On November 1, 1954, the All Saints’ Day bombings marked the beginning of the Algerian war of Independence. Assia Djebar was an Algerian student in France who followed the call for a strike launched by the Union of Algerian students, the UGEMA, in 1956. She was barred from pursuing her studies in France and got involved in the revolutionary nationalist movement. Much of Djebar’s subsequent writing and film-making deals with that period of her life. In particular, she focuses on the role of women in the uprising against French rule.
The French army waged a savage war on women, and the women fought back. Djebar’s writing is relevant today because she challenges many myths about Muslim women. These myths are still being used to excuse Western military interventions around the world. For Djebar, the Algerian woman is anything but a passive victim. On the contrary, the choices made by Algerian women could mean life or death for the men on both sides of the struggle for independence. Women as well as men had to act, and for some this meant a sudden dramatic break with tradition. When the cloistered wife Cherifa undertakes to go into town alone to warn her husband that the police are looking for him, her perspective on life is changed radically:
For a happy wife, living inside a house she never leaves, as tradition has prescribed, how for the first time to decide to act? How to act? It’s a foreign word for someone imprisoned in custom (and to experience that custom as an instinct, as if every woman in her family, in the neighboring homes, in all the previous generations, had bequeathed it to her in the form of imperative wisdom). The custom of having that behavior be intended only for a man, the husband, the father, or the brother, of being able to glimpse the thousand incidents in life only through the shelter of his authority, through the mirror of his judgment. It is a new word toward which fate is pushing her (“fate, really?”) and suddenly she sees it emerge, rich in promises and results: “Me, act? Me?” Perhaps that’s what Cherifa is telling herself; perhaps she takes herself for a person at ease with the semidarkness, accidentally thrown into the sun and then overcome by the intuition that she cannot be satisfied with the light that blinds her but must also create a new step, a new approach – a different way of seeing, being seen; of existing.
— Catherine Vigier, Zeteo Contributing Writer
Assia Djebar, Children of the New World, translated from French by Marjolin de Jager. Published by The Feminist Press, CUNY, 2005.
Photo: Assia Djebar by Michel-Georges Bernard/Wikimedia Commons