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?"

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