ALGERIA: Love at 20: a battle against taboos
Ghania Khelifi - 01/04/2008
They have broken with their mother’s generation and have appropriated their bodies which they love, want to improve and take care of with all their possible means. With surprising ease, they call themselves “pretty” or “cute” and think that “men like them”. We discover that these women, whether veiled or dressed in the latest Paris fashion, are confident of their seduction power. Obviously they dream of erasing those large hips, flattening that flabby belly or “pump up” those tiny breasts, but all of them declare that they are “proud” to be women.
Lila, 22, a house physician, and her friend, 21, would like to lose some weight, but that won’t keep them from wearing tight jeans and belly showing tee-shirts. We met these two young women in a tea room of the capital, a trendy hangout of Algiers’ wealthy teens. Lila belongs to one of the most ancient families of Algiers’ bourgeoisie. Her great-grandfather is still revered as the patron saint of a region in the heart of the country. Yasmine, a willowy blonde, is the daughter of an industrialist. The two friends are excited; they just found out that they were chosen as hostesses for the annual beauty and fitness salon that has been held in Algiers for some years now. “It’s not for the money”, explains Lila, “it’s just going to be lots of fun”. She punctuates her answers with bursts of laughter. Her references are Western models, like actress Monica Bellucci, quoted as her female ideal, or Brad Pitt, her male ideal. The plump white girl, once prized in Algiers, doesn’t hit the mark anymore, though fair skin is still an appreciable asset on the marriage market. Magazines and foreign televisions have by now imposed their model to all social categories.
All the women interviewed have shown an interest in fashion and all of them try to be trendy according to their means. Kahina, 27, a teacher in a centre for disabled children in Bejaia (270 km from the capital), is the fourth daughter of a man emigrated to France and a housewife. Nora, a round face full of dimples, attending her last year of Law, her father a lorry driver and her mother a housewife, comes from Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia. We meet them at Kahina’s old aunt’s house. They insist upon keeping their anonymity because they don’t want the “village to know what they really think”. A pair of pants and a plain sweater, they are what Algerians consider “serious girls”. They would like to lose weight but don’t follow a diet. Nora would like to do some physical activity, but “it’s impossible without a car”. Kahina, apparently more at ease with her roundness, surprises us for her standpoints, which are much more straightforward than the future lawyer Nora. She bluntly states that pleasure is important: “we women are also human beings aren’t we?” Nora doesn’t answer at first, but Kahina urges her until she whispers a blushing “yes, it’s true”. However, both of them agree that perfect love doesn’t exist. Love is first of all mutual respect, sharing and faithfulness. The incorrigible Kahina describes her ideal husband as “tall, slender, dark with blue eyes and above all with no belly”, she laughs and adds “actually, I just want someone I can at least look at”.
Nora would like to find a man exactly like her father. As for now, they don’t have a boyfriend and their sentimental experiences boil down to a school fling. “I’m afraid to make a mistake and fall for someone who could make me suffer”, says Nora blushing again, and Kahina adds in Berber, “especially because if your father finds out you’re going out with a guy, he’ll hang you from one of your olive trees”. Rahima, a lab technician in Setif (300 km from the capital) is married with one child and feels comfortable with her body, though she would like to lose some “hips” and “stomach”. She doesn’t follow a diet “but I’m careful with food”, she says. Eating carefully, though not for medical reasons, is a tendency of the new generations. Being fat is neither chic nor sexy. City women are obviously more in control of their look as practising sports requires money and transportation means. Gyms are still a privilege of the big city. Lila and Yasmine never miss their fitness lessons at the Sheraton. They also shy off when speaking of sexuality and especially pleasure. You can sense that their arguments are all picked out from Western TV series and magazines. In return they playfully confess that they know “all the techniques and positions”. It’s easy to realise that no one speaks of their own pleasure or personal experience. Dialogue dies out and is replaced by a few embarrassed words. The quest for pleasure stands for guaranteed trouble in this society. Some weakly avow that they’re ready to talk about it with their partners because “it’s an important matter”.
Single women are almost surprised at the question since they’re expected to avoid sexual relations. To them, virginity is a main requirement for finding a husband. Marrying as a virgin is therefore almost imperative. Yasmine and Lila go with the flow, “in Algeria, it’s better to remain a virgin”. As for Kahina and Nora, the two Kabylians, as well as for Rahima, Meriem, the elegant biologist, and Amira, the shy cleaning lady - all three of which work in the same medical analysis lab in Setif – they say virginity “is a treasure”, “something noble” and “if you lose it no one will forgive you”, “you have to keep it or you’ll dishonour yourself and your family for life”. But they’re aware that “accidents can happen” and in this case these young women, whether veiled or not, devout or not, university students or humble workers, are all particularly tolerant and most of all compassionate towards those who “make a slip”. Repairing your hymen? Why not, if it can save a reputation, agree Kahina, Meriem and Amira. “Yes, but God will know that you cheated”, reasons Nora. Never, declare Yasmine and Lila, “”If my boyfriend wants to break off because of that, well then he can go”. But do their parents share the same opinion? Besides, when mothers speak of sexuality, never father or brothers, arguments are most often focussed on pleading for abstinence before marriage. All of them confirm that their mothers give them most of all “advice” on how to resist to men’s tricks in trying to “take that away from you” and on the need to keep your reputation “of a girl from a good family”. Contraception is relegated to the subjects to be discussed after marriage. Young women are not supposed to use a contraceptive method and besides, most of them confess their total ignorance on the subject. This sounds quite true, considering that Algeria faces serious problems in dealing with children born out of marriage. Abandoned at birth, they are housed by public assistance until they come of age. The luckiest ones experience the Kafala – a legal housing according to the precepts of Islamic law – in a family. The others will drag the weight of their shameful birth for their entire lives. Abortion is prohibited in Algeria, but is occasionally practised illegally in private medical offices, sometimes in hazardous hygienic conditions. It is the worst possible remedy, also considering that most of the interviewed women consider it a “sin”. Nora and Kahina argue passionately and the former assures that it’s better to abandon the child at his birth than to “kill a human being for a moment of pleasure”, while the latter states that “it’s better to get rid of a foetus than to condemn a child to solitude and public despise”. Lila and Yasmina, our two rich heiresses declare that “they support the right of abortion at a 100%”. Meriem, Amira and Rahima don’t express themselves in terms of claiming a right, but wish that women could abort freely in case of a “mishap” in health structures that would obviously guarantee anonymity. The right to abortion has never been claimed by feminist associations, as the Family Code, which among other points rules women and children’s rights, is based on the Shari’a, the Islamic law. The Islamic religion forbids abortion and extramarital relationships. But what about love? Yes, if it’s “sincere, real, faithful, lasting”, and under the condition that it leads to marriage and children, three to four at the most. But how can you meet the man of your life in such a tricky background? Traditional methods still work. The anonymity of big cities broadens the range of opportunities; going out with friends favours encounters, as well as going to trendy places or trips, whereas in the country, work or university all help to get hold of the future husband. Rahima married her brother’s friend. They didn’t go out before their marriage but talked a lot on the phone. Meriem met him at university. They “saw each other for a year, before he officially asked her parents for her hand”.
Dating means meeting in restaurants and cafes, strolling in parks or flirting in secret places. Bold Meriem recalls her relationship as “racy” though without ever reaching penetration. Going to the hotel is out of the question, as you need a marriage certificate and the risk of being seen is too high. Amira married an acquaintance of her father. The marriage lasted only three years and she is currently dating a mechanic. Perhaps, if they could find a house… At 28, Amira has lost most of her illusions. However, just like the other women, she believes in a flourishing relationship. All of these women are ready to fight for their femininity, to free their bodies without being banned from society.