Men and Women

Algeria Table of Contents

In Algeria, as in the rest of the Middle East, women are traditionally regarded as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit. The honor of the family depends largely on the conduct of its women; consequently, women are expected to be decorous, modest, and discreet. The slightest implication of impropriety, especially if publicly acknowledged, can damage the family's honor. Female virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward are considered essential to the maintenance of family honor. If they discover a transgression, men are traditionally bound to punish the offending woman. Girls are brought up to believe that they are inferior to men and must cater to them, and boys are taught to believe that they are entitled to the care and solicitude of women.

The legal age for marriage is twenty-one for men, eighteen for women. Upon marriage the bride usually goes to the household, village, or neighborhood of the bridegroom's family, where she lives under the critical surveillance of her mother-in-law. Much marital friction centers on the difficult relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Because a woman begins to gain status in her husband's home when she produces sons, mothers love and favor their boys, often nursing them longer than they do the girls. The relation between mother and son remains warm and intimate, whereas the father is a more distant figure.

Traditionally, concern for the purity of women led to a marked restriction of their activities. Women spent most of their adult lives behind their courtyard walls or visiting other women in similar courtyards. It was considered improper for a woman to be seen by men to whom she was not related, and in many areas women were veiled in public.

French colonizers actively opposed veiling because they viewed it as a symbol of national and religious values and beliefs that they sought systematically to undermine. In reaction to French pressure, Algerians stubbornly clung to the practice and after independence actually increased its use. Paradoxically, however, this development also resulted from the increased freedom enjoyed by women. The veil provides mobile seclusion, and the more frequent entry of women into public situations called for an increased incidence of veiling.

Within the confines of the traditional system, there was considerable variation in the treatment of women. In Arab tribes, women could inherit property; in Berber tribes, they could not. In Berber society, Kabyle women seem to have been the most restricted. A husband could not only divorce his wife by repudiation, but he could also forbid her remarriage. Chaouia women fared much better because they were allowed to choose their own husbands.

During the War of Independence, women fought alongside men or, at the least, maintained the household in their absence. They thus achieved a new sense of their own identity and a measure of acceptance from men that they had not enjoyed before. In the aftermath of the war, some women maintained their new-found emancipation and became more actively involved in the development of the new state, whereas others returned to their traditional roles at home.

After 1962 the status of women began improving, primarily because of the increased education of family members, broader economic and social development, and the willingness or necessity for ever-larger numbers of women to seek gainful employment. In the mid-1950s, about 7,000 women were registered as wage earners; by 1977 a total of 138,234 women, or 6 percent of the active work force, were engaged in full-time employment. Corresponding figures for the mid-1980s were about 250,000, or 7 percent of the labor force. Many women were employed in the state sector as teachers, nurses, physicians, and technicians.

Although by 1989 the number of women in the work force had increased to 316,626, women still constituted only a little over 7 percent of the total work force. The number of women in the work force, however, may be much higher than official statistics suggested. Women in the rural work force were not counted; only 140 were listed in official statistics. Among the reasons for their omission was their position as unpaid family members; culturally, heads of households in a patriarchal society did not acknowledge publicly or to census workers that the women of their household were workers. In fact, the majority of rural women worked full time and should be considered part of the Algerian work force.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress