Algeria, Women in the War of National Liberation

The role of women in the Algerian people’s armed struggle for independence waged against the French from 1954 until 1962. The French held on to Algeria more tenaciously than Vietnam because they regarded it to be an integral part of France and approximately 1 million French colons resided there. On the Algerian side, women played a decisive role in the national liberation struggle. "The mobilization of a large segment of the population, particularly women, was a determining element in the victory" (Amrane 1982, 124). This was especially remarkable considering the traditional lives that most Algerian women led. They were excluded from the public sphere. They were almost entirely deprived of access to education; they were not allowed to vote; and they played no leading role in Algerian political parties. Nevertheless, during the war of liberation, they struggled "at the side of men, and rendered invaluable assistance and support to them" (Amrane 1982, 125). The women militants, like the majority of the Muslim population, were predominantly rural, and they operated in the countryside. Those more directly involved served as nurses; transported arms; or provided shelter, support, and information to fighters. A larger segment of Muslim women sympathized with the militants and provided assistance to those who directly assisted them. "[W]omen kept the network of male soldiers mobile, alive and protected" (Ladewig 2000, 247).

The outbreak of revolution in March 1917 led to the collapse of the monarchy as Nicholas abdicated and the imperial family was imprisoned. No foreign government would offer them sanctuary, and the former royalty, their children, and a few servants were subjected to increasingly harsh conditions of captivity. They were dispatched to western Siberia shortly before Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917. Rescue seemed possible when civil war broke out and forces sympathetic to the czar approached Ekaterinburg where he and his family and servants were held. Late on the night of 16 July 1918, however, Alexandra and the rest of her family were shot.

"The French realized that the participation of women in the war kept alive an organizationally and militarily overwhelmed resistance movement" (Ladewig 2000, 246). The French attempted to use Algerian women as their tool to break down traditional Algerian society. They promoted "unveiling" and trumpeted their opposition to patriarchal society. However, their effort failed. Algerian women coalesced behind the cause of national liberation. "Algerian women never envisioned female liberation as being a necessary component of national liberation" (Ladewig 2000, 246). Rather, in their struggle to liberate themselves from French colonial subjection, they reaffirmed their cultural distinctiveness. The veil, which could be put aside at will, proved a valuable tool during the struggle, enabling Algerian women to assume diverse identities at will. This was particularly valuable during the 1957 Battle of Algiers, during which the aid and action of militant women was essential.

Although on one level the French attempted to depict themselves as liberators of women, many Algerian women experienced violence perpetrated by the French during the war of liberation. "Many women were beaten, raped, and even tortured within their own homes" (Amrane 1982, 127). The fear of sexual violation by French soldiers motivated many young Algerian women, with the blessing of their families, to join the guerrilla resistance, the Army of National Liberation (ANL). Women aged between thirty-one and fifty-one, however, participated at a proportionately higher rate in the ANL resistance (Amrane 1982, 127). Nevertheless, it was exceptionally rare for a woman to be an actual fighter, for there were more men willing to fight than there were arms. Most women who joined the ANL were relegated to the "feminine" functions of nursing and cooking.

Women, because they roused less suspicion, did commit acts of terrorism, but this was extremely rare. Perhaps 2 percent of the women militants (Amrane 1982, 132) planted bombs, assisted in assassinations, or committed assassinations. Ladewig asserts that less than seventy women "directly worked with explosives or carried arms" (Ladewig 2000, 247). French courts condemned six women terrorists to death, but pardoned them because of their sex.

Frantz Fanon created a myth of the Algerian woman who liberated herself by participating in the struggle for national liberation on an equal basis with Algerian men (Helie-Lucas 1988, 175). After Algeria gained its independence in 1962, discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed by the constitution. There was a dramatic increase in educational opportunities for females, and females were admitted to engineering, medical, and flight training in the national People’s Army. Nevertheless, despite the expectations of Fanon, women remained largely relegated to traditional roles and their participation in politics and the economy remained limited.

Next post:

Previous post: