Forget feminism, talk about survival

INSIDE ALGERIA It wasn't the way most women spent International Women's Day - weeping for murdered loved ones

Algiers - There was no doubting their courage. The women packed the theatre of Ibn Khaldoun to laugh, clap and ululate at the mock trial of Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhaj, the Islamic Salvation Front leaders held under house arrest by the Algerian government. Some of the women had been wounded, others had lost husbands, sons, daughters. One young woman had seen her husband kidnapped in front of her and then, later, opened her front door to be presented with his head on a stick. At the hotel entrance was a noticeboard covered in colour photographs - snapshot-size, taken in mortuaries - of de- capitated bodies and severed heads, of girls with their throats slashed. One middle-aged woman stood in front of the pictures for three minutes, tears dripping from her face and splashing on to her clothes.

It wasn't the way most women spent International Women's Day. And it was, to be frank about it, a middle-class audience, a gathering of cultured, Francophone women in elegant suits, dark tights, lipstick, jewellery. "There are women in veils here - didn't you see them?" a girl asked me indignantly when I suggested - gently, with care - that the audience seemed a little unrepresentative.

And what she said was true, up to a point. Perhaps 5 per cent of the women, maybe less, were in scarves or hejab. It was thus a brave demonstration of solidarity among those who would take a particular side in the Algerian tragedy, who would hate the "Islamists" and support the police.

The word "terrorist" echoed round the auditorium, as did the words "Washington" and "CIA", as Leila Aslawi suggested to the mock trial - actors wearing masks representing Messrs Madani and Belhaj - that the United States was supporting the fundamentalists. Why else, after all, would a FIS spokesman be allowed to operate in America, why had no American been assassinated in Algeria? But "terrorist" was the most popular word, and it clearly applied to anyone remotely connected with the "Islamist" cause. Ask about the women sympathisers of the armed groups, about their treatment at the hands of the security forces, and you met a stunned silence, followed by a shrill, angry denunciation of your lack of compassion.

Had there not, I asked Zazi Sadon, spokeswoman of the Assembly for Algerian Women's Rights, been women tortured and raped in police stations, shot down by death squads, by "terrorists" of a different kind? "Where have these incidents happened?" she wanted to know. I suggested that we might start with the second-floor basement of the Chteaux Neuf commissariat of police in Algiers, that there was no secret about what went on in the city's police headquarters less than half a mile from where we sat. "How many women have you heard of this happening to?" Well, I said, I could think of three specific examples, one of whom was raped to death.

"Three? Three? Is that all?" Mrs Sadon snapped back. "What about the 300 women murdered by the terrorists last year, the women who had their throats cut by the terrorists, the thousands of widows, the women who watched their husbands butchered by the terrorists? The husband of this woman beside me has been killed. What human rights was she given by the terrorists? What rights did they give to the women who received back their husbands' bodies without heads? Of course, we are worried about these other things [sic], but they are not so important as what the terrorists have done."

But were not human rights - women's rights - indivisible, unitary, to be demanded without selectivity? "These women who you say were tortured," another lady began, the "you say" adding her own perspective to the tragedy. "These women, if they were members of the families of terrorists, are assisting in the crimes. They are accomplices. The police must question them. The police are fighting terrorism - do you know what terrorism is? You know, you Europeans have developed democracy over hundreds of years and we have not had this democracy so long. Your vision of human rights is refracted through fine glass - a prism des valeurs - but we are fighting terrorism here."

A group of plain clothes cops wandered into the foyer and began to study the snapshots, of a man's head on mortuary tiles, a beautiful girl, her throat cut open, her hair bathed in blood. The pictures were surrounded by photographs of dead intellectuals, artists, writers and savage cartoons of Madani and Belhaj, of imams and sheikhs and Islamic preachers. It was enough to make you hate them, despise them, deprive them of any human attribute, let alone human rights - which was, of course, the intention, providing you could forget how many people voted for the FIS in the elections which the government annulled three years ago.

The local French-language morning papers had carried a long letter of solidarity with Algerian women in the morning, signed by Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Alain Resnais, Susan Sontag, Elie Wiesel, Franoise Sagan and a host of others, a letter which did at least make a reference to what it called "the savagery of government repression".

The women at the theatre, however, could take comfort in the letter's self-evident remark that such repression "cannot excuse the crimes of terrorists". In Algiers, it should be added, "terrorist" is the word the military-backed regime has always used for the armed Islamist groups; unwittingly, the letter had sided with the government.

Where yesterday's Algerian feminists opposed the authorities was over the Family Code, the old FLN legislation - still in existence - which, in effect, means men make all family decisions, allows polygamy for men, and allows a woman only half of a man's inheritance.

In effect, it is Islamic law and thus meshed perfectly with the hatred of Islamic "terrorism" which made itself felt so palpably in the auditorium. But you did have to ask yourself yesterday whether, in this environment, you could question these arguments when almost every woman you spoke to had a tale of personal horror.

It was less about feminism, more about survival that the women talked before leaving the protection of the plain-clothes cops, the green-uniformed gendarmerie, the blue-uniformed police, and walking into Rue Dr Cherif Saadane where the usual gangs of young men stood on the street corners and in doorways, watching, recognising no doubt, targeting perhaps? "They're watching, sure enough," one cop said in the street. "But what can we do?"

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam