Equality eludes Algerian women after 50 years

Algerian women played a major role in the war of independence from France, but their sacrifice has yet to earn them equal status with men half a century later.

At independence in 1962 after seven and a half years of war, "we realized that even though we had fought as full citizens, we had to return home and be quiet, which was hard to accept," said Zoulikha Bekaddour, an academic and former moudjahida (fighter).

Women's role diminished more and more as time went by, she said.

"At the first constituent assembly there were 13 women; at the second there were only two. It was over. The regression had begun," Bekaddour said.

A family code passed in 1984 — after voters overwhelmingly rejected similar language in during the 1960s and '70s — still stands, designating women as minors.

The code is at variance with the constitution, which enshrines men and women as equals, and there have been a number of initiatives for reform.

The post-independence struggle saw tens of thousands of women take to the streets of Algiers in March 1965 in response to a call by female independence war veterans.

But, Bekaddour said, "We quickly saw that our struggle had been hijacked. We held a march that frightened the men."

Sociologist and writer Fatma Oussedik said Algerian women, who make up 53 percent of the population, have always been involved in change, before, during and after the war that Algerian historians say killed 1.5 million Algerians.

But their efforts have not led to greater participation in political life.

Today, only 30 of Algeria's 389 lawmakers are women, while the only women senators have been among the one-third of the chamber that is appointed by the president.

Only three of the country's 1,541 mayors are women.

Women have however made gains in other domains, notably in education. Some 60 percent of school leavers are girls, and they represent two-thirds of secondary school enrollment.

In employment, they dominate in the health, education and justice sectors, though the International Monetary Fund says joblessness among women stands at 19 percent compared with 10 percent overall.

They are heavily present in the judicial system, where they account for 65 percent of judges. But none has presided over the bar since independence.

Women "often get skilled jobs but they cannot be found in certain [higher] positions," Oussedik said.

It is the exception that proves the rule, Oussedik says, pointing to deputy Senate speaker Zohra Drif, an independence war veteran, and the head of the Worker's Party, Louisa Hanoune.

Parliament passed a law in November aimed at increasing women's representation in political life.

However, it modified an initial bill that would have set electoral list quotas for women at 30 percent across the board. Instead the law calls for quotas ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent according to the number of seats a constituency has in the national assembly.

A feminist surge in the late 1980s was overtaken by events when the country plunged into civil war in the 1990s.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika effectively brought an end to the war — which claimed some 200,000 lives — by offering an amnesty to fighters who turned in their arms.

"After the dark decade when Algerian women were in the front line of resistance (to hardline Islamist militants), they saw the criminals being amnestied and enriching themselves while those who suffered violence were asked to be quiet and forget," Oussedik said.

Today the struggle takes new forms, but women remain faithful to the cause, bitter as it is.

"History shows that nothing has been handed to Algerian women," Oussedik said. "Everything has been won through suffering."

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