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France's colonial legacy in Algeria: Rape as a weapon of war

France's colonial legacy in Algeria: Sexual violence as a weapon of war
7 min read
17 May, 2022
In-depth: In their attempts to quell Algerian resistance, French forces used systematic sexual violence against Algerian women, who have carried the traumatic memory of colonisation on their bodies for decades.
"The hardest thing is to hold on for the first few days, to get used to the pain . Then we mentally detach ourselves."

In 1960, intellectual society in France went into shock after the story of a 22-year-old Algerian woman, who was raped and tortured by the French army in custody, reached public opinion. Her name was Djamila Boupacha.

Arrested in 1960 for allegedly planting a bomb during the Algerian war of independence, Djamila, 22, was tortured and raped until she confessed. The young Algerian woman, who was facing the death penalty at the time, recounted to her Tunisian-French lawyer Gisèle Halimi the physical and sexual abuse she endured in custody.

The tragedy of Boupacha scandalised French intellectuals such as Simone De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul-Sartre, and their followers, who were already campaigning against the French army’s crimes in Algeria through their journal 'Les Temps Modernes'. 

“The most scandalous thing about scandal is that you get used to it. Yet it seems impossible for public opinion to remain indifferent to the tragedy that a young girl of 22, Djamila Boupacha, is going through,” wrote the renowned French feminist De Beauvoir in Le Monde, on 2 June 1960.

Due to public pressure, Boupacha was freed after the Evian Accords, which ended the war. Yet her abusers and torturers remain unpunished until this day. Forty years after Boupacha’s scandal, Louisette Ighilahriz, an Algerian militant, revived the scandal.

In 2000, Ighilahriz recounted for the first time how she was sexually assaulted on the premises of General Massu's 10th Parachute Division (DP), in Algiers. A stranger in the military named Richaud was the one who saved her.

“I was lying naked, still naked (…) As soon as I heard the sound of their boots, I started shaking (…) The hardest thing is to hold on for the first few days, to get used to the pain. Then we mentally detach ourselves,” said Ighilahriz in an article published in Le Monde in 2000.

Twenty years after unloading a burden she carried for decades, Louisette said her courage has cost her dearly. Her son continues to refuse to speak to her for voicing her experience. Many mujahideen (militants) turned their backs on her, she said, for revealing a secret that they have been hiding for sixty years.

Djamila Boupacha delivers a speech on 27 June 1962 in Algiers after being arrested, tortured and sexually assaulted by French soldiers. She was first sentenced to death before being released as part of the Evian Accords. [Getty]

Her detailed story on the rape crimes the French army committed reopened a scar in French public memory - a shameful episode the Republic has preferred to ignore for decades now.

The history of French colonisation in Algeria is infamous for its horrendous war crimes

On 8 May 1945, up to 45,000 Algerians were killed for demanding independence for their country, according to Algerian official figures. The massacre marked the largest carnage committed by France in a single day. 

As the Algerian liberation war gained momentum in 1954, the violence escalated. Approximately 1.5 million Algerians were killed and millions more displaced in an eight-year struggle for independence that ended in 1962.

Rape crimes are believed to have taken place on a large scale over the course of these eight years. As a result of tremendous courage, some of the experiences of the Algerian women impacted have come to light, while many others remained buried under taboos. 

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Sexual violence as a weapon

Covering themselves with dirt, trying to look the least 'attractive' possible, was one of many desperate methods Algerian women used as soon as they heard the engines of French army cars approaching their villages, says Natalya Vince, an academic in North African and French Studies at the University of Portsmouth.

“According to [Algerian] women's testimonies, some women also handed babies to young single women trying to maybe make them look less appealing. That, of course, does not mean that these methods succeeded in protecting the Algerian women or those who were assaulted did not try to [protect themselves],” added Vince in an interview with The New Arab.

In her award-winning book 'Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Memory and Gender in Algeria', Vince offers an in-depth analysis of the experience of Algerian women freedom fighters, whose stories today are neither completely forgotten nor fully remembered.

In addition to taboos around sexual violence, the individual experiences of Algerian women who suffered sexual and psychological abuse were lost in the collective memory of the war, which celebrates the people as a whole as the hero of the Algerian struggle.

However, Vince says that many Algerian women find more personal ways to commemorate their individual traumas away from the glare of the media.

“Stories such as those of rape are not completely a secret. [Algerian] women may not share them in a public way. But they commemorated them for example through poetry as in the Kbayli community," explains Vince.

While most of those tragedies remained encrypted in local metaphors, the stories of rape that caught international attention, like those of Djamila and Louisette, become a curious subject of analysis regarding the symbolism of sexual violence during war.

For French researcher Raphaëlle Branche, when women were targeted, “the desire was less sexual than the desire for possession and humiliation” because systematic rape crimes affect not only the victim, but also "her family, her village, and all the circles to which she belongs, down to the last: the Algerian people".

“These rapes are also part of a military strategy of terror,” wrote Branche in her essay 'Rape During the Algerian War'.

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For his part, the French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who was part of the Algerian liberation movement, saw rape crimes in Algeria as a continuation of France’s obsession with Algerian women's bodies that started with trying to unveil them during the early periods of colonisation in Algeria.

“Through posters and campaigns, the French army tried to convince women to take off their veils and headscarves," explained Donia Ismail, a Franco-Algerian journalist interested in Algerian history, to The New Arab.

"It went further to unveiling women by force to take their ID pictures as the case of Marc Garanger’s infamous pictures of women prisoners unveiled and photographed against their will. It all represents the obsession [with Algerian women's bodies]”.

Ironically, this obsession continues today on French soil, as the veil and the headscarf remain a key topic of debate in French politics.

France's refusal to admit guilt

This July, as Algeria prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of the national liberation war and commemorate the lost lives of its patriots, France remains reluctant about acknowledging the crimes its army committed during the war.

“While right-wing politicians continue to argue the benefits French colonisation brought to Algeria, the left remains silent,” Ismail, whose grandfather fought in the Algerian guerrilla, told The New Arab.

Marine Le Pen, a far-right French politician who lost the presidential elections this year by a thin margin against Emmanuel Macron, said in 2017 that "[French] colonisation has brought a lot, especially to Algeria".

Eric Zemmour, the controversial French far-right politician, has argued the importance of France's crimes in limiting Algerian attacks against the army. Meanwhile, the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon prefers to use the term 'civil war' to describe Algeria's path towards liberation against the French army. 

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In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron, still a candidate at the time, broke for the first time the long-standing political silence on the bloodiest period in the recent history of France, as he acknowledged "the crimes against humanity" French colonisation committed in Algeria.

However, during his years in the office, his policy regarding the crimes committed in Algeria continued to be a policy of "quand meme" (even so) and a strategy of “political gestures," argues Ismail.

“Personally, I can not care less about apologies. What we want is to hold the guilty accountable. And by that I do not mean to blame some individuals who were in charge during that time, because we know the crimes that were committed were more than individual decisions,” Ismail said.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma