Breaking the Silence of Women’s Agony in Algeria

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The human rights of ordinary Algerians, and in particular Algerian women, are under siege. Crimes against human dignity occur every day, with women the targets of much of the violence. Yet Algerian women have been tragically ignored by their government, forgotten by the national and international media. International humanitarian organizations have yet to respond in any meaningful way.

Do they know that women and girls are dying in terrorist attacks across Algeria? Two hundred women have been killed over the last three years, aside from those who have “disappeared.” As in Bosnia, Algerian women are the first victims of the civil war in their country. In the Balkans, rape and forced pregnancy were tactics of “ethnic cleansing”; in Algeria, the persecution of women is a key element of “religious cleansing.”

Young or old, veiled or not, Algerian women are powerful symbols for all of the rival factions vying for power. Some kill women because they wear the hijab, or headscarf. Other women are targeted because they are intellectuals, because they work and because they are resolutely and unabashedly modern.

Why this persecution of women? Why, of all the Islamists in all the countries of the Arab-Muslim world, do the Islamists of Algeria alone kill women as a matter of strategy? Old women have had their throats slit in their own homes, like 94-year-old Boudjar Kethoum of Sidi Bel-Abbes. Students, both veiled and unveiled, have been gunned down in the street, kidnapped, or raped and then murdered like 19-year-old Zoulikha Boughadou and her 15-year-old sister, Saida. Four young Algerian women lost their lives in three separate incidents. One of these, 15-year-old Fatima Ghodbane, was dragged from her school by six gunmen who then slit her throat. A second, Yamina Amrani, was pregnant when she was killed by eight men in her home in Tessala El-Mardja. Three men shot dead Amel Guedjali, 19, and her sister Karima, 18, in front of their father and a younger sister in their house outside Algiers. These are not unique cases. Women die day after day.

Discussion of war crimes against women (carried out in their own country by their own countrymen) is not to deny the tragedy of the thousands of male victims cut down by terrorism since 1992. Rather it is intended to break the silence surrounding the agony of Algerian women. The present situation in Algeria is different from that of Egypt, Palestine and even Afghanistan. In these cases, although state authorities and their Islamist rivals are locked in battles for power, both sides pursue strategies and tactics in which barbarous treatment of women and children is more or less avoided. In Algeria, by contrast, wall posters threaten women with death if they go to the hammam (public baths for women), frequent beauty salons, work, play sports or study music or art. The hijab is now the supreme obligation.

The treatment of women raises serious questions about the level of faith and Islamic behavior on the part of the protagonists in the civil war in Algeria. All involvedthe state functionaries, the police, the military and the Islamistsare Muslims. Even Islamic activists like Sudan’s Hassan Al-Turabi have disavowed the war against Algerian women. Tunisian Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi declared, “As Islamists ourselves, we are ashamed at what Algerian Islamists are doing to women!”

Only ashamed? Islam itself is being disfigured and perverted! To see how far events in Algeria have strayed from the ideals of the faith, one need only recall the celebrated case of Hind, wife of the leader of the pagan Quraysh of Mecca and perhaps the Prophet Muhammad’s fiercest enemy, Abu Sufyan. During the Battle of Uhud (625 C.E.), which pitted the Meccans against the Muslims, Hind roamed the battlefield defiling the corpses of the Muslim dead, cutting off their ears and noses and stringing them on her necklace. She also paid a Meccan slave to seek out and slay Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet, during the battle.

Yet Hind was not condemned to death by either the Prophet or his Companions. When the Muslims entered Mecca five years after Uhud, Hind was among those who came to give their allegiance to Muhammad. She responded to the Prophet’s terms with bitter sarcasm. When Muhammad forbade the Meccans from killing their children (infanticide being common in pre-Islamic Arabia), Hind snapped, “Do we have any children left that you didn’t kill at Badr?” referring to a battle where a small band of Muslims exacted heavy losses from the Quraysh. Despite her actions and her attitude, Hind was spared, as were the other women who opposed Islam in its formative period. This was the “golden era” of the Prophet Muhammad and the four “rightly guided” caliphs; Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and Ali. After that time obscurantism and the most retrograde misogyny reversed the position of Muslim women.

The only case of wise government mentioned in the Qur’an is that of a womanBilqis, the Queen of Sheba. Closer to our time, in 1250 C.E., Shajarat Ad-Dur ruled Egypt and had the Friday prayers said in her name in the country’s mosques. Therefore, one must ask where the self-proclaimed Islamists find their program for society, in which women are made subservient under the law and which bases its future upon the corpses of women.

Aicha Lemsine is an award-winning Algerian author. She lives in Algeria and publishes political analyses in the Algerian and international Arab press. She is a member of the PEN Club’s International Women’s Committee and vice-president of WORLD, the Women’s Organization for Rights, Literature and Development.

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