Since protests first erupted in Algeria on Feb. 22, a tornado of hope, solidarity and collective mobilization has swept through the country. Words can barely capture the excitement and euphoria felt by many Algerians, from the young protesters who took to the street in droves to the older citizens who hardly dared hope they would see this day. Across the country, millions bravely chose to express their deep discontent toward the “pouvoir,” or the power. The initial demand for the resignation of the aging, ill and absent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika after his 20 years in power was the catalyst for voicing many more legitimate grievances long kept silent.
On Tuesday, in response to the protests, Bouteflika finally announced his resignation. Though this will not guarantee deep-rooted change, the promise of political transition, after years of stagnancy and in response to a peaceful movement, is worth celebrating. It could not have been achieved without the work of engaged citizens of all ages and backgrounds — particularly women, who had much to fight for and much to lose.
Women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations this year. This was not surprising considering the historical engagement of Algerian women in politics. In fact, Algerian women played a crucial role during decolonization. During the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962, they contributed by nursing, hiding fighters, liaising between groups and participating in military operations.
Despite their critical participation in this period, soon after Algeria’s independence, the ruling National Liberation Front quickly turned into a boys’ club that excluded women from positions of power. Although the Algerian Constitution forbids discrimination based on “birth, race, sex, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance,” the country adopted a Family Code in 1984. The code promoted male dominance over women, institutionalizing discrimination based on sex. It essentially reduced women’s individual rights and liberties and allowed polygamy, even though it was not a common cultural practice, reinforcing patriarchal oppression.
Then, during the civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s, known as the “Black Decade,” Algerian women were the first targets of the Islamist groups who declared the hijab compulsory and condemned women who worked. This period drastically changed women’s access to public space and cost the lives of many who refused to cover or abide by strict patriarchal rules.
The aftermath of this period is still palpable even today: For example, in June 2018, a young woman who was out running was violently attacked by a man who reportedly told her that her place was in the kitchen and not on the streets. After the young woman published her story, hundreds of people went running with her in solidarity and carried signs telling society that “a woman’s place is wherever she wants.” But these acts of defiance did not translate into changes in policy or law.
In this context, the participation of women in the street protests today is particularly inspiring. Women joined the marches, and a feminist group even established a “feminist square” by the gates of the downtown campus of the University of Algiers. The group, composed of Algerian women of all generations, published a declaration arguing that building a new Algerian republic is inconceivable without guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens.
Yet this nonviolent approach, known as “selmiya,” was met with violence when protesters attacked the square. According to accounts on social media, the protesting women were verbally abused and had their signs destroyed for daring to demand equality. Beyond the blatant misogynistic attacks, some have accused these women of dividing the movement by making specific claims and argued that women should wait until the country is liberated to address women’s rights.
That is entirely the wrong approach. Women and vulnerable groups often hear the excuse that it is not the right time to make demands while pushing for revolutionary change. But postponing women’s demands for equality — particularly the abolishment of the family code — would only serve to create an unequal hierarchy of grievances and erase the legitimate concerns women have for the future of Algeria. If their demands are not incorporated into the movement now, they may never see the light of day.
Algerian women have been waiting for 57 years to be treated equally and, with change in the air, there is no better time to call for action. Algeria has suffered because women were silenced and pushed away from the political and public spheres after independence. We cannot afford to make the same mistake in 2019. As the resistance continues, women must be an integral part of the conversation.
Melyssa Haffaf is program director of the Georgetown University Gender Justice Initiative.