Time's up for 'Papicha': A cinematic battle cry for Algerian women

Time's up for 'Papicha': A cinematic battle cry for Algerian women
Comment: Meddour's new film, 'Papicha' highlights the role of women in defining Algeria's revolutionary past, present and future, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
15 Sep, 2019
The film is largely inspired by Meddour's [middle] own experiences [Getty]
The Algerian premier of Papicha, a film by Mounia Meddour exploring the lives of young Algerian women in the 90s, was uncereomoniously cancelled on Wednesday. 

Authorities refused to provide any details on the reasons for the 'temporary cancellation' of the film, already widely acclaimed at host of international festivals. 

The longstanding, but crucial question of the role of women in Algeria, is apparently still too controversial for discussion, in a country that has seen its women take to the streets consistently and fearelessly since protests began in February of this year.   

Largely inspired by Meddour's own experiences, the film focuses on the lives of university student Nedjima, and her friends during the 90s. It follows their response to being suddenly faced with posters on campuses threatening women to veil, telling them "take care of your image or we will".

The film also explores her defiance, alongside so many others in the face of adversity: Her sister, a journalist is murdered, the civil war takes hold, women's bodies and lives are politicised, and there is increasing repression aimed at keeping women out of public life - always for their "own good" and "liberation", of course.

In many ways, Papicha's international screening couldn't have come at a better time. It recounts the stories of women in Meddour's homeland, just as that homeland is rising up. Algerian women of all generations are a force to be reckoned with, and have played a key role in the weekly Friday demonstrations taking place across the largest country in Africa.

For those of us old enough to recall the horrific events of the 90s, the weaponisation of women not only by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its followers, but also state forces, became common practice. "Don't walk on your own in the streets!", "Cover you hair while you're in le bled (homeland)", "Stay away from beaches", "Don't take public transport"… were just some of the instructions my sisters dished out once we'd stepped foot on Algerian soil during summer breaks.

It brings back the women of Algeria and their centrality to our national and revolutionary narratives

As young girls it already felt like an unspoken given that as women, we were the collateral stuck in the middle of men on both sides, who were fighting to claim power and possession of the land.

And that was just during holidays. Our relatives who stayed throughout the civil war had to make do with an everyday in which their appearance, their faith, their decisions - about how to practice, how to work, how to organise their private lives - all became enmeshed in the ideological battles of pro-regime, pro-FIS, and pro-western camps that were tearing our country apart.

It was Ramadan when the trailer for Papicha was released. Sitting in a mosque in Birmingham, UK, I watched and a group of Algerian women of all generations gathered around my small phone screen. Some of them had lived the entire dark decade in Algiers, Oran and Constantine (major cities that saw many violent attacks). Others had only heard the stories from a distance.

It sent shivers down our spine. A clip of just a few minutes had already invited laughter, fear and tears onto our faces, with memories of those long, emotional years rushing back.

Mounia Meddour, through her film, has reminded us of the centrality of women's liberation throughout the country's history.

Algerian women were crucial in the war of liberation but were slowly written out of the history books throughout decades of one-party rule, which - like so many repressive regimes - focussed on controlling women to establish its control over the population. 

In the decades after the coup, the state imposed a so-called family code, which limited women's legal, financial and social rights. It was no longer the time of resistance and struggle. It was time to return home and let the Generals take care of the country. And what a job they have done.

Already during the Berber spring in the 1980s, the outcry by Algerian women and feminist groups was central to the uprising. They stood alongside many other sections of Algerian society, against the repressive and oppressive practices of a state that was (ironically) claiming the glory of a radical, anti-colonialist struggle - that has inspired so many around the world to rise up against tyranny - as its mantel of legitimacy. 

Read more: Death of an activist: A shame on Algeria's state

Papicha is also perhaps a mirror for the movements today. It shows what has been, and what could be especially if the people forget their own power. The sea of women flooding the streets of cities and towns across Algeria every Friday to demand a democratic and accountable leadership instead of military rule, the redistribution of the country's wealth and resources, and an end to censorship and repression, refuse to return to those days.

Among them are very elderly women, who are showing up in wheelchairs and with walking sticks, because they endured, fought and welcomed in the country's liberation, only to then live through a period of curfews, acid attacks, rape, murder, and disappearances.

They came out of those years only to find their granddaughters and great-grand-daughters feeling hopeless and futureless

They came out of those years only to find their granddaughters and great-grand-daughters feeling hopeless and futureless.

It's empowering to see freedom fighter Djamila Bouhired, who was arrested and tortured by the French under colonial rule, now visiting university campuses to help students organise, supporting and marching at weekly demonstrations against a military state.

What better way to honour our sister martyrs who fought French colonial occupation, those who resisted the Algerian state, misogynists and conservatives who targeted women endlessly, than to rise up so uncompromisingly?

The question of the role of women, and their liberation, is not a side-issue, a side-demand, or an afterthought to the "broader liberation of all", it is central to the political strength and even success of any revolution.

All sides of the Algerian civil war failed to either understand or apply this, instead they waged war on women’s bodies, art, expression and freedom. Today none of the central forces that wrought destruction on Algerian society during the dark decade are credible amongst the masses that are marching and fighting for a liberated Algeria for all.

Papicha gives us back our collective memory

In this situation of revolt, of reclaiming the present as well as the past, Papicha gives us back our collective memory, our collective stories, and our deep sense that the struggle of the Algerian people has always rested on whether they manage to include the oppressed or not. It brings back the women of Algeria and their centrality to our national and revolutionary narratives.

In the words of writer Assia Djebar, "I am a feminist because I am Algerian". 

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

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.