North African historiography is interested in the history of mankind, though it tends to overlook the contribution of half of humanity: women. Women are often characterized by virtues of sobriety and purity, or the conventional attributes of wives, mothers, and mistresses common in pre-Roman times. Within an erroneously interpreted Muslim tradition, prevalent since the Ottoman period, the Algerian woman was under patriarchal protection and considered a genitor, destined to perpetuate the group. It was expected that she stayed in a private, enclosed space, inaccessible to any foreign male gaze. The veil she wore created around her body an impermissible mobile believed to control her desires. In reality, the fantasizing of its representations has contributed key points to the Western—mostly French—history of women in Muslim-influenced Algeria. The haremic image of polygamy in general essentially problematizes Western Muslim societies. The Western imagination of the past, as well as that of all contemporary societies, has long nurtured the Muslim East, characterized by the appealing odalisque, far removed from any consideration and daily concerns. The examination of the contexts in which Algerian women have become hypervisible as centers of debate and protest is no less essential to the understanding of Algeria than the history of the successive roles and challenges women have taken and experienced. Political attitudes, predominantly male, led to the introduction of the restrictive Algerian Family Law in postcolonial Algeria. Women have become the focal point for a contemporary dutiful discourse that presents itself as saving Muslim women, and that can be construed to pose a dilemma to the Western emancipation model. Women’s critical role in the unpredictably rapidly developing nation has marked events and national realizations. Despite Algerian women’s participation in various struggles and the roles assigned to them in nation-building, or even the centrality of social, political, and religious life consequential in gender relations, they demonstrate predispositions for transformational roles.
Women in Algeria
Berbers and the Nation-State in North Africa
Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate. Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones. Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore. However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
The Making of the Maghrib: Morocco (1510-1822)
Between 1510–1822, Morocco went through significant changes that laid the foundation for its modern nation state. Most noteworthy among these changes was a shift from the Berber dynasties that had dominated the country for almost five hundred years to governments headed by shurafā’, Arab leaders who claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Muhammad. A combination of external threats (e.g., colonization from Portugal and Spain, and the threat of Ottoman expansion) and internal developments (e.g., the rising influence of murābitūn and shurafā’ within the country), along with the perceived inability of the Berber Wattasids to meet the Portuguese challenge, contributed to this dynastic change. In the five hundred years leading up to the early 21st century, two separate sharifian dynasties have governed Morocco, and the country has vacillated between periods of strong central rule and times of unrest (fitna) and weak central government. However, since the rise of the ʿAlawi dynasty in the late 17th century, ʿAlawi supremacy has not been seriously challenged, even during extensive periods of fitna or foreign colonization. Although Morocco developed a flexible system of government that helped unify the country during this period, it still fell behind European states in terms of technology, science, economy, and military strength. A degree of intellectual and social stagnation set in, such that European visitors in the 19th century perceived Morocco to be a country stuck in its medieval past. This weakness vis-à-vis its near neighbors to the north (particularly England and France) eventually set the stage for the direct colonization of Morocco by Europeans in the early 20th century.
The Making of the Maghrib: 600–1060 CE
The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600 ce to 1060 ce Berbers and Arabs interacted in a variety of ways and through a process of acculturation. This interaction created a distinctive cultural and historical zone called the “Maghrib” or the “land of the setting sun,” a zone that would be recognized throughout the Islamic world. While many questions remain unanswered or yet to be explored from this period due to issues with sources, the first centuries after the coming of Islam to the Maghrib (7th—11th centuries) set the stage for the rise of the great Berber and Muslim empires: the Almoravid and Almohads. This period is crucial for understanding the development and history of Maghribi Islam.
The Making of the Maghrib: 1147–1500
The Maghrib, “land of the setting sun” in Arabic, is the region of northwest Africa consisting of the countries of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and, often, Mauritania. Even in flat, desert regions and plains of the Maghrib, the dominant geographical feature of the Maghrib is the Atlas Mountain range, looming over the horizon. These mountains not only create the geographic conditions for the desert, in terms of human geography, but they also form a massive, natural backbone and fortress from southern Morocco into Tunisia. For most of classical history the Atlas Mountains have been a great stumbling block for rulers. This changed in the early 12th century with the coming of the Almohads, who controlled the mountains and turned them into the heart of their empire. Before the Almohads, no power, not even the Romans, could claim to control the mountains. Instead, successive rulers tried to go around the range or to build fortifications at mountain passes, often in vain. Originating within the Atlas Mountains and maintaining their power all along its spine and into the southern Sierra Nevada of Iberia, the Almohads were the first to use the Atlas Mountains to their advantage. In doing so, they created the first unified, single polity across the Maghrib, originating too the idea that the Maghrib could be a politically united geographical space. Connections with Sahara and the Mediterranean could also now be strategically controlled. This era of Almohad unification, however, did not last long, a short fifty or sixty years from 1147 to the first decades of the 13th century, when the Almohad empire faced defeat from external forces and began a process of breaking apart into successor dynasties. Despite many later attempts to revive the Almohad model, no subsequent power was able to effectively restore the Almohad Empire’s reach across the Maghrib. Nonetheless, that unlikely and extraordinary success created the dream, or memory, of unification, one that continues to influence the people of the Maghrib.