Between the cracks of history: Archiving women's struggles in Algeria
The 2019 mobilisations in Algeria, known as the Hirak Movement, which led to the resignation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, gave hope to the younger generations who took to the streets for the reconstruction of a more democratic society and the dismantling of the military regime.
Yet, the revisions of the Algerian Constitution promoted by the current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in November 2020 have effectively repressed all forms of political expression and protest.
Every demonstration must be preceded by a declaration, on which routes, timetables and the identity of the organisers must be specified. Not only that, but repression has also become widespread on social media.
All it takes is a declaration or a post on Facebook for the repressive machine to be set in motion. To date, there are more than 260 prisoners in jail, including activists, journalists and opposition politicians.
"We wanted to build a digital archive of editorial material on the struggles in Algeria in general... I realised how poorly the history of these movements in Algeria is known. With the uprising of the Hirak, it was the first time I witnessed such an insurrectional movement. It was then that we decided to launch the project. We felt it was the most appropriate moment"
In Algeria's turbulent history, from independence in 1962 to the present day, protest movements have been the driving force for change in the country and carry with them a rich legacy of struggles, ideas and witnessing.
The contribution of women and feminist organisations in this regard has been fundamental, yet little is known about their history and their influence in building contemporary Algerian civil society.
Today, an independent research and curatorial project called Archives Des Luttes Des Femmes en Algérie (Archives of Women's Struggles in Algeria), founded by a collective of Algerian researchers in social sciences and archivists, is attempting to reconstruct their history through the collection and digitisation of editorial material such as magazines, bulletins and communiqués produced by feminist collectives from independence to the present day.
"The very initial idea came about in 2016," says Awel Haouati, PhD student in anthropology and founder of the project. "We wanted to build a digital archive of editorial material on the struggles in Algeria in general. At home, I found documents belonging to a relative of mine, who was active in feminist movements in the 1980s and 1990s, and I realised how poorly the history of these movements in Algeria is known. With the uprising of the Hirak, it was the first time I witnessed such an insurrectional movement. It was then that we decided to launch the project. We felt it was the most appropriate moment."
The team consisting of Awel Haouati, Saadia Gacem (PhD student in anthropology and documentarist) and Lydia Saïdi (archivist), has therefore set out to dig for archive material.
"These materials are not easy to find in official archives in Algeria as they are often inaccessible. For example, we know that one of the two national libraries contains pre-1996 material but it was closed at the time we started our research. But it must be said that much of the documents we are interested in are found in the homes of former activists."
Through the Facebook page, the collective was able to get in touch with those who keep these documents. "Many of these women contacted us directly on the Facebook page, telling us they had something for us or even to go and visit them in their homes," Awel says.
"Many of those collectives existed clandestinely because of the one-party regime that was established immediately after independence. It was after 1989, i.e. with the advent of multipartyism, that feminist collectives became more widespread. But after the Civil War, all those experiences disappeared," Awel added, revealing that around 700 documents have been collected so far. "The aim is to build an open access platform that will allow anyone to consult them."
The archive tells us a lot about years that have been little researched, namely the period following the October 1988 uprisings, a crucial time in Algerian contemporary history, followed by the adoption of a pluralist constitution in 1989 and the interruption of the democratic process in January 1992, which was followed by a bloody ten-year Civil War.
"The fact that much of this material dates from this period reveals how prolific those years were in terms of activism. Not only that, but it also questions how this turmoil came to an end. It is as if there was no transmission of knowledge between the previous generation and the current one."
The collective had a very positive reception, such that they were featured at documenta fifteen, one of the most important international contemporary art events, held this year in Kassel, Germany.
The collective presented its first publication for the occasion, a catalogue of documents selected for the event. As much as the Kassel showcase confirmed the value of the Archives Des Luttes Des Femmes en Algérie's experience, the collective was subject to controversy because of one 1988 document, a priori attributed to a segment of the women's journal Presénce de femmes team dealing with the Palestinian issue.
The controversy in question points the finger at pro-Palestinian and anti-military illustrations by Burhan Karkoutly and Naji Al-Ali, which according to detractors carry anti-Semitic meanings, deflecting the attention to what the archive instead aims to be: not only a historiographical and documentary project but also pedagogical and critical.
The outburst of controversy triggered by German visitors and journalists forced the collective to publish a statement on their site about the case. "We did not expect such a controversy. But in some ways, it was useful to us, as we learnt how our archives, placed in different contexts, can take on different meanings."
The archive is still under development and promises to gather new material and make it available to as many people as possible. "The book was published in Marseille and for logistical reasons, it is complicated for us to distribute it in Algeria.
"But in general, the project met with a lot of enthusiasm, especially from the women involved and former activists. Everyone was surprised to find out more about this moment in our history that has been completely marginalised. The women grasped the meaning of our work, which is to make their stories finally visible."
Pierluigi Bizzini is an independent journalist and editor at The Syllabus. He covers Mediterranean, migration and Arab independent publishings.
Follow him on Twitter: @PierluigiBizz