During the ten years of conflict between armed Islamists and the civil army, which have torn the country apart, Algerian women have endured experiences of extreme violence.
According to an official partial survey, about 10.000 women have been kidnapped or given off for temporary marriage (a union confirmed by some verses of the Koran that can range from an hour to various months) by their relatives to be used as sexual slaves in Islamist hideouts. Abducted as war spoils during the attacks, they were first raped by the leader of the group to be then “passed down” to his men. To keep them from escaping they were forced to live naked in the fields were they also tended to various errands. Those found pregnant were often killed. Children born from these rapes are today officially termed as “children of unknown identity”. Their number is still inaccurate; the authorities had estimated 700 for the year 2005. The survivors of the maquis who managed to escape or were liberated by the army, now live in shame. After months and sometimes years of torture, they had to wait until 1999 for the Algerian Islamic High Council to deliver a fatwa (religious decree) recognising them as victims and declaring that they suffered these aggressions while being “pure and innocent”.
As strange as this may seem, the fact that these women were raped by Muslim men, according to many, did not make them victims. Yet, whereas this fatwa has allowed them to be taken in charge by the State, they never regained the respect of their community. Rejected by their families, repudiated by their husbands, they had to change their lives, their town and sometimes their own name. Some of the youngest ones, some barely adolescent, preferred to put an end to their life. A very young girl threw herself out of the window of the care centre she had been sent to. Those who were hosted by civil associations or structures were able, more or less, to get some psychological help. This is not the case for the thousands of other women who since the beginning of the conflict in 1992 had to hide the rape they suffered, sometimes right in front of their families. The latter avoided the scandal by keeping the secret of their daughter’s lost virginity. Religious marriage without civil registration still exists in Algeria and relatives can always say that their daughter was married to a man killed during combat in the maquis, jailed or emigrated. The law of silence is strictly observed by the victim and the family. The mediatisation or revelation of a rape will always backlash on the victim who will remain “stained” in the eyes of the community.
From violence to horror
The violence of Islamists started in 1992, where Algerians discovered the use of punitive raids against women. It first happened in Ourgla, in South Algeria, a woman accused of prostitution and her child were burned alive in their house by a group of townsmen. This act did not remain isolated. On July 2001, whereas armed groups are practically eliminated and the country is entering a period of law for national reconciliation and peace, 300 men, “ordinary people” according to most, converged towards some barracks where about twenty women were living alone in the borough of Al Haicha in the suburbs of the town of Hassi Messaoud.
These housemaids and workers were beaten, tortured and raped for hours to be then thrown out naked in the streets. The raiders wanted to chase these “shameful women” that had come from the North to steal the jobs that according to them were refused to the “men of the region”. This issue took on national resonance and then became known internationally. Foreign ONGs went to Algeria to assist the victims legally and materially. The trial still lingers, some aggressors are still on the run and the women of El Haicha drag their bitterness from centre to foster home asking at least to get an indemnity to change their lives. Some have fallen prey to drugs, others to prostitution. After the over mediatisation and the political recuperation the women of El Haicha are barely mentioned and always with embarrassed tones.
On the other hand, little was said on a similar case which took place in Tebessa (far East Algeria) on the same month of July. Three women who were returning alone at night were attacked by a group of men of which three were underage. In this case, the offenders were arrested and convicted. Living alone in the inner part of the country is not desirable, nor is it in the popular suburbs of the capital. Unless you abide by certain rules: never entertain men at home apart from your father and brothers, never come home late, never dress in a provoking way etc. It would be wrong however to believe that the violence that Algerian women suffered is specific only to radical Islamists. Indeed, the latter have pushed it to horrific tunes but the ground was ready due to the violence of some texts and traditions.
In 1984, the Algerian popular assembly which was then under the unique party FLN, had adopted the family code drawing directly from the Shari’a, the Islamic law. Algerian women were then cornered into a “minor” status, according to the formula of the militant advocate of the rights for man Ali Yahia Abdenour. Submitted to the authority of man, the only legitimate head of the family, she was stripped off of her right to divorce, her right to the marital home, parental authority, right to work without the authorisation of her husband, of equality in heritage, she was exposed to the threat of polygamy and repudiation by the only will of her husband. This code has now been amended and women have regained some rights. In practice, things haven’t really changed, men keep on taking a second wife without the consent of the first one, though now required by law. This inferiority sanctioned by the law and combined with Islamism, which denies modern values, could only lead to an increasing aggressiveness towards women.
Domestic violence has reached such levels that the Ministry for the Family and Women’s Rights was tasked in 2007 to pilot a five year strategy to fight against violence. Police services, legal medicine and civil protection ceaselessly remind that statistics (see table) are far from resolving this issue completely. Algerian women find it hard to accuse their husband, brother or close relative because they would dishonour their family, their own reputation and run into the risk of divorce or exclusion. Consequently, hundreds of aggressions within the family, of sexual harassment on the job and cases of incest escape justice. At the start of March 2008, the police revealed to the press the existence of videos circulating on the Internet showing details of a torture scene and murder of an adolescent girl. The aggressors took turns with their portable cameras next to the young girl crouched on the floor to then finish her off with a big stone. This is no new issue to the police though the victims rarely accuse their aggressors who threaten them to circulate the recording if they speak.
Statistics, fragments of reality
An investigation by the Ministry for the Family and Women’s Rights achieved in 2007, reveals that 8277 women were raped, that is 23 victims per day. These were 15.000 in 2006 according to police statistics, of which 531 included torture, 2511 mistreatments and 174 sexual harassments against 158 in 2006. During the same period, 20 women were murdered, 126 raped and 9 kidnapped and raped. 51% of the aggressions were carried out by their husbands. On the second semester of 2006, 16 cases of voluntary homicide were perpetrated by the husband. A similar survey was carried out by the National Institute of Public Health in 2005 indicating that out of 9033 women, 55% had been raped by their families of which 5% by their children, 69% of the battered women had no profession and 26% were illiterate, widowed, divorced and more in general single women, who are more exposed to rape. The capital, Algiers holds the sad record of physical aggressions in the street: 33 only for the 2nd semester of 2006. Nevertheless a faint hope lingers; more and more Algerian women are denouncing their aggressors. 9000 of them went to the University hospital of Algiers in 2006 and accepted to denounce their aggression. They were 5845 in 2004 and 7400 in 2005.
Djamila , School Director
“I’m not the first and won’t be the last to live this”
Djamila Hamza, Director of a private school in Algiers preferred to take her students on this 8 March 2008 to watch the Lebanese film “Caramel” at the School of Art instead of going to the restaurant with her girlfriends or to one of the many parties organised on that day. We must admit that Djamila, now a warm 50 year old, has no heart to dance or sing. On 11 December 2007 her husband, the father of her three children and her thirty year long companion, died in the bombing that destroyed the UN Headquarters of the capital. She starts to explain shyly “but I didn’t suffer any direct violence, not physically”. Yes, not physically, but Djamila buried the best part of her life and dreams with the car debris of the Al Qaeda Maghreb kamikaze, as claimed afterwards. Yet she doesn’t hate the perpetrators of the attack: “the loss I suffered is only a part of many other deaths that belong to the history of this country. These people who have chosen violence are also victims in some way, because they’ve lost all hope. On the other hand I despise the people at power who in their turn only worry about their own survival”. Djamila’s husband worked for the United Nations as an expert in economy and planning. He belonged to the sort of Algerians which are scornfully defined as “democrats” and who hope on the advent of democracy in the country. Though initially reserved, Djamila starts telling us about this man who she seems to admire so much: “we lost so many friends, murdered or exiled, but we didn’t want to leave the country. Sometimes we really doubted on the future but he kept telling me we had to resist”. Now Djamila intends to hold on and try while she adds, finally in tears “I’m not the first and won’t be the last to live this”.