By Leela Jacinto
Friday, October 27, 2006
Women's activists in Algeria say a sweeping 2005 amnesty, offered to most prosecutors of Algeria's decade-long "dirty war," is making the culture more dangerous for women. Reports of domestic violence, they say, are rising.
ALGIERS, Algeria (WOMENSENEWS)--Nearly a decade later, Yasmina says she still vividly remembers the day she was kidnapped by Islamic militants and her carefree old life ended for good.
The captors "held a knife to my throat and asked me to marry one of the terrorists there," recalled Yasmina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. "But even though I was very scared, I said I could not marry without my parents' permission. That's when the raping began."
Yasmina, then 21, was taking a shortcut through the Casbah, the labyrinthine old quarter in the Algerian capital of Algiers, when she was snatched into a militant hideout. It was at the height of the "dirty war," as Algerians refer to the 1990s bloodbath that pitted Islamist militants against the state's shadowy security forces.
The macabre marriage proposal at knifepoint was, in effect a proposition for a twisted form of nikah-ul-mutta, or "temporary marriage," a particularly repugnant brand of sexual abuse that was widespread during the civil war.
Widely condemned by most Sunni Muslim scholars, temporary marriages were nonetheless used by Sunni militants as a pretext for domestic and sexual enslavement.
Yasmina was one of the lucky ones. An unnamed number of Algerian women kidnapped during the 1990s were ultimately mutilated and killed by their assailants.
International rights groups such as London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch estimate that "hundreds" of women and girls were subjected to gender-based violence during the conflict.
Uta Simon, a researcher at Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program, says, however, that the actual figure may be significantly higher since most incidents--especially in remote rural regions--went unreported due to the stigma of rape in Algerian society.
The social disgrace is so strong that when Yasmina finally made it home, her parents promptly kicked her out for defiling the family "honor."
"I had lost my virginity," said Yasmina as she surveyed the bare walls of a women's shelter in downtown Algiers. "In this country, when you lose your virginity, you're absolutely destroyed."
Forced to flee to Bejaia, a port city east of the capital, Yasmina took up work as a "bar-girl"--a disreputable career in this Arab nation regardless whether prostitution is involved--where she met and married a sympathetic client.
But soon after the wedding, her husband began to mistreat her.
"I thought he loved me, but in fact he just abused my situation," she said. "He used to tell me I was a girl from the streets, a whore. He never let me leave the house or even stand at the window."
Trapped in an abusive marriage, ostracized by her family and community, and with little access to the outside world, Yasmina stuck it out for three years until her husband abandoned her and her two young daughters and left for France.
"There are different types of terrorism," Yasmina said as she slowly exhaled a plume of cigarette smoke. "I am twice a victim of terrorism."
Sparked by the scrapping of the 1992 elections--which the hardline Islamist FIS (Front Islamique de Salut) party was expected to win--the civil war was fought with grotesque ferocity, leaving between 150,000 to 200,000 people dead.
Today, however, Algeria is in official recovery mode and many Algerians enjoy a measure of security unheard of during the 1990s.
The economy is flush with petrodollars and international investors are flocking to exploit this North African nation's vast oil and gas reserves.
But in villages, towns and cities across Algeria, an untold number of women are traumatized by the political carnage of the previous decade as well as growing levels of more commonplace domestic abuse.
"Violence of society has entered the family," said Meriem Belaala, president of SOS Women in Distress, an Algiers-based nongovernmental group. "As you know, it's hard to get figures here, but it's very clear that violence against women and children in Algeria is rising."
Louisa Ait Hamou, an activist and lecturer at Algiers University, traces the cause to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. The charter has granted--in the interests of national reconciliation--a sweeping amnesty to Islamist militants who have laid down their arms as well as Algerian security forces for abuses committed during "the national tragedy."
"Violence has never been condemned," Ait Hamou said. "When such shocking forms of violence go unpunished, you open the doors to other forms of violence. Under the terms of the charter, those who have raped women, killed and mutilated men, women and children will not be punished for a so-called peace. For me, it's frightening."
Human rights groups have also criticized the charter for attempting to impose a "blanket of amnesia" over the wounds of the past by providing stiff sentences for anyone posing critical questions that harm "the image of Algeria internationally."
Bouteflika however defends the charter--which was passed by a 2005 referendum--as a means of "definitively turning the page" on the 1990s crisis and has dismissed critics of his reconciliation policies as "enemies of peace."
Nearly three years after she sought and received help from an Algiers nongovernmental organization, Yasmina has a long way to go to her cherished dream of economic independence. But she's getting there.
Homeless and unemployed in a country with a 24 percent unemployment rate and an acute housing crisis, the resilient 31-year-old mother of two has been forced to leave her daughters with her parents in the eastern Algiers suburb of El-Harrash while she receives career and psychological counseling from SOS Women in Distress. Her parents have agreed to look after their grandchildren for the duration, but Yasmina says they still stubbornly hold her responsible for her crushing misfortunes.
"I just want a job," she whispered fiercely. "I just want to work and find a place for me and my children so we can all live in peace. What was done to me . . . " She chokes, unable to summarize the extent of her numerous violations. "I can never really recover from it. But I believe in God and I know they will be punished. Right now, I just want to stabilize my life."
Leela Jacinto is a freelance reporter specializing in South Asian and Middle Eastern issues. Previously, she has worked as an international news reporter at ABCNEWS.com, New York, and as a journalism trainer at the Kabul-based Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan's leading newswire service.
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