The Veil in Algeria: a bit of History
Ghania Kelifi - 14/06/2008
It’s hard to believe that up to the ‘80s most of the passers by in Algerian streets were dressed in Western style or wore the traditional veil, the white haik in Algiers and in the West, the black melaya in the East and the printed version in the South.
Today, as soon as you leave the big cities, the “Islamic” veil is worn everywhere. Obviously women wear it differently according to their age, social condition or ideology. Even the chador or the jellaba, though less present, have become common dress. Black gloves, socks and burjas, this dress imported from Iran and Afghanistan, has been defined in various ways by the young teasing Algerians: “black bags” referring to the trash bags used in Algeria, “the crows” and recently “Kinder surprise”, since you never know who’s hiding behind the black veil. Aside from this category, Algerian women wear their veil casually. Wearing make up, slinky pants, high heels and leaving a streak of Parisian perfume, they reduce the veil to a suitable portion, that is a scarf on their head. Even this “khimmar” scarf gives them a pretext to unreel their imagination and they wear it in all shapes and fantasies. There are shops run by Middle-Eastern people, which now propose very chic “Islamic” dresses, pants and skirts. In all fields of activity, except for the Army and the security corps, the veil has become a standard. The prostitutes swaggering along the great axes and parking lots have also contributed in their own way to demystify the veil that Islamists imposed as a moral proof. Or at least that was the line of reason they used to mould Algerian women in their ideological model. The veil, or more precisely the hijab hasn’t always had such a trivial aspect, it burst in the country amid violence and terror.
A bit of history
On 13 May 1958, at Place du Gouvernement in Algiers, some Algerian women were tearing their white veils apart amid the cheers of the Pieds Noirs. The colonial media relentlessly commented these images of “Muslim women” emancipating themselves and calling on to the other women of their same religion to enter “the French civilisation”. However, they avoided to speak of all the other women who wore the veil after this episode. In any case, the veil played a part in the national liberation movement.
Nevertheless, it will lose its aura after the independence and in the ‘70s it will have to compete with the Western dress “cifilize” as they said back then. Mini skirts, bell-bottom trousers and short hair invaded the streets and strolled next to the traditional veil. In rural areas things have a slower pace; it is out of the question for a woman, let alone a young unmarried girl to walk around the village “naked”, that is unveiled. Few of them keep studying after primary school and working women are seen only in cities. Things change with the Iranian Islamic revolution.
The crawling Islamic movement organises itself. Preaches of Islamic literature urge women to find back their faith and veil themselves again. The first scarves appear at the beginning of the ‘80s among the militants of the Islamic movement, at university, in the poorer districts. The hijab is distributed discreetly by the Iranian Embassy in Algiers and in mosques. Once the Islamic parties are authorised, the veil is already present everywhere. The wife of the then President of the Republic makes an appearance with a Benazir Bhutto style veil and a famous speaker appears veiled. She will quickly be thanked. Throughout the ‘90s the chador will represent the superior level of conformity to Coranic law. The militants or women of Islamic radicals adopt it. Following to the initial seductive phase, Islamic militants pass on to threats in the ‘90s. The veil becomes mandatory upon death penalty. Katia Bengana, a high school girl refuses to veil herself and is murdered. It is impossible to go in certain cities or areas bareheaded. Today the veil doesn’t have any advocates anymore. Most Algerian women wear it and it gathers new followers constantly especially after earthquakes or events that favour religious and Islamic arguments. However, practical considerations often overcome the religious zeal. The women of the interior part of the country have converted it into a barrier against aggressions and gossiping to move, study and work freely. In any case many husbands demand it in order to let them work. It is also used to conceal poverty, as it is cheaper than western dress and allows women to go around with their old house dress underneath the veil.
Furthermore, women generally pray more and it is more suitable to the rhythms and visits to the mosque. Strangely enough the official world is spared of the veil. No woman minister or TV speaker is veiled. On the other hand, deputies and some other elected women, or heads of organisations are more often veiled. However the veil hasn’t been able to break free from its popular, i.e. poor, connotation. Foreign societies rather employ pretty girls dressed in the latest fashion, whereas at the parties of the rich and powerful the veil is almost absent. Yet another discrepancy in a society that passed from the mini skirt to the chador in twenty years.