By Malika Zouba
Years of terror at the hands of religious fundamentalists have left bruises beyond remedy for women in Algeria , even as women led the struggle to fight back against their vicious tactics seeking to enforce gender inequality.
From symbolic annihilation of womens bodies by forcing them to cover their bodies or faces to rapes and assassinations, fundamentalists sought to enforce their views. For ten years, acts of terror included threats on female schoolteachers, seamstresses, hairdressers, singers and journalists who were killed or abducted and subsequently assassinated. Kidnapped women were forced into sexual slavery and went through unspeakable sufferings. As one women human rights activist noted being killed was not an issue, but how and in what circumstances.
Acting Against Women From First Days of Independence
Right after Algeria s independence in 1962, fundamentalist forces began to covertly organize and to attack gender equality. They claim that the countrys constitution provides that Islam is the religion of the state and, in their view, that means the enforcement of sharia, or strict Islamic law, in all walks of life.
In the 1970s, they threw acid on female students legs to force them to wear longer skirts.
In 1984, the government finally yielded to some of the fundamentalists claims by enacting a regressive sharia-inspired law known as the Family code. It curbed womens rights and imposed strict rules on women about marriage, divorce and inheritance. Actually, the authorities views on male supremacy and the status of women in a Muslim society were not so different from the fundamentalists — it was a mere collusion of interests. The result for women was brutal violence.
In 1989, the house of a single mother was set ablaze in the southern city of Ouargla by an overheated mob. Her 3 year old crippled son, trapped in the house, died in the arson.
Fundamentalists operating as armed underground groups set up political parties after 1989. The FIS or Islamic Front of Salvation won the countrys local election in 1990 and seized most town halls. FIS mayors imposed strict gender segregation in offices, schools and buses. Female workers in town halls had to choose between wearing the veil or losing their jobs. Girls were prohibited from sports and cultural activities. Unofficial moral police established clothing codes, banning women inadequately clad from entering beaches or walking in streets, and led violent assaults on university campuses targeting female students.
In 1991 and 1992, fundamentalists entered into an all-out war on the Algerian society as authorities annulled elections that they were poised to win. The backlash saw an unprecedented wave of vicious violations of womens human rights. Writers, artists, political leaders, journalists, doctors and trade unionists were either assassinated or had to flee the country.
The issue of rape was so serious that in a country where abortion is an offense and punished with prison sentences, the countrys highest religious body issued a fatwa or edict ruling that women who have been raped by terrorists could have their pregnancies ended.
As terror gained momentum, women took the forefront of resistance. Protests of the Family law gave way to street demonstrations to denounce the crimes of fundamentalist groups and to act in support of secular laws.
In February 1994, the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) issued an ultimatum, ordering women to cover their heads or face death. A 16-year-old student, Katia Bengana, was assassinated.
Days later, on March 8, a womens organization known as the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women (RAFD) held a street demonstration, saying that women are not afraid and urging the government to grant women protection and not to enter into negotiation with the armed groups. To no avail.
The next year on March 8, the womens group staged a mock trial on violations of womens human rights, sentencing FIS leaders as well as the countrys president, who had passed the Family law.
In 2001, the authorities issued a blanket amnesty for fundamentalists involved in the years of terror if they laid down arms. Thousands returned safely home without any trial.
In some places, victims would meet their very torturers, leading to renewed suffering and trauma. The victims of terror are still calling for justice to be done and the rights of the victims to be recognized.
November 10, 2008