Freeing Algerian Women’s Histories

Freeing Algerian Women’s Histories


How do you find freedom when the cries of your people compound in deafening silence all around you? How can you reconcile your identity as a liberating force while using the language of your oppressor and benefiting from physical freedom that many of those in your homeland do not possess? Assia Djebar wrestles with these questions in her novel Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (1985), which jumps between memories of cloistered life in 1960s Algeria, varying accounts of the French Invasion in 1830, and the stories of revolutionary Arab women throughout the twentieth century. Her definition of freedom is unique: It is not only about personal physical freedom from an oppressive colonial force or the cloistered life of a young woman but also about a collective freedom from silence that has been forced upon generations of Arab women. Through reflection on the history of displacement, alienation, and violence against her people and self, along with use of the oppressor’s language to elevate the stories of Algerian feminists and nationalists, Djebar gives space on her pages for a previously shrouded Algerian women’s history.

Djebar first tackles this task by unearthing and retelling the history of colonial violence in Algiers. Through her reframing of colonial historical accounts, she is able to highlight the atrocities of colonization that have been kept buried or romanticized by its perpetrators. Since the moment the French armada set eyes upon the city of Algiers in June 1830, there was a vicious and predatory plot to conquer, as Djebar recounts for us, what they saw as the “Oriental Woman,” who sat “motionless, mysterious” and tempting.1 For over a century, the French would physically and emotionally torture the Algerian people. Of those who weren’t killed in such battles as Staouéli and the explosion of Fort Emperor that left the “plateau [strewn] with corpses” and thousands dead, many were forced to leave the city and would “clog the road to Constantine in the exodus.”2 Not only did the French plunder and violate the city and its inhabitants, but they also used writing to simultaneously free their consciences and drown out the voices of pain and resistance from local people. In the process of framing their crimes as the fight for a virtuous society, bringing civilization to savages, “words themselves (simultaneously) become a decoration” of atrocity and “their most effective weapons.”3 Swaths of Frenchmen used writing to create a romantic counternarrative to an undesirable reality; their accounts of their glorious invasion far outnumber and overpower the few accounts from locals. As “any document written by ‘The Other’ proves fatal, since it is a sign of compromise,” the monopolization of historical accounts lets the Frenchmen escape accountability, and live in a romanticized reality.4

Of the few Algerian voices that remain in print from that time, none are women. The history of Algerian women was forced upon their memory by invaders and those of the opposite sex, dominated in particular by the vision of Baron Barchou’s depiction of two “zealous” Algerian women: one who held “in her bloody hands the heart of a dead Frenchman” and one who “in a fit of desperate courage, [split] open the brain of her child.”5

The oppression of Algerian women is twofold: They were silenced and physically restrained by the French but also sometimes by their own traditional culture. 1960s Algeria, in which the author was raised, was a conservative place, and by the time girls hit their young teens, they were cloistered within their house until marriage. For some, like two of the sisters with whom Djebar spent her summers, this custom fostered the feeling of being trapped in one’s circumstance and deprived of reality outside the household: “wrap the nubile girls in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more unseeing than the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world without.”6 This feeling of loss is compounded by a mounting interest in finding love, which could not be found in a physical form when trapped within a house. But the young women create a sense of adulthood, romance, “a breath of fresh air and a temporary escape from their confinement” through their secret correspondence with men in faraway places.7 They did not dare to see men in real life in fear of retaliation from their parents and bringing shame upon their household, so they came to the conclusion that “love must necessarily reside elsewhere and not in public words and gestures.”8 In a physical sense, “they were prisoners,” but writing love letters helped them create the illusion of emotional and physical freedom “in an attempt to rise above their pathetic plight.”9

For Djebar, the cloistered girls, and even Djebar’s mother, personal freedom was found at some level through their appropriation of the French language that for so long represented the subjugation of their people. By using French to send love letters, like “the heroine of a Western romance,” Djebar was able to “break out of the circle of what whispering elders traced around me and within me.”10 Her mother also found freedom through the French language, a freedom of intimacy that was typically unheard of in Algerian Arab families at the time. Through her acceptance and sharing of a letter from her husband that was addressed directly to her as “Madame So-and-So”, she was “secretly flattered” and empowered to talk with unabashed love about her husband henceforth.11 But as Djebar later reflects, their use of French was never an ode to the French colonists, but rather a way to find a voice for themselves in a society that did not accept their sentiments; writing in French is “simply a way of saying I exist, pulsating with life!”12

Even though Djebar was able to find a way to assert her own reality, she recognizes that the “time [she spent cloistered] behind closed doors is simply a holiday interlude” for her, and her otherwise free life in Paris and command over the French language gave her opportunities that many Algerian women never had.13 The history of Algerian woman had for so long been hidden by the narrative of French historians and lack of educational opportunities for many young Arab girls: “The flickering flames of successive fires form letters of French words” whose warped narratives had the effect of “tattooing vanished faces with a lurid mottling.”14 As such, directly following the accounts of the French conquest from a Western point of view, Djebar gives way to the third part of her book, Voices of the Past, in which she uses French to spotlight the stories of Algerian feminists and revolutionaries who were never given the opportunity to do so. In other words, she would use her platform as “a torch; to be held up in front of the wall of separation or withdrawal.”15

One story that wonderfully epitomizes the goal of setting free the suppressed history of strong Algerian women is that of the Algerian nationalist warrior Cherifa. Djebar met and interviewed Cherifa during her trip to a mountainous region where guerrilla warfare took place during the Algerian War. At the young age of thirteen, Cherifa fought through the killing of family members at the hands of Frenchmen, forced labor, and prolonged torture. She was the bravest of revolutionaries, and alongside suffering through a hunger strike that lasted twenty days, she had the confidence to say “I don’t recognize France” right to the faces of her captors.16 She would not submit to the cultural norms of the Arab world that would have confined her either, and vowed to continue fighting alongside her Arab brothers rather than settling down: “Did I join you just to get married? No, I won’t marry anyone! These men are all my brothers!”17 For so long, Cherifa had to live with “the rhythmic wailing of the spirits of unburied dead, [and] the roar of invisible lionesses shot by no hunter,” but Djebar aims to give her pain and courage freedom to be heard and experienced by “[disguising] it with my French without clothing it.”18

Histories of colonized peoples all around the world have been erased by colonizers, and there has recently been increased efforts to “reclaim” those histories and elevate voices of the past. Djebar takes initiative to reclaim the history of Algerian women through her work, ideally being able to “pay homage to (women like Cherifa) with that ancestral cry of triumph, the ululation of convulsive sisterhood.”19 Though they were never given physical freedom in their own time and their stories forcibly muted, illuminating these revolutionaries’ stories not only breaks down the cage of colonizers’ rewriting of history but also allows their messages to reach and inspire current and future generations of women. To keep women submissive is to keep them shrouded from their own history of subjugation and battles for liberation. Through her book, Djebar lifted the veil on an old pocket of feminist struggle and no doubt inspired some to champion the Algerian feminist cause. Some revolutionary voices have been lost to time, and so their stories must be retold with the knowledge that their full experience will never be understood. However, it is not too late to elevate the stories of many revolutionary women in the twentieth century. To fully appreciate these women’s impact on history and better historicize the culture and politics of the present, we must do as Djebar did and fight to give freedom to these generational cries.

  1. Assia Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, translated from the French by Dorothy S. Blair (Heinmann, 1985), 6.
  2. Djebar, Fantasia, 17; 43.
  3. Djebar, Fantasia, 45.
  4. Djebar, Fantasia, 33.
  5. Djebar, Fantasia, 18.
  6. Djebar, Fantasia, 3.
  7. Djebar, Fantasia, 44.
  8. Djebar, Fantasia,  27.
  9. Djebar, Fantasia,  45.
  10. Djebar, Fantasia, 4.
  11. Djebar, Fantasia, 37-38.
  12. Djebar, Fantasia, 58.
  13. Djebar, Fantasia, 58.
  14. Djebar, Fantasia,  46.
  15. Djebar, Fantasia, 62.
  16. Djebar, Fantasia, 134.
  17. Djebar, Fantasia,  131.
  18. Djebar, Fantasia, 123; 142.
  19. Djebar, Fantasia, 223.
Back to Top