Publication Date

June 21, 2018


  • Africa


Political, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Central to the plot of Gillo Pontecorvo’s gripping docudrama The Battle of Algiers (1966) are three Algerian women—Djamila, Zohra, and Hassiba—who carry out a series of bombings against French colonists in the European quarter of Algiers. In depicting Algerian women as agents capable of organizing and executing violent acts, Pontecorvo broke with many of his European contemporaries. In French films like Le Petit Soldat (1963) and L’insoumis (1964), Algerian women were portrayed as passive damsels awaiting salvation from the terrors of their own nation. In The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo depicted real women from the Front de Liberation Nationale and the roles they chose to play in their liberation from French colonial rule. 

Algerian women played important roles in the Algerian War for Independence, including as Front de Liberation Nationale bombers. Wikimedia Commons

Years later, in 2007, French scholar and former FLN accomplice Daniele Djamila Amrane-Minne reflected on the women in Pontecorvo’s film, and how their 15 minutes of screen time was hardly sufficient in conveying the deep influence of Algerian women and their small number of European female allies on Algerian independence. In the roughly 50 years between the release of The Battle of Algiers and Amrane-Minne’s thoughtful reflection on her experience in joining Algerian women in the nationalist cause, historians and scholars of the Algerian War for Independence, gender and women’s studies, and decolonization have produced a rich subcategory of 20th-century Algerian history focused on Algerian women.

As a result, any study or unit on the Algerian War of Independence is incomplete without including literature focusing on Algerian women, some of which has been made available for instructors and students on the National History Center’s Teaching Decolonization Resource Collection. The collection, launched earlier this year, provides teachers and students with resources to discuss and study the history of decolonization in the high school or college classroom. Users can browse the collection by region or theme. A unit on Algerian women and decolonization would benefit from resources in the North Africa and Middle East category as well as the Gender and Sexuality category. Using primary sources, articles, and books drawn from these two categories, instructors can build a unit, assignment, or lesson plan detailing the role of Algerian women in Algerian history and decolonization.

The Gender and Sexuality collection, for example, includes one of the first groundbreaking studies on Algerian women: Marnia Lazreg’s The Eloquence of Silence. Published in 1994, this interdisciplinary work challenged the historiographical status quo that framed Algerian women in the context of Islam and femininity. In The Eloquence of Silence, Lazreg recasts Algerian women as individuals closely engaged with the dynamic social, political, and cultural world of the mid and late 20th century. In the postbellum period in Algeria, writes Lazreg, Algerian women actively adopted and rejected the many changes brought on by independence. The same year, Daniele Djamila Amrane-Minne published her Des Femmes Dans la Guerre d’Alergie (On Women in the Algerian War), a collection of memoirs, interviews, and anecdotes from over 80 Algerian women who joined the FLN during the 1950s and 60s.

Not long after, Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi published their powerful collection Women in African Colonial Histories (2002) that highlighted the many responsibilities African women had as mothers, farmers, leaders, and more. Much like Lazreg, the authors and editors of this volume delineated on the experiences of African women in the context of the social, political, and cultural pressures and opportunities to which they responded. Also in 2002, historian Meredeth Turshen published a comprehensive essay tracing the evolution of Algerian women’s political agency from the Algerian War for Independence to the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s.

Since the early 2000s, the literature on Algerian women has continued to expand. The North Africa and Middle East collection includes a detailed analysis of sexual violence during the Algerian War by French historian of Algerian history Raphaëlle Branche in Dagmar Herzog’s 2009 edited collection, Brutality and Desire. The following year, Natalya Vince published the first of several consecutive essays on Algerian women’s experiences as participants in and observers of the Algerian War. Subsequently, Vince released her newest, most comprehensive contribution to the fields of decolonization, Algerian history, and women’s history, Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Memory, and Gender in Algeria, 1954-2012 (2015). In her book, Vince expands upon Amrane-Minne’s personalized approach to Algerian independence, demonstrating how memories of decolonization have shaped the lives of Algeria women up until the 21st century.

Though they receive only 15 of 121 total minutes of screen time, the women of the FLN are among the most memorable characters in Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The lasting impression they’ve left speaks to the larger reality of how Algerian women have shaped the course of Algerian, French, and world history in the 1950s and 60s in ways both inspiring and troubling. It is fitting, then, that historians have taken it upon themselves to write and rewrite those histories. There is still, however, much to be studied, written, and rewritten—a process that can only begin with education. The Teaching Decolonization Resource Collection can assist in this process, supplying teachers with the primary and secondary resources necessary to create a comprehensive unit on the Algerian War of Independence and the mark it—and the women involved in it—left on the world.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Annabel LaBrecque is an undergraduate student studying history and political science at the George Washington University. Her primary areas of interest are Native American and colonial history.

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