New Internationalist Issue 270
Women on the edge of time
The forces of the extreme right are everywhere on the march - and the women of Algeria are fighting to contain them.
Their challenge is also ours, according to Mahl (who uses a pseudonym for her safety).
An Algerian woman writing about Muslim fundamentalism for a Western readership comes up against two big problems. First, the rise of the extreme Right in Europe - and the subsequent Islam-bashing - makes it hard for us to know quite how to denounce fundamentalism to foreign audiences without giving fuel to those who demonize Muslims. Inside Algeria we are able to wage a struggle against fundamentalists with great clarity of judgement. But as soon as we go abroad, whether as emigrants or political refugees, we experience a schizophrenic sense of betrayal of our own people and start defending some of the values and politics that we were fighting against within our country.
Second, the cowardly Western Left, for fear of being accused of racism, fails to recognize in Muslim fundamentalism the seeds of new fascisms. In this process they unwittingly work hand in hand with fundamentalists in the construction of that new demon to replace the now-buried 'Red' - 'The Muslim'.
Fundamentalists promote not only their version of 'Muslimness', but also impose on us all a single forced identity at a time in history when we would rather stand for our multiple identities of gender, class, race, nationality, politics and so on. In the same way many in the Western Left fail to acknowledge that a significant percentage of people born in Muslim countries and communities may not accept religion to be an essential marker of their identity. In ex-Yugoslavia, 'Muslim' has even become a nationality. No-one seems to question this.
Muslim fundamentalism is not a religious movement but a political one. And religion is only one of the means fundamentalists use to gain power - they also use culture and ethnicity to divide people. All these movements have little to offer in terms of political and economic programs; their focus is on identity and subsequently on women who are seen as the guardians of identity, of cultural and religious values, of the purity of the blood. The control of women is therefore essential to fundamentalist politics, as Ali Belhadj shows:'The natural place for a woman is at home. If we live in a true Islamic society, the woman is not meant to work. So, she would not leave her home, and devote her life to the grand mission of the education of men. The woman is the reproducer of men. She does not produce material goods, but this essential thing that is a Muslim.'1
The Muslim fundamentalist credo is separate development for men and women - a policy which, in South Africa, when applied to blacks under the name of apartheid, was condemned by the international community. The implications of this for women in Algeria make it imperative that we speak out, whatever the difficulties.
In Algeria, separate development started during the liberation struggle. Contrary to the myth that women were equal partners in the war, recent studies have shown that female freedom fighters were kept in subordinate positions in the political movement and totally marginalized in the liberation army. 2
Shortly after independence discriminatory practices in education and jobs were introduced, together with legal discrimination in relation to the family. Since then, under three successive presidents, attempts have been made to pass a new, repressive family law. The first attempt was made only a year after independence, and the law was finally passed in 1984 - 21 years later. By this law, Algerian women lost their right to contract marriage - we now have to be given in marriage by a wali (tutor). We lost the right to initiate divorce (except in very rare and specific circumstances); only men can divorce and they can do so unilaterally (repudiation); polygyny (men's right to take more than one wife) is now legalized; fathers are the sole guardians of children, and women have an unequal share in inheritance.
For the first 20 years after independence, Algerian women kept silent about the abuses and discriminations they were suffering. They internalized the Government's priorities: that women's demands were to be considered only after the liberation, after reconstruction, after socialism, etc... When they tried to speak for themselves, women were made to feel guilty of betraying and dividing the people.
Then, in the 1980s, they started taking action against a new planned extension to the Family Code. By so doing, they started the first of the social movements which were to shake Algeria. At the end of the 1980s, after a series of riots by young people afflicted by illiteracy and unemployment, the Government was forced to abandon the one-party system which had governed Algeria since 1962 and to allow political parties and associations to be legally registered. In no time some 60 women's organizations sprang up countrywide. However, most of them were affiliated to political parties and highly dependent on their parties' priorities.
The first independent women's organization, the Independent Association for the Triumph of Women's Rights, was set up in the late 1980s. It demanded the abolition of the Family Code. In 1980 and 1982, 100 women took to the streets. In 1984 there were 300. In 1989 there were 5,000 and in 1990 more than 10,000 - representing one-third of demonstrators against fundamentalism. One of the slogans they have started shouting since 1991 is: 'No dialogue with the fundamentalists!'
Meanwhile fundamentalist organizations were also legalized and benefited from 'international' fundamentalist funding for their activities. They quickly invaded and then monopolized the field of social welfare which was happily abandoned to them both by the regime, which had never catered to these needs, and by the Algerian Left, which was interested in political revolution and not 'charity'.
Women's organizations too concentrated on politics; it took them years to realize that they also had a role to play in the day-to-day relief of their oppressed sisters. Organizations such as shelters for women, associations for the defence of unwed mothers and women's co-ops are extremely recent in Algeria. Unlike charitable organizations in Europe, they are highly politicized and aware of the political dimension of their relief work.
One of the worst legacies of 'specific socialism' (Algeria's isolationist version of the creed) has been the distrust towards the global women's movement and of progressive and human-rights organizations. Among the consequences of this separation from the outside world was the inability of Algerian women to link the rise of Algerian fundamentalism with the situations of women in other parts of the Muslim world, especially Iran. It is only recently that slogans shouted in demonstrations have reflected a new awareness, as on 25 October 1993: 'Algiers will not become a Kabul', 'Algiers will not become a Tehran', 'Algiers will not become a Khartoum'.
In the fundamentalist camp, by contrast, they developed a global project from the start. Young Algerian men were trained in other Muslim countries to come back and fight for fundamentalist groups. Moreover the first two fundamentalist parties set up in Algeria - the FIS (Islamic Front for Salvation) and Hamas - were inspired by laws and practices which were unheard of in Algeria, such as stoning to death for adultery and cutting off the hands of thieves.
The fundamentalists' struggle for power in Algeria took a dramatic turn at the beginning of the 1990s with the creation of armed wings of the political parties, such as the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). Facing Government repression, they turned to terrorism and started killing the intelligentsia and women. Women were denounced in mosques by imams and fatwas were pronounced against them, condemning them to death. Lists of women to be killed were pinned up at the entrance to mosques. Fundamentalists tried to enforce the veil (not even the traditional one but the Iranian chador) and burnt down schools. They fire-bombed popular areas and democratic demonstrations: they shot and slaughtered people who did not share their views. They justified sexual slavery through the institution of muta'a, or temporary marriage. This is a Shi'a practice aimed at disguising prostitution and short-term affairs, imported from Iran and Afghanistan and learned in the fundamentalists' training camps. From Nazi Germany to Vietnam, ex-Yugoslavia to Rwanda, history has given us other examples of how such practices brutalize society and have a direct impact on the increase in organized crime and domestic violence.
Women in Algeria are at the forefront of the struggle to win democratic rights. It is a question of life and death for them. In 1992 when the FIS was nearly elected, women were the first to call on the Government to stop the elections. It was women who clearly spelt out the difference between ending the electoral process and ending the democratic process, and questioned the democratic value of electing a Hitler. In the Muslim world, Algerian women are among the very few who call for the separation of religion and the State.
But they pay a high price. Insecurity is constant and leaders of women's organizations have been in hiding for the last two years. Two leading figures of Algerian feminism have recently been killed.3 And it is not just the courage of these political leaders which should be saluted but also that of women going about their everyday life. Despite orders from the fundamentalists and regardless of the threat to their lives, women still go outside their homes, they still go to work, still mostly refuse to cover their heads - and they still send their children to school, even though fundamentalists threaten to execute children going to state schools. They never know if their beloved ones will come back home or not. Living 'normally' in today's Algeria is already an act of resistance. One can be executed just for doing that.
Hearts and homes
Hindu fundamentalism Hindutva is on the upsurge. Ratna Kapur and
Brenda Crossman analyze the attraction of the movement for women.
Men and women are equal but they are not the same, according to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its policies emphasize the ways in which women are different from men, reinforcing along the way the sexist stereotypes that have contributed to inequality. For example, the BJP support policies that emphasize womens roles as mothers and wives (maternal health care) while rejecting policies that go too far beyond these traditional roles for women (compensation for housework). Women who want to become men, says one BJP member, and want to make other women (like) men are worthy of ridicule.
Why are women attracted to this fundamentalist and communalist agenda? Part of the answer is that it affirms their identity as mothers and wives. The fundamentalist groups have all created particular programmes, organizations and roles for women. For example, the female wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is designed to promote virtues such as devotional attachment to the ideals of Hindu womanhood. This religious and renunciatory model has made it possible for women such as Una Bharati and Sadhvi Rithambhara [both BJP MPs who urged on the Hindu fundamentalists who destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992] to occupy such prominent positions.
Yet these organizations bring women out of the family in ways that do not fundamentally challenge their traditional roles. They are careful to ensure that the power of the (male-headed) family to make decisions regarding its members, particularly its female members, remains unthreatened. A familys decision for a woman to marry trumps her own decision to participate politically.
Since the destruction of the Babri Masjid, feminists and other secularist forces in India have talked of little else but how to meet this challenge and defeat the right-wing, fundamentalist agenda.
The womens movement has a particular challenge. It has often been (mis-)understood as attacking and belittling womens traditional roles. It is important, indeed essential, that feminists address this sense of alienation felt by women for whom there has been little or no choice about being mothers and wives. The womens movement must continue to find ways to include such women and provide them with the same sense of self-worth as do the fundamentalists. It is only by offering women real choices that we can begin to meet the challenges of Hindutva.
Adapted from Women and Hindutva in Women Against Fundamentalism, No 5, 1994 Vol 1.
1 Ali Belhadj in Horizons, Feb 23 1989.
2 Djamila Amrane, Des femmes dans la Guerre d'Algérie, Paris, Karthala, 1994.
3 In February 1995 Nabila Djahine, of the feminist organization Cri de Femmes, was assasinated.
The Christian Right in the US has just unveiled a new Contract for the
American Family. Mallika Dutt assesses what it really means for women.
I returned from a vacation in India recently to discover that my friend had been shot by an anti-abortion terrorist. She worked as a counsellor at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Massachusetts. A man called John Salvi walked into the clinic and started firing. He killed Sharon Lowney, the receptionist, and shot my friend and several others waiting in the reception area. He then went a few blocks down the road and repeated his performance, killing another receptionist, Leanne Nichols. Salvi was finally arrested in Virginia outside another clinic where he was preparing to shoot again.
I had watched the increasing violence against health-care clinics with a sense of alarm. The bombings, arson and killings of doctors who perform abortions revealed the growth of a Christian fundamentalism whose terrorism against women knows no bounds. But my awareness of this phenomenon didnt prepare me for the shock of coping with my friends bullet-wounds. As she struggles to make her mind and body whole again with one bullet inside her for life I am constantly reminded that she was lucky because she wasnt one of the women who died. When I listen to the rhetoric of the Christian Right, I often think of her and wonder at the hypocrisy of those who kill, maim and wound in order to protect life.
The Rights obsession with sex education and abortion is its most visible effort to obtain control over women. For them reproduction is integrally connected with God and the propagation of the race. Men can only have control over this by controlling womens sexuality. Thus, one of the provisions of the new Contract with the American Family1 calls for the protection of the rights of states not to fund abortion.
The Right has already made significant strides in its anti-abortion crusade by placing severe restrictions on abortion funding in federal and state legislation; by terrorizing doctors and clinics that perform abortions; and by harassing women entering clinics like the one where my friend worked that provide them. The language is as fiery as the actions. Planned Parenthood, says Pat Robertson, is teaching kids to fornicate, teaching people to have adultery; teaching people to get involved in every kind of bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism everything that the Bible condemns.2
This combination of intimidation and terrorism has proved effective in narrowing womens access to abortion even though the majority of the country supports womens right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.
As with all fundamentalisms, the Christian Rights call for the restoration of the American family is based on certain assumptions about the role of women in society. The very definition of family assumes a male and a female married to each other who play patriarchally-defined roles regarding child-rearing and wage earning. Pat Robertson again: The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.2
Robertsons crudeness nothwithstanding, the sophistication of the Rights approach should not be underestimated. It has developed an analysis, a strategy and a range of policies that target the core of US social, cultural and political life, with far-reaching implications for womens human rights.
One of the Contracts provisions, for example, calls for a constitutional amendment to protect the religious liberties of Americans in public places. In the US, separation of the Church and the State has been one of the cornerstones of the constitution. The Contracts attempt to undermine this separation is part of its overall strategy to enable religion (read Christianity) to be more closely intertwined with Government policy and to enable the Christian Right to proselytize in classrooms and other public places.
The separation of church and state has been critical for women, because the advocacy of any religion by the state would result in policies and practices based on religious prescriptions about gender roles that are often harmful to womens interests. The state can be held accountable for its discrimination far more easily when it does not have divine sanction for its actions.
The Contract also aims to dismantle the Department of Education and transfer its funds to families and local school boards. The Right has long been unhappy with sex education that does not promote abstinence, a secular school curriculum that does not teach creation as the beginning of life, and multicultural education that is anti-Western. As Pat Robertson put it, the public education movement has also been an anti-Christian movement...We can change education in America if you put Christian principles in and Christian pedagogy in. In three years, you would totally revolutionize education in America. 2
The Right has always understood the importance of controlling the hearts and minds of young people in order to shape society. The ability to manipulate peoples homophobia, racism, and sexism has won it many victories over defining the school curriculum, even when elected officials have supported progressive multicultural education.
Other provisions of the Contract call for changes in tax policy to assist traditional families and homemakers; the reversal of US ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the restriction of pornography on the Internet and cable television. It has also called for the privatization of those arts which promote a broader moral view of the world than they would support, and of legal services to the poor, which they argue promote divorce and single parenthood.
Neither this analysis nor the Contracts demands are new. They reflect long-held tenets and are issues around which the Right have been organizing for the last 20 years. But the last decade has seen an unprecedented growth in their power in the US. Religious fundamentalism has demonstrated a canny ability to move into the political vacuums created by government corruption, by the breakdown of community and family, and by the anxieties of a fast-changing, technologically driven world.
In addition, the victory of the Republican Party last November relied heavily on the organizing ability of the Christian Right. The Republicans will now have to satisfy the demands of this constituency especially in the light of the upcoming Presidential race.
Unfortunately, womens movements have not risen to the challenge except in the area of abortion. Progressive organizing in the United States is fragmented and divided by issue and identity. Different groups organize around reproductive health, welfare, violence, workers rights, education, labor, prisoners, children, tax reform and so on. These groups are further divided by gender, race, sexuality, class, immigrant status and ethnicity. Each of these entities have made some gains in their own area, but few coalitions and alliances have sprung up unless their backs are against the wall.
The Republican victory and the implementation of its Contract with America have galvanized and united many groups in opposition. However, this cannot be an answer to the sophisticated and holistic approach of the Christian Right. What gives the Right its power is a clear vision of the kind of society it wishes to create. In a time of political, moral, spiritual and economic bankruptcy, womens movements in the US need to articulate a clear vision for the future a vision that moves beyond victim-based or single-issue agendas. The protection and promotion of womens human rights can be guaranteed only if we meet this challenge.
Mallika Dutt is the Associate Director of the Center for Womens Global Leadership. She would like to thank Deevy Holcomb and Dolores Alexander for help with this article.
1 The Contract is the brainchild of the Christian Coalition, with 1.6 million active supporters and an annual budget of $25 million. The Coalition is a repackaged version of Pat Robertsons political base and ideology led by Ralph Reed.
2 From a compilation by People for the American Way.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.