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Part: 16

Algerian Women Test the 'Arab Spring' Winds

Friday, March 18, 2011

To appease "Arab spring" protesters, Algeria lifted a 1991 law that banned public assembly, but a longstanding women's vigil for the country's "disappeared" complains it doesn't help them. Other political women debate the effects.

Subhead: 
To appease "Arab spring" protesters, Algeria lifted a 1991 law that banned public assembly, but a longstanding women's vigil for the country's "disappeared" complains it doesn't help them. Other political women debate the effects.



ALGIERS, Algeria (WOMENSENEWS)--The late-February lifting of the state's emergency powers law hasn't helped the women who keep a weekly vigil here for relatives who disappeared in the country's 1992-2001 civil war.

"We are prevented from demonstrating, we are still under surveillance and each time we try to march police violently shove us around and flood us with vulgarities," said Amel Boucherf.

For years she and other women whose relatives disappeared during the war have convened at the same place: the headquarters of the National Advisory Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights.

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The female protesters, who have been gathering for 12 years, are a fixture of capital life. They wear headscarves, raise portraits of their missing relatives and chant slogans for "Justice and Truth" as well as against "Oblivion and Impunity."

"They say they've lifted the state of emergency but that is just a PR move, as in reality nothing has changed," said Boucherf.

Lifting the emergency law--which banned demonstrations and restricted assembly--was a key demand of opposition groups who have been staging weekly protests in the Algerian capital of Algiers as part of the "Arab spring" of pro-democracy unrest.

Arab leaders from Algeria to Yemen have been making concessions in the hope that their governments will not be the next to be toppled in unprecedented protests inspired by the popular uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt.

But Boucherf says no concessions are reaching her group of demonstrators. For months, police have stopped the protesters from gathering at their customary meeting point.

Farouk Ksentini, president of the National Advisory Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights has said that the case of missing people is closed and he will not tolerate the staging of further demonstrations linked to this cause in front of the institution.

6,544 Officially Missing

Officially, 6,544 were declared missing during the civil war.

"We reject that number because our files show 8,000 people went missing," said Bousherf, adding that police on several occasions dragged her on the ground to prevent her from demonstrating.

Nassara Dutour, who heads the Collective of Algerian Families of the Disappeared, echoes Boucherf's disappointment.

"We thought that the lifting of the state of emergency would permit us to express ourselves, but we are seeing the same dramas unfold," she told Women's eNews.

The Algerian conflict, which pitted rebel Islamists against the government, cost 200,000 lives overall and displaced nearly 1 million people, according to official figures. It also weakened the women's rights movement as activists received death threats from fundamentalist groups.

But since the end of the war in 2002, human rights groups have complained that the main purpose of the state of emergency was to control civil society and choke political opposition through limits to the right to assembly and arbitrary detentions.

The emergency law is still palpable in every day life and makes it hard for women in rural areas to reach the capital, said Maache Zine, president of Wafa, an organization that promotes handicraft production in rural areas and is headquartered in M'sila, about 185 miles southeast of the capital.

"We are faced with dozens of checkpoints that create considerable delays," Zine told Women's eNews at a conference on the economy, held here in the capital on March 3. "Each time we have to show we have permission and each time we have to prove that we have no links to terrorism."

Rural Women a World Apart

Zine was attending the conference to advocate for better employment opportunities for women in rural areas, who live a world apart from their wealthier and better educated urban counterparts in the capital.

In rural areas, illiteracy rates are higher, early marriages common and most of women's work limited to the home or informal sectors.

Women in Algeria represent almost a third of the labor force. They make up 70 percent of Algeria's lawyers and they dominate the medical profession. More than 60 percent of university students are women and 68 percent of Algerian women can read and write, according to the ministry of education.

But even among more privileged Algerian women the chances for political participation are limited, with only 10 percent of women serving in parliament, according to the Minister for the Family and the Status of Women Saadia Nouara Jaafari.

Saida Benhabiles is president of the pro-government International Association for the Victims of Terrorism, which provides psychosocial support to women traumatized by the civil war. Many of these women lost relatives during a wave of terrorist attacks that rocked the country from 1998 to 2002.

Benhabiles said the state of emergency provided a safe framework for her organization, which operates in isolated rural areas that were more vulnerable to terrorist attacks since security services were stretched thin.

"We had to venture to far flung places, where terrorism was quite widely spread so it was a source of security for us," she said.

Emergency Law to Restrain Rebels

The civil war pitted various Islamist rebel groups against the government after elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991 were annulled. The government imposed the emergency law to restrain those rebel groups.

"Usually, women used to put perfume before going to bed, but in the years of terror, we wore oil on our necks so that if terrorists came to cut our throats we would not suffer," said Benhabiles.

President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, has said the lifting of emergency powers will not interfere with the government's anti-terrorism efforts against armed Islamists.

But information travels poorly in rural areas. Some women, said Benhabiles, don't fully grasp what the state of emergency means, while others never knew it even existed.

"The first thing they ask is 'will this new measure allow us to sleep peacefully at night' or 'who is this state of emergency?'," she said.

Benhabiles, who won a United Nations civil-society prize in 2001 for her leadership of the Algerian Association for Rural Women's Rights, explains that the state of emergency typically meant police or army roadblocks.

"Immediately fear comes over their faces, they do not want to return to a state of chaos," she told Women's eNews.

Alloua Amel heads the regional bureau in Setif--about 250 miles east of Algiers--of a national advocacy group for rural families. She places less emphasis on the state of emergency.

"Having or not having the state of emergency changes nothing," she said. "The important thing is to open up communication channels with rural women because they are practically nonexistent."

"While men head to cafes and public places to discuss things among themselves, women in rural areas cannot because they are not even allowed to go out," Amel added.

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This article was translated from an original version in French by Dominique Soguel.

Brahim Takheroubte is an Algerian journalist and editor in chief of l'Expression newspaper. In 2007, he was a visiting scholar at New York University Graduate School of Journalism and completed a six week internship at the Seattle Times. He is a graduate of the Universite des Sciences and Technologie Houari Boumediene (USTHB) in Algiers.