Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

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.

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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.

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