CHRIS KUTSCHERA 30 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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ALGERIA: What happened to Algeria's Fighting Women?

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Veilde women in AlgeriaWhat happens to the women fighters after the victory? They go back to the kitchen! In Algeria at least, it is clear that they had no other future. Djamila Amrane was, almost, one of them. Born in France in 1939, Danièle Minne, daughter of a French communist secondary school teacher, lived almost all her life in Algeria and joined the struggle when she was 17, going underground under the nom de guerre of Djamila.

Arrested and jailed in December 1956, she was liberated after the independence, in 1962, and wrote her PhD thesis on the participation of Algerian women in the war, interviewing eighty-eight women between 1978 and 1986. Her thesis forms the basis of a book, Des femmes dans la guerre d’Algérie (Karthala, Paris).

When the “war of national liberation” broke out in 1954, only 4,5% of Algerian women knew how to read and write. Just 3% were employed outside the home and only 16% of Algerian women above 15 were unmarried. There were only 503 Algerian students at Algiers university -- of whom 22 were girls. Uneducated and confined to the home, Algerian women had no rights whatsoever. Still, almost 11.000 women joined the struggle. About 2.000 joined the armed organisation of the NLF  but very few did actually fight, most worked as nurses or cooks. Some were involved in intelligence, while others worked as couriers, collecting money or carrying bombs.

Algiers a family on a balconyBut in no way can they be compared, for example, to the Eritrean women who actively participated in the fighting -- some of them becoming commanders of  tank battalions. Most of the Algerian women came from the two political parties that existed before the war: Messali Hadj’s “P.P.A” (Party of the Algerian People) and the “P.C.A” (Algerian Communist Party). While the P.P.A. drew the “elite” of Algerian intellectual women, they all tell the same stories of very conservative families -- and not less conservative fellow male “moudjahidines” -- who could not imagine women playing a political role.

As Fatiha Hermouche underlines it, the influence of the family was decisive. Since girls did not go out, and had no chance to speak between themselves about the situation -- even those who went to school -- the discussions taking place at home were their only source of information. If a girl’s father, brothers, or cousins, were militants, the girls had a chance to overhear their debates and to make up their own mind -- although in some families, like Meriem Madani’s, the “men would not speak in presence of women”.

Only men in the streetFatma Baichi was a young girl when she discovered by chance a place where communists met and listened to political speeches. She went there often until one of her brothers saw her there, he beat her and took her back home, pulling her by her hair: “She is involved in politics”, he told his mother. When Fatma told her mother that he was also a militant, he announced: “I am a man”. There was no answer to that. Like many women interviewed by Djamila Amrane, Fatma was badly tortured by the French for hiding weapons in her house, and she did behave... like a brave man.

Yamina Cherrad graduated as a nurse one year before the beginning of the war, and went underground two years later, with three other nurses. For one year Yamina was the only woman in the district. And she says that she had “many problems. The main one was that many fighters did not accept willingly the presence of a woman. They thought that the women who joined the fighting did so to find a husband. They did not understand that we also wanted to work, to fight”.

Baya Hocine was born in 1940 in a very poor family from the Casbah in Algiers. She began working as a courrier at 16. And she remembers that she was also “doing everything: I washed the clothes, ironed them, went shopping and cooked. Meanwhile, the men did nothing, they were discussing”.

Malika Zerrouki was 15 when she joined the fighting in 1956. “The bush was my school”, she often said later, “I learned everything there”. Working as a barefoot nurse, she was sent with a small group of other girls to Tunisia in 1957 by her “colonel”. Malika tells how it took them three months to walk to the border, and how terrified they were trying to avoid the French. Once in Tunis, they were set up in a villa but told not to go out. When they protested they were locked up in the cellar by their fellow NLF fighters. Fortunately colonel Ouamrane, a hero of the Algerian war, who happened to know the young Malika and considered her as his “protégée”, inquired about her, and as a result they were liberated.

All the interviews featured in Djamila Amrane’s book make fascinating reading because the women telling their stories are writing a different history of what is now called the First War of Algeria. Their accounts are different from the official version later rewritten by those wishing to glorifying the NLF and its “national liberation army”. These women, who today do not belong to any political party, tell the bitter truth with a rare honesty.  The nurses, like Yamina, tell horrific stories of amputations with a saw and without anesthesia. By interviewing those women who participated in the “battle of Algiers” along simple village women who supported the struggle by cooking and washing for the fidayines, as well as some of the French women who joined the war on the NLF side, the author draws a fairly comprehensive picture of events.

The conclusion however, is bitter: “Most of the fighters prayed not to be alive after the independence, because they thought it would not end well”, says Mimi ben Mohammed, a nurse. Yamina was disgusted when different groups started fighting between themselves in the summer of 1962, after the independence, and “forgot it all”.

Baya Laribi, another nurse who was arrested and tortured, had hoped that her fight would bring “a better life for the people of the “douars” (villages). Years later, she went back to see the villages that had helped her during the fighting by offering her food and shelter: “I saw that the wives and the families of the fighters still lived in the same shocking conditions as they had before. I was so much ashamed that I did not go back, I wanted to curl up in a corner”.

Halima Ghomri’s experience was equally bitter: “The independence? Nothing of what I had hoped for was achieved. I had expected that my children would be able to have an education but they did not get it. We were poor peasants then, we are poor peasants now. Nothing has changed. Everything is the same. The only thing is that we are free, the war is over, we work without fear -- but apart from that, nothing has changed”.

Fatma, who went through the worst torture and detention camps during three years, from 1957 to 1960, was married to a neighbour in 1961. It was a traditional marriage, and even after the independence her husband did not allow her to go out. It was only when she was nearly 50 that her husband finally allowed her to go out in the street.

In 1957, at the age of 17, Baya Hocine was arrested and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. Liberated in 1962, she becomes a journalist and a cadre of the NLF. But she remains frustrated: “When I was in jail I was so convinced that when we go out, we -- men and women --would build a socialist Algeria together but Algeria was built without us. We, the women, we were excluded”.

 Fatma Bedj, from El Asam, who lost three children in the fighting, has the bitter last word: “I did not ask for anything, not for a pension nor even for a needle. We worked for the sake of God and for our beliefs. But now, to tell the truth, I regret it, I regret my daughters”.

(The Middle East magazine, April 1996)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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