Sun 27 May 2007
[left to right: Djamila Bourhiredf; Women waiting for bus at University of Algiers, photo by Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times; scene from “The Battle of Algiers”; “Algerian Women in Their Apartments” by Eugene Delacroix, 1834
One of the lead articles in yesterday’s New York Times was titled “A Quiet Revolution in Algeria: Gains by Women” by Michael Slackman. Revolutions, no matter where they erupt, tend to be noisy, even when they are not successful. The French stormed the Bastille; America had its Boston Tea Party; the Russians knocked off the Czar and his family. The Algerian Revolution, which took eight years from 1954-1962, claimed an estimated one to one-and-a-half million lives, not to mention the French military casualties of some 18,000. In the past decade or so more than 100,000 Algerians have died as a direct result of partisan extremist religious fighting. So if Algeria is now having a quiet revolution, where did all the noise go?
Slackman starts with an upbeat appraisal on the role of women in contemporary Algeria:
Women make up 70 percent of Algeria’s lawyers and 60 percent of its judges. Women dominate medicine. Increasingly, women contribute more to household income than men. Sixty percent of university students are women, university researchers say.
In a region where women have a decidedly low public profile, Algerian women are visible everywhere. They are starting to drive buses and taxicabs. They pump gas and wait on tables.
Although men still hold all of the formal levers of power and women still make up only 20 percent of the work force, that is more than twice their share a generation ago, and they seem to be taking over the machinery of state as well…
The women are more religious than previous generations, and more modern, sociologists here said. Women cover their heads and drape their bodies with traditional Islamic coverings. They pray. They go to the mosque — and they work, often alongside men, once considered taboo.
Sociologists and many working women say that by adopting religion and wearing the Islamic head covering called the hijab, women here have in effect freed themselves from moral judgments and restrictions imposed by men. Uncovered women are rarely seen on the street late at night, but covered women can be seen strolling the city after attending the evening prayer at a mosque.
“They never criticize me, especially when they see I am wearing the hijab,” said Denni Fatiha, 44, the first woman to drive a large city bus through the narrow, winding roads of Algiers.
The impact has been far-reaching and profound.
In some neighborhoods, for example, birthrates appear to have fallen and class sizes in elementary schools have dropped by nearly half. It appears that women are delaying marriage to complete their studies, though delayed marriage is also a function of high unemployment. In the past, women typically married at 17 or 18 but now marry on average at 29, sociologists said.
So what is the lesson from the apparent increase in women’s public role in Algeria? Has hijab replaced the petticoat in this quiet revolutionary scenario? I am always dubious when I read that people, in this case Algerian women as a block, are becoming more religious. More religious than whom? Their mothers or their great, great, great grandmothers? Their sisters in Lebanon or their sisters in Saudi Arabia or their sisters in Mali? If going to the mosque or wearing hijab is the measure, then I think religion is being defined in a very narrow way. As the article itself notes, this shift has not come about in a vacuum. First Algeria is reeling from over a decade of internal violence directed mainly at intellectuals. Whether or not it is more religious to wear hijab, it may be safer on the streets. I do not mean safer from the gaze of voyeurs, who can as easily fantasize undressing a woman in hijab as one in a bikini, but from the public display of militant conservatism. Second, is it any wonder that young Algerian men are not opting for college, when there are such low-paying jobs when they get out? If women are working outside the home, the main factor here is economic need for their work rather than a paradigm shift in conservative gender modeling. Third, is this really a gain for women or are they filling a vacuum of educated men that could close in on them at any moment?
If we are simply to compare Algeria to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, then the article might have a point. But this is Algeria. This is the country were the heroine Djamila Bourhired was wounded, captured and tortured by French troops in 1957 and yet refused to speak to her captors. The noisy fallout from this colonialist breach of human rights inspired the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine to make the film Jamila the Algerian (1958). Heroism at the time was defined as resistance to colonialist power, not acquiescence to medieval dress codes. This is the Algeria where women once proudly wore hijab to smuggle weapons past French gendarmes to men fighting for liberty. It is hardly a step forward to say Algerian women have made a gain if they see wearing the hijab as a ticket to more mobility. I do not doubt that this is true, given the current political problems, but at what expense?
One of the most controversial claims in the article is that “by adopting religion and wearing the Islamic head covering called the hijab, women here have in effect freed themselves from moral judgments and restrictions imposed by men.” Wearing the hijab is in itself a restriction imposed by men, even if validated by men from conservative interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam. This claim is like saying that by letting their masters put a leash on them, pet dogs have in effect freed themselves from the moral judgments and restrictions imposed on them by their owners. If the hijab is seen as an escape from the moral judgment of men, then it is hardly revolutionary and only a partial escape. There is no escaping the cultural assumption that Muslim women need to be covered head to foot because Muslim men are unable to control their libido. Calling the decision to wear the hijab a “choice” does not disguise the fact that it perpetuates the archaic gendered mantra that males are unable to resist female temptation, even when there is no intentional seduction at play. The Quran enjoins believing women to be modest and not to intentionally attract the male gaze, but the same advice is given to believing men. If contemporary Muslims can say “no” to concubinage, once enshrined in religious law as a male right, and “no longer” to polygyny as tolerable because of a built-in male need for “legitimate” sex with several women, then why cannot dress be left to societal norms of fashion change?
Slackman ends his article with an interesting anecdote, but does not probe the implications:
“I don’t think any of this contradicts Islam,” said Wahiba Nabti, 36, as she walked through the center of the city one day recently. “On the contrary, Islam gives freedom to work. Anyway, it is between you and God.”
Ms. Nabti wore a black scarf covering her head and a long black gown that hid the shape of her body. “I hope one day I can drive a crane, so I can really be financially independent,” she said. “You cannot always rely on a man.”
If women working in the public sphere does not contradict Islam and is between a woman and God, then why not the decision to move in public without the disguise of hijab, especially the blanket no-flesh-seen variety? Driving a crane would indeed be a sign of equal opportunity in the economic sphere, but having to do so in a long black gown rather than a t-shirt and cutoffs (as a man might do) suggests it is not likely to happen soon. Ms. Nabti is right to conclude that she cannot always rely on a man. The real revolution will come when Muslim women and men in Algeria and elsewhere work toward a pragmatic reality thin which it is important and a religious duty to trust each other.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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