Algeria: Women at War – Reflections On The Making Of A Documentary

The International Leadership Association (ILA) 4th Women and Leadership Conference which held at 1440 Multiversity, Scotts Valley, CA, USA from the 16th to 19th June programmed four remarkable documentary films which were screened at the end of each day of the conference. Among them was Algeria: Women at War, a film I produced in 1992 for the UK Channel 4 Television.

Watching the film after so many years was an overwhelming experience, as memories of the making of the film in Algeria, at the height of the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), came flooding back.

Film Background & Inspiration

Background

I had gone to Algeria to interview women who had fought in Algeria’s war of independence from the French between 1954 and 1962; burdened with a desire to know what had happened to them after the Revolution under the National Liberation Front (FLN), single party rule for 30 years and their place in the politics of the time.

Using a combination of interviews and archival footage, the film reflects on the position of women in Algeria, the rise of Islam and increasing political violence. It raises critical questions about the balancing act between women’s and national liberation struggles.

As I watched my film with the conference audience, I pushed back the tears knowing that their struggle for justice continues today. The documentary was shot in 1992 and broadcast on Channel 4 Television the same year. Since then, the film has been distributed by Women Make Movies, based in the US and is constantly being shown around the world.

Inspiration

The inspiration for Algeria: Women at War (19912) came from Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), a film about the Algerian revolution. I watched this film in the 1980’s when I was discovering the vast richness of cinema from Africa, Asia and Latin America. These films stirred in me a deep passion for the power of film as a medium to tell the truth.

The Battle of Algiers left the deepest mark on me. When I first saw the film in London in 1982, I did not realise that 10 years later I would be in Algeria making a film of my own. I recall being struck by the film’s fleeting presence of women who delivered messages, carried weapons hidden under their burkas and used the veil to cross the French checkpoints all around the city. In one scene, three women change their identity completely – cutting their hair, throwing away the hijab, and walking out wearing miniskirts and short hair. I often wondered what happened to them after the revolution.

The Battle of Algiers, we were told, is based on facts. It tells the truth of what happened in the Algerian revolution – one of the longest, bloodiest, and hardest battles for freedom ever fought. The war for independence from the French began in 1954 and lasted until 1962, resulting in the deaths of an estimated million Muslim Algerians and the expulsion of the same number of European settlers.

However, as I came to learn, the film is not a full account; the central role played by women in the independence struggle is missing. The militant commitment of the women of Algeria is probably one of the most remarkable elements of the war, and even more significant today than ever before. So, ten years after seeing Pontecorvo’s film, and inspired by Victoria Britain’s articles in The Guardian; in 1992, I went to Algeria to find these women.

Experiencing Algeria

I arrived not speaking a word of French or Arabic, but I found the women who had appeared in Pontecorvo’s film – Djamila Bouhired, Djamila Bouazza, Baya Hocine and Aicha Bouazzar, along with many others. My passion for telling their story was shared by Djamila Amrane, who had played an active part in their fight for national freedom. She thought it was profoundly unjust that the history has omitted one half of the Algerian population. Her book Algerian women in the War became my film, Algeria: Women at War.

In June 1992, 30 years after independence as can be seen in my film, the Algerian women were still fighting. The daughters of the revolution were refusing to wear purdah, fighting the authorities who sought to stop them from going to restaurants and concerts or even being seen in public. Families were divided between supporting the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and liberal Islam, between Arabic-speaking and francophone, between the city and the country. The army controlled the streets of Algeria and for the first-time women welcomed their public presence; they were guarding their freedom against the growing power of FIS.

My guide and companion Djamila Amrane organised meetings over mint tea and cakes at the homes of many women who had fought in the revolution. They recalled their time in the war vividly, grateful that someone was listening to their truths about what happened during those savage years.

Until the war, Algerian women had been excluded from the political landscape of their country. They had no political rights – not even the right to vote. Both the colonial powers and the opposition parties denied their rights. Many Algerian women were illiterate and yet forbidden to work outside the home. Within the domestic realm they maintained an identity strongly resistant to outside influences. Occupying a position in the home as both queen and prisoner, as well as guardian of tradition, women became indispensable to family survival. According to a Kabyle proverb, ‘man is the light of the external world, woman the light of the internal world’. The home became a place of safety, a refuge where the man constantly undermined by colonialism, could regain his pride and identity. It became the focus of all hope for the future.

When the war broke out, women emerged from the shelter of their homes to play a crucial role in the struggle. While many women fulfilled non-combatant roles, it was the urban guerrillas (fidayate) and the maquisards, who fought in the countryside, whose courage moved me to make my film and to tell the truth.

One evening I was taken to a gathering of women in one of Djamila’s friend’s homes. I was to meet both the fidayate and the maquisards. Among the women in the room were Baya Hocine, Djohor Akrour, Djamila Bouazza – and the six famous women who had been sentenced to death. I asked what they thought about the way they were portrayed in Pontecorvo’s film and they all laughed and began telling me their truths about what happened. They talked easily, recalling the moments, the actions, the places, and the people. As one stopped, another would pick up the story of the hardship, torture, the death of many women, the endless marching by night, and the cold and hunger. They saw rural poverty and witnessed the killing of their comrades. They became cooks and nurses and set up makeshift hospitals. Many of the fighters nursed by these women are still alive to tell their own stories.

Meeting Djamila Bouhired

I listened, by now oblivious to the fact that were talking in Arabic and French. I could not understand – yet I was understanding everything. Then there was a sudden hush and the room became silent. It was dark outside, but the room seemed to fill with light. I looked up and saw that a beautiful, elegant, tall woman had entered the room. My companion whispered in my ear ‘this is Djamila Bouhired’.

Everyone shifted to make room for her in the circle (a natural formation when women get together to tell stories). As she talked, I just kept looking at her, not believing that this was the same woman who had been arrested along with five others and was the first woman to be sentenced to death. Djamila Bouhired was arrested in 1957 for planting a bomb, and a worldwide campaign for her freedom was launched by her French lawyer and her supporters. She was pardoned but remained in prison until the end of the war in 1962. ‘The day I was sentenced to death was the most beautiful day of my life’, she told us, ‘because I was about to die for the most beautiful cause on earth, the freedom of my country’.

After independence, Djamila Bouhired married her lawyer Maitre Verges and had two children. When I met her in 1992, she was still living in Algeria, running her own business. Just a few weeks before, she had led the demonstrations against the Family Code, a pro-Islamic law passed in 1984 by the National Liberation Front (FLN). This law had abolished virtually all rights for women, putting them entirely under the control of their fathers and husbands.

Women In Algeria: After The War

My film Algeria: Women at War and the publication that accompanied its broadcast on Channel 4 in 1992 pays tribute to the women who fought in the revolution, their daughters, also fighting for their freedom and their granddaughters. In my film veteran fighters like Aicha Bouazzar, Baya Hocine and Fatima Hakim talk – some for the first time – about their role in the revolution. Their daughters – Houria Bouhired, Khalida Messaoudi and Fadila Chittour – discuss the status of women after 30 years of single-party rule, the rise of Islam and increasing political violence.

The major question facing Algeria since 1992 has been how it can find its own path between modern democracy and Islamic statehood. Algeria’s women have had the most to lose in this conflict, but they also hold the key to its resolution. Soon after my film was made, the country Algeria descended into civil war between FIS, the army and the FLN. Many of the women I had filmed fled the country while others have been killed.

While some amendments made in 2005 improved women’s access to divorce and child custody, Algeria’s Family Code still discriminates against women by requiring them to apply to the courts for a divorce on specified grounds whereas men have a unilateral right to divorce without explanation. 

In July 2019, as I was heading to Los Angeles for the ILA Women and Leadership conference, Algeria was once again in the news with mass demonstrations triggered by refusal of the former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down and hold elections. ‘No one can stop people marching for his freedom’ and for the past six months, protestors have been demanding political reforms. Djamila Bouhired, the beloved heroine of the independence war against French colonial rule, continues to fight the fight with the young protestors. And so, the story continues!

Algeria: Women at War is distributed by Women Make Movies where you can buy or hire the film for screening.

Extracts of this article were published in RSA Journal in 2002 titled Should Cinema Tell the Truth.

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