As women, we know that sisterhood, not the state, will bring our liberation

As women, we know that sisterhood, not the state, will bring our liberation
Comment: This International Women's Day, Malia Bouattia highlights the Algerian government's abject failure to protect women, and finds solace in the solidarity of the Hirak movement, and her own family.
7 min read
06 Mar, 2021
Algeria's Hirak movement saw women of all generations front and centre of protests [Getty]
Globally, six women are killed every hour by men. During the Covid-19 crisis, the numbers of women facing sexual and physical violence increased even further, according to the United Nations

In Algeria, the reality is no different. During the pandemic the levels of violence experienced by women raised an alarm across society. The organisation Femicides Algeria recorded 75 murders of women in 2019, 54 in 2020, and already nine so far this year. Furthermore, the government registered 7,000 complaints of violence against women last year. The reality is likely to be much worse, given that domestic violence so often goes unreported across the board. 

The tragic death of 19-year-old Chaima last year sparked outcry across Algeria. The young woman was beaten, raped, murdered, and her body was burned and abandoned in a deserted petrol station in the town of Thenia. Her killer was known to the police because she had filed an official complaint against him after he raped her when she was still a minor, in 2016. No action was taken. However, he served a few years in prison, on unrelated charges. 

Chaima's mother says that the man continued to harass her daughter even after his release. The failure by state institutions to protect the young woman spurred many women in the country to protest and organise sit-ins in major cities like Algiers and Oran. On social media many expressed rage with the #JeSuisChaima (I am Chaima) hashtag over the continued injustice for those impacted by gender-based violence.

There have been other high-profile cases in recent months in Algeria. Tinhinane Laceb, a 39-year-old presenter from TV4 Tamazight, and the mother of two girls, was killed by her abusive husband in January. As the list continues to grow, so does public anger over the failures of state institutions in addressing violence against women. 

The state has long been deemed not only inefficient when it comes to violence against women in Algeria, but a key culprit in facilitating it

While the Algerian regime simply calls on its citizens to rely on existing legislation that criminalises sexual harassment and domestic violence, the demonstrations against femicide that swept the country show that the people are far from satisfied. Even the Covid-19 related restrictions didn't stop hundreds from taking to the streets demanding justice. 

The fact that it took until 2015 for any concrete laws that criminalise domestic violence to be introduced in Algeria, already says a lot. Additionally, the scope of abuse that they "address" is very limited.

As Dr Dalia Ghanem identifies, "the law applies only to spouses and ex-spouses living in the same or separate residences, but does not apply to relatives, unmarried couples, or other members of the household. Provisions on assault and psychological or economic violence do not apply to an individual in intimate non-marital relationships, or to family members or members of the same household."

Algerians continue to refuse the status quo, particularly since the 2019 Hirak uprising - including on questions of women's liberation. 

In addition, the highly visible role of women in the movement has also shaped the response to gender-based violence over the last few years and increased their confidence in getting organised, speaking out, and fighting back. The weekly demonstrations, which took place for over two years, have empowered many women to protest their conditions across society. 

Read more: Why the Middle East cannot ignore the 'shadow pandemic' of violence against women

For example, following Chaima's death, Algerian actresses launched a campaign against femicide and to mobilise the country to end violence against women. Similarly, feminist activists Narimene Mouaci Bahi and Wiame Awres took matters into their own hands by launching the independent website Féminicides Algérie, that records the number of murders which government institutions across the region have failed to do.

The co-founders raised the fact that these deaths "don't come from nowhere". They point out that femicide is "the outcome of a normalised, and perhaps even encouraged and sustained, institutional and social violence".

The state has long been deemed not only inefficient when it comes to violence against women in Algeria, but a key culprit in facilitating it. The horrific experiences of many women who were targeted and used as political weapons by the state during the civil war in the 1990s, continue to serve as a warning to women that they are on their own.

The assassinations during the "dark decade" of those who defended women's liberation left a lasting scar, which demonstrated to anyone who still harboured illusions on the matter that none of the existing institutions were fit to - or even interested in - protecting them, let alone advancing their rights.

Even in times of heightened violence and repression, women will always rise up against their oppression

It feels like the trauma which left so many Algerians debilitated only recently began to heal, as young people reclaimed their future through the hirak protests. Women of all generations were front and centre, in every town and city, screaming, crying, chanting, singing for a radical alternative and an end to a system which exploits them, enables violence, and reinforces patriarchy. 

"Women have always protested, whether during the war or after, they have always been there," the late Nabila Djahnine reminds us. She was the president of the Berber women's group 'Tighri N Tmettut' and was assassinated for her efforts in 1995.

Her legacy serves as a reminder to Algerian women, and a warning to the regime, that even in times of heightened violence and repression, women will always rise up against their oppression.

Many Algerian women remember and rely on the lessons of those who came before them, of the older generations that built their lives and stood tall against women's oppression in the most difficult of circumstances.

Personally, I continue to cherish the lessons left to me by my aunt, Nejma, who approached life fearlessly. She did so despite witnessing decades of attempts to repress and even erase Algerian women - first at the hands of French colonialism, then later at the hands of the regime.

I am a feminist because my aunt Nejma showed me that there should be no limits to what a woman can do

She knew never to rely on any law or institution to protect or serve her interests, and always took matters into her own hands. My aunt saw first-hand that top-down reforms amounted to nothing on the ground. She pushed my sisters and me to know and demand our rights, always seek knowledge about the world we live in, refuse to accept that things couldn't be changed, and never back down from a moral fight.

She also taught us that men would tell us, often and even in our own family, to accept the current order of things. That certain things could not be changed. That we should be realistic. She would laugh in their face and get on with building the world she wanted to inhabit, through her daily actions. She showed us how to do the same.

Celebrated Algerian author Assia Djebar once declared, "I am a feminist because I am Algerian". I know what she meant. I am a feminist because my aunt Nejma showed me that there should be no limits to what a woman can do. If those limits are unjustly put in my way, I have to do everything I can to dismantle them. Women across Algeria - and women across the world - are fighting today, to do just that.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.