi, Hisham. 1988. Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in the Arab World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tripp, Aili Mari. 2019. Seeking Legitimacy: Why Arab Autocracies Adopt Women’s Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tyagi, Ritu. 2014. “Understanding Post-Colonial Feminism in Relation with Post-Colonial and Feminist Theory.” International Journal of Language and Linguistic 1, no. 2, 45–50.

 

[1] Different from other female mobilizations in Algeria, this mobilization was not feminist and included women from all over the country, from different social classes all participating in the discourse of the protest.

[2] The Hirak did not have a single leader. However, many vocal public figures from political parties and opposition groups spoke vocally about the movement in the media and had a strong influence on the protesters’ views of the discourse of the movement (Dris Aït-Hamadouche and Dris 2019).

[3] Unwaged work is a powerful weapon in reinforcing the idea that household work is not an actual job. It also pushes women to seek this work as it is believed to be rewarding and proof of their worth and makes the men and male workers dependent on this unwaged work (Federici 1974, 77–78).

[4] It is important to note that male-dominated coffee houses also exist in non-Islamic countries. In the case of Algeria, Islamic morality and gender segregation remain the main reasons it is male-dominated and non-accessible to women. However, in Greece, for example, the coffee house is an informal meeting place shaped by Greek patriarchal structures that influence and shape the role of the family and the position of men and family in society (Photiadis 1965, 54).