The English senior seminar class presented the documentary film "Algeria: Women at War" in Bryan Jr. auditorium on March 18 as part of a series of films concerning the lives of Arab women.
Woman played a big part in the 1954 fight for Algeria's independence from France as the National Liberation Front (NLF) sought decolonization. Some worked covertly, acting as spies or making provisions available, while others joined in as soldiers. The fact that they were female did not prevent them from suffering the atrocities of conflict; many were tortured at the hands of the French.
"It was a violent and cruel engagement," said senior Christina Clodfelter, providing historical reference while introducing the film.
The documentary was a series of interviews interspersed with clips from Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers." His film provided a cultural backdrop to the woman who devoted their lives to their country but were not recognized or rewarded when Algeria became decolonized.
"We became men," said one of the film's white-haired subjects. She called herself a commando as she explained how she strapped a machine gun on her shoulder to take part in an ambush unit.
Working as an informer, another woman was arrested and beaten three times. She grinned as she revealed that she escaped three times. She had to; her fields needed tending, as her husband was off fighting. When her husband returned, he was angry. She had stepped out of her normal role as wife, and they divorced. He is now suing her for her pension.
The women explain their stories with grace and strength, and without hints of bitterness, despite the torture that they endured during the war and the lack of recognition after.
After the war, women attempted to organize themselves, but there was no government support and they were swept aside. Algeria prospered in the 70's as a nation, but by the 80's, very few women worked while three quarters of the population were under the age of 25.
Algeria was in turmoil several years before the 1991 elections, when the NLF stopped the process after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a fundamentalist group, won the first election after a lengthy Islamic push.
The turning point for Algerian women was the 1988 riots, which led up to the failed 1991 elections. The "family code," a strict interpretation of Islamic law, was strictly enforced, keeping Algerian woman from traveling alone and mandating that their children be breast-fed.
"The family code struggled to be implemented for over 20 years," said senior Dana Kilgoe. "There were many attempts but no agreement could be made. In 1984, a backward code which would lower the status of women, ignoring and totally overlooking their achievements, increased women's struggles and only provided more agony to their troubles. They did what they could, by demonstrating and rallying to be heard."
One of the women, filmed in the shadows because she was not obeying the "family code," was divorced. In Algeria, divorce is an act of repudiation. Not a failure of the union, but an accusation of marital duty neglect. She lived on the streets with no support, and no option of returning to her family.
Life for Algerian women continues to be difficult and conflicted.
In traditional dress and hajib, two women interviewed in the film upheld Islamic traditional values as they voiced their support of adherence to the Koran's principles and the rejection of Western values. They expressed their offence that they should be part of the change and wanted to make it known that they are not at battle with the "family code."
These women faced opposition from the voices of the women that reported that they have been brutalized by the fundamentalists.
"Many women in modern Algeria still struggle with the patriarchal order," said Kilgoe.
However, organizations on behalf of women are as diverse as the women themselves.
"You'll find activists who seek to ameliorate the lot of women by basing their arguments in Islam and Islamic texts, working within the system to change it, by reinterpreting the Qur'anic verses or the prophet's sayings," said Assistant Professor of English Diya Abdo,"or by arguing that an ethical and true following of Islam guarantees women their rights and that 'fundamentalism' is a misappropriation of the ethical message of Islam."
Other activists are working to secure human dignity for the Algerian woman often citing International Humans Rights violations.
"These women are often accused of being 'westernizers'," said Abdo.
Despite the hardships these women endured, the film had a message of hope.
The film subjects spoke of their adversities, not with the voices of weary battered women, but the voice of women on a mission, proud of their warrior pasts, but disappointed that their efforts did not pay off.
The film ends with a group of young girls sitting on a stoop. One girl speaks for the group and talks of the pressure on her generation not to disappoint their mothers.
"The only thing that Algeria has that is of any value is their children," said the girl realizing her potential to uphold her mother's activism.