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
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice