A grey area in Algeria’s family code: Femicides still go unpunished

A grey area in Algeria’s family code: Femicides still go unpunished
In 2022, some 40 women have been murdered in Algeria. While the constitution claims to protect women against all violence, the Family Code and silence of the victims’ family members make it too easy to absolve the perpetrators, writes Ali Boukhlef.
8 min read
01 Dec, 2022
The rape and murder in Algeria of 19-year-old Chaima in 2020 sparked cries for action on violence against women in the country. [GETTY]

“He destroyed my future.” While she was waiting for the coach, at dawn on 26 September 2022, Ryma Anane did not know her life was about to take a tragic turn. Alone in that bus shelter, the 28-year-old French teacher was unaware that a man lay in wait for her. Taking advantage of those early morning hours when no one was about, he popped out of thin air, doused her with petrol, set fire to it with his pocket-lighter and vanished.

In a state of shock, the young women raced home, trying to fight the flames devouring her body. Despite the pain she had time to tell her family that her attacker was a rejected suitor. He was said to have turned himself in.

Hospitalised, the young woman was between life and death. She had burns over 60% of her body. Finally, she was sent to a hospital in Spain. Hundreds of people in Algeria and beyond were moved to tears by shots of the victim. This was the umpteenth attempted femicide in a country where there are dozens every year.

While Ryma Anane’s life was saved, other women have not been so lucky.

''In 2021, there were 62 women killed by a relative or an acquaintance, according to statistics kept by several associations that point to the difficulty of knowing the exact number because of the taboos that prevent families from speaking out.''

On 18 October, in a suburb of Oran, Touatia Matouz had her throat cut by her brother-in-law. According to Fémicides Algérie, a site that keeps count of the murders of women, the young civil servant of 26 was caring for the children of her recently deceased sister. For reasons still unknown, the widower decapitated his children’s aunt. She was the 37th victim of a femicide in Algeria since the beginning of this year according to the group.

The Family Code VS the Constitution

In the opinion of most Algerian feminists, these crimes are possible only because the law does not offer women enough protection. In its article 40, the Algerian Constitution does indeed state clearly that “[t]he State protects women against all forms of violence in all places and every circumstance, in public, on the workplace and in private. The law guarantees victims access to shelters, care arrangements and legal assistance.”

However, there is a flagrant contradiction between the Constitution and the Family Code which places a woman under the authority of a man, eminent sociologist Fatma Oussedik observes.

“Femicide must be recognised as murder,” explains attorney Nadia Ait Zai. And that is not the only contradiction. For while the Constitution establishes a principle of “equality,” the Family Code does not give women the same rights as men. Worse still, as activists remind us, in cases of domestic violence for example, “the man can have the charges dropped if he asks the woman’s forgiveness.”

Since 2015, the Algerian Penal Code punishes violence against women, just as it does, in theory, street and sexual harassment. But we are still at the stage of good intentions. Many activists tell us that most of the violence, especially the domestic variety, are never taken to law.

Worse yet, according to article 270 of the Algerian penal code, murders committed when an adulterous couple is caught in the act are excusable and the sentence is reduced, maybe as short as five years. Additionally, the Family Code has introduced the notion of “forgiveness” which puts an end to any prosecution of domestic violence. But no article of law has yet been devoted to femicides.

In 2021, the security services reported the registration of over 8,000 complaints for domestic violence. Without much further detail.

Rejected lovers?

For lack of any research on the subject, it is almost impossible to build up a profile of the men who kill women. A task further complicated by the lack of official statistics, despite the existence of a ministry dedicated to women.

Founder of the Centre d’études sur les droits de l’enfant et la femme (Ciddef), Nadia Ait-Zai, proposes a hypothetical profile of a potential killer: “Often, and according to the descriptions provided by the media, we are dealing with rejected men.” It is true that similar cases are regularly reported by the media and associations.

Ghania Ouettar, a disabled woman in her thirties, was murdered by a man whom she wished to leave, according to Féminicides Algérie.

Unrequited “love” is also said to be the motive for the murder in July 2020, of a young attorney. Yasmine Tarafi’s corpse was found in a car in Bouira. The investigation led to the arrest of three suspects, one of whom was a rejected suitor. Unable to bear seeing her with another man, the main suspect was accused of having conspired with two of his mates to gangbang the young woman before killing her.

This kind of revenge can lead to the unspeakable. That’s was what happened to Chaima, a 19-year-old who was raped, decapitated and her body burned in October 2020, by a man she used to know. Two years earlier she had complained about him to the security services, who arrested him for attempted rape. He spent over two years in jail. But once he was released, he tried to take up with Chaima again. He took her to an isolated farmhouse, raped her and thrashed her. He doused her body with petrol and set fire to it.

He was found three days later in an abandoned filling station. The murderer surrendered to the police but this affair distressed the whole country, foregrounding an age-old crime that has yet to have disappeared.

Besides these especially violent crimes, other, more ‘classical’ forms of femicide continue to be reported in the media. Often, they are problems within a couple which end in tragedy. And they sometimes occur in public, like the woman stabbed to death by her husband in Tizi Ouzou. The scene took place in October 2021, in a bus station, in front of passers-by and other passengers.

That same month, in the same city, a man killed his wife in a beauty parlour following a quarrel. Both murderers were arrested and given stiff sentences. But this did not put an end to the spiral of femicides.

The victims’ “mistakes”

As of mid-November, Féminicides Algérie has counted 37 femicides across the country.

In 2021, there were 62 women killed by a relative or an acquaintance, according to statistics kept by several associations that point to the difficulty of knowing the exact number because of the taboos that prevent families from speaking out.

Tinhimane Laceb, a journalist for the Algerian Public television was murdered by her husband after a series of domestic quarrels, according to friends in whom she had confided. But to everyone’s surprise, the father of that young mother of two little girls, asked the media not to speak of “femicide.” For him, it was an accident.

Cherifa Khedar, who founded Djazerouna (“our Algeria”) an association dedicated to the prevention of violence against women, this kind of attitude is an effort to avoid “bringing up mistakes a victim may have made.” This refers to episodes of adultery.

But even “in the event these accusations are founded, there were always solutions other than violence,” Khedar points out. “There are often attempts to justify these murders committed by men,” she says indignantly. For example, a professor of medicine, Mostefa Khati, and president of an association in aid of child victims of trauma, justified the murder of Chaima by invoking her family’s responsibility, especially that of her parents.

His role as head of the family

For many academics and feminists, these justifications of violence inflicted on women, and femicides, are partly related to “a crisis of masculinity” says Oussedik. In her view this violence, which at times takes these extreme forms, is due to the “evolution” of the status of women in Algerian society.

By “crisis of masculinity” she is referring to situations in which a man discovers that a woman does not need him to survive – which he is not necessarily willing to accept. In her analysis, the fact that the girls do better in college, that they are taking up more space, that women tend increasingly to remain single and stand up to men, is causing among the latter an identity crisis which drives them to violence.

She believes that the financial independence of Algerian women has a subversive value which enables them, for example, to turn a man down, something which he finds unacceptable. A feeling inspired by the Family Code, that derives directly from the sharia which confers on men the role of head of the family or reb, a word which literally means “God.”

“There we are in an especially difficult situation where the dominant ideology tells men they are the reb of the family, an expression taken up by the Family Code,” Oussedik summarises, adding that she is aware that her own profile may be taken as a model by young Algerian women. “Objectively, women like myself may serve as a reference for the very young ones, but we are a violence for the adult women of today” whom she considers more submissive, more vulnerable to male dominance. “We are free to go about as we please, we are married, have children, we are grandmothers, all of which means this is possible for other women,” she suggests.

In the meantime, the associations defending women’s rights continue publishing the femicide statistics and trying to help women who are victims of violence. As for Ryma Anane, she is still hospitalised in Madrid; hoping to get well someday, a “stroke of luck” which those who are gone never had.

Translated from French by Noël Burch.

Ali Boukhlef is an independent Algerian journalist, he has worked for two daily newspapers, Liberté and El Watan.

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.