December 18, 2017

French Jews and Muslims on the Move: Is Laïcité Prompting Emigration? Part II

By Geraldine Gudefin –

Editor’s Note: This blog is the third of three blogs on the subject of laïcité (French secularism). The first was “Mister Prime Minister, Don’t Liberate Us”: Secularism and Muslim Women in France and the second was French Jews and Muslims on the Move: Is Laïcité Prompting Emigration? Part I. – 

Muslims are leaving France for a host of reasons. Some are leaving because of a growing feeling of insecurity; uncertainty about their future and that of their children; and a sense that no matter how educated and “integrated” they are, professional opportunities are scarcer for them than for their non-Muslims compatriots. Educated and ambitious Muslim students and young professionals, for instance, are tempted to seek an education or job abroad, in the United Kingdom, North America and the Gulf states, according to an article by Camille Neveux in Le Journal du Dimanche. French-Muslim activist Samia Hathroubi described this phenomenon in an article published a few months ago entitled “To stay or to leave: is France really worth it?“. Hathroubi wrote about a  French Muslim student named Nora, who had traded Ecole Normale Supérieure — one of France’s most prestigious schools — for a British university, so that she could “become herself”: “France distressed her, and oppressed her. This country could no longer combine its histories, its memories and its plural identities. The harmony was broken. There are days when, lost in my thoughts at a train station or an airport, I, too, think of leaving. Like Nora and others, I dream of new horizons.”

Hijab-wearing Muslim women in particular feel acutely anti-religious discriminations. Recent proposals to prohibit the scarf in French universities prompted fear that observant Muslim women may not attend university without violating their religion. But there is more at stake here than religious freedom. Negative perceptions of veiled women affect the types of jobs they can get, and, as a result, their earnings and social standing as well. For example, Saima Ashraf, a 39-year old woman who left France for London, told the New York Times a few months ago: “I am a Muslim French woman. I live in London. As a Frenchwoman, I would never have achieved what I have in London while wearing the veil. I am a politician in local government, deputy leader of my borough, and I wear the scarf. If I were in France, forget about it.”

Amongst Muslims who are emigrating primarily for religious reasons, some are doing so mostly for “practical” reasons; other for more “ideological” reasons. The latter believe that it is their duty, as Muslims, to live in the land of Islam, regardless of their living conditions in France. (Some within the French Jewish community advance a very similar type of argument in favor of aliyah.) By contrast, more practically-minded individuals do not necessarily ascribe moral value to emigration, but their departure from France reflects the notion that French society is not accommodating their religious practices. Like many of their Jewish counterparts, many French Muslims believe that the current understanding of laïcité hinders their religious practices (such as observance of religious holidays and dietary restrictions, and the wearing of a distinctly religious garb) on a daily basis.

Schools, in particular, are particularly resistant to any form of Muslim religiosity: halal food is universally unavailable at French school cafeterias; female pupils are prohibited from wearing the hijab; and even outside of the classroom, Muslim mothers are often prevented from wearing their headscarf during school trips. There are also many obstacles to religious observance in the workplace, such as difficulties observing the Muslim prayers or taking time off for Muslim holidays.

In some ways, French Muslims face more obstacles to religious practice than French Jews. For example, there are many more private Jewish schools than Muslim ones. Therefore, in contradistinction with Jewish pupils, most Muslim students have no choice but to attend public school. Another significant difference between French Jews and Muslims is the fact that while the French Jewish community is institutionally quite strong and centralized, Muslims in France have struggled to successfully organize (partly due to their ethnic diversity), which has irremediably weakened their demands for religious tolerance.

Particularly attractive to the observant Muslim community of France is the United Kingdom, due to its geographical proximity to France and its reputation as a beacon of multiculturalism. Based on the blogs I have found online, French Muslims started migrating to the United Kingdom in the early 2000s—a phenomenon that seems to have accelerated in recent years. Several British cities, like Leicester and Birmingham, have become home to Salafi communities that observe a rigorist religious lifestyle, such as wearing the niqab (a head covering that conceals the face), a garment prohibited in the French public sphere; gender segregated pools, etc. The United Kingdom is an attractive destination for religiously-motivated Muslim émigrés due to its acceptance of conservative Muslim practices, but also because its Muslim community is more organized and unified than its French counterpart.

In recent years, several blogs have sprouted, providing advice to Muslims, particularly Muslim women, seeking to emigrate from France. Several blogs describe the UK as a religious El Dorado. For instance, on such a blog, Avenue des Soeurs, a French émigré contrasted her life in London with her previous life in France in strikingly uncritical terms: “It’s a real breath of air to live here, in a healthy climate where people are living together in harmony. This stands in such stark contrast with France that when I go there, I can’t wait to go back home and to leave this heinous and intolerant society. [In the UK] I have discovered polite, respectful, tolerant, welcoming people. By distancing myself from the country in which I was born and grew up, I realize that France always desired that I abandon my identity, my values, my beliefs, and adopt… its way of life and of thinking. The Anglo-Saxons have a different perspective: they value differences, and respect what you are; and everyone lives together in a non-judgmental environment.”

Immigration to the UK is facilitated by organizations like “MuslimMoves“, which helps rigorist French Muslims resettle in Leicester. The services it provides are exhaustive, stretching from finding housing and school, providing advice pertaining to insurance, social benefits, visas, and helping new business owners. “Muslim Moves” recommends emigration in order to “practice religion confidently, and without having to justify oneself; ensure that our children are educated in accordance with our Islamic values and without having to hide; and reconnect with a sense of comforting pride in belonging to our Community…”

A member of “Muslim Moves” hands a recent French émigré the key to his new house in the UK.

To return to the question we asked at the beginning of this blog post: To what extent is laïcité (French secularism) prompting members of religious minorities to leave France? There is no doubt that many Muslim and Jewish Frenchwomen and men are leaving France at least in part because they experience laïcité as an obstacle to their religious practices, and a lack of religious pluralism. Jewish and Muslim émigrés alike often describe the social and political climate in France as “anxiety-provoking.” Of course, emigration typically results from a multiplicity of factors, and it is undoubtedly the case that Jewish and Muslim emigration from France is caused by a mixture of religious, social and economic reasons, which deserve further scrutiny. My foray into this complex phenomenon has made me wonder: how many Jews and Muslims have left France in recent years? What ties do émigrés maintain with their home country; and how does the experience of being French abroad shape their identity and relationship to France? How frequent is return migration among these émigrés? What are the gender dynamics at play here? Also, are aliya and hijra really comparable? Finally, if the departure of Jews and Muslims from France were to increase, how would this impact the French Jewish and Muslim communities, and France in general? This is a crucial question, especially given a vast majority of émigrés in both communities seem to hail from the middle-class. While pondering all these questions, I am nevertheless certain of one thing: that France has much to lose by failing to recognize how its religious minorities are affected by a strict model of secularism —some of its vitality, diversity and brainpower.

Geraldine Gudefin is a 2016 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-residence and a doctoral candidate at Brandeis in the History Department.

French Jews and Muslims on the Move: Is Laïcité Prompting Emigration? Part I

By Geraldine Gudefin –

Editor’s Note: This blog is the second of three that will appear on the subject of laïcité (French secularism). The first was “Mister Prime Minister, Don’t Liberate Us”: Secularism and Muslim Women in France. –

In the early 20th century, France witnessed the exodus of 20,000 to 30,000 nuns and friars who had been prohibited by law, in 1904, from teaching. Some headed to neighboring countries; others went as far as China. Does this long-forgotten episode in French history have a contemporary parallel in the expatriation of French Jews and Muslims? To what extent is laïcité (French secularism) prompting members of religious minorities to leave France? When writing my last blog post for Fresh Ideas from HBI, I stumbled across several testimonies of French Muslims who had left France, or were contemplating emigration. As a French Jew, and therefore attuned to the phenomenon of contemporary Jewish emigration from France, I became interested in the topic of Muslim emigration, a little known phenomenon in France. Given the scarcity of news and scholarly research on this topic, my examination of Muslim emigration relies primarily on the French-language Muslim online press and blogosphere.

By now, most French people are familiar with the term “aliyah”: Jewish immigration to Israel. The attack on a Jewish grocery store in 2015, and the ensuing wave of Jewish emigration, resulted in multifold articles in the French press, linking aliyah to the sense of danger felt by Jews in France. Prime Minister Manuel Valls himself publicly acknowledged the emigration spike among French Jews when he declared publicly, in February, 2015: “My message to the Jews of France is the following: France is injured [by the attacks] and, like you, it does not want your departure… French Jews belong to France [“La place des Français juifs, c’est la France.”].”

Yet, anti-Semitism is far from the sole or even French Jews’ main reason for leaving their country. In 2016, Cnaan Liphshitz, a journalist for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, ascribed Jewish emigration from France in large part to Jews’ alienation from an adamantly secularist society increasingly intolerant of the religiously devout.” In Lipschitz’s words, “for religious Jews, France has become a less welcoming nation in recent years. Confronted by the struggle with radical Islam, the nation’s well-established policy of public secularism has grown even more stringent, with heated debates on pork-free menus in school cafeterias and heightened criticism over municipal funding for Jewish institutions.” For example, one of his interviewees, a man named Rudy Abecassis, explained that he abstained from wearing a yarmulke in the French public sphere, not out of fear, but rather due to his feeling that it would be perceived as “out of place, almost defiant.” For many Jews in France, societal pressures to keep the public sphere devoid of religious symbols and practices have been in direct conflict with their religious observance, thereby prompting a minority of them to settle elsewhere, not only in Israel, but also in the United Kingdom and North America.

French Muslims, too, are suffering from a strict reading of laïcité. And French Muslims, too, are leaving France in response to discrimination and anti-religious feelings. The exact number of Muslim expatriates is, to my knowledge, unknown. In stark contrast with the Jewish situation, Muslim emigration from France has received very little attention from the French press, with the exception of a few articles devoted to the phenomenon of “Hijra”, a religious term used to describe a Muslim’s duty to migrate to a land of Islam. Articles about Muslim devotees who have immigrated to Muslim countries, such as Morocco, feeds into the notion that French Muslims are religious fanatics. The diverging representations of Muslim emigration, on the one hand, and Jewish emigration, on the other hand, led Fateh Kimouche, a prominent French Muslim blogger who has been described by the French press as religiously “ultra-conservative”, to draw the following cartoon, published in al kanz in 2015:

On the left, the emigration of a Jewish family to Israel prompts an imaginary France to declare: “but no, wait… We are sorry!” On the right image, by contrast, a Muslim family on its way out of France is denounced as “suspect.” This visually powerful image conveys the notion that aliyah and hijra are the exact same phenomenon, yet eliciting absolutely opposite reactions from France. The accompanying text further draws on this difference: “In France, many Jews are afraid. They are right. Many Muslims are also afraid. They are right. But whereas the fears of the former are taken seriously, the fears of the latter are scorned by the artisans of the Muslim problem, (…) benevolent anti-Semites who are often more or less uninhibited Islamophobes. Islam and Judaism are in many ways similar. Yet, Muslims are harassed for practices which they intimately share with their cousins, while Jewish practices elicit no such response. What is problematic is not that the Jewish community is not being criticized, but rather that we lash out against Muslims who are observing identical practices.”  

This cartoon left me uneasy: while I sensed that these images could easily be used against French Jews, I also concurred with Kimouche that the French press treats Jewish and Muslim expatriation in opposite ways. Particularly problematic is the emphasis on religiously-driven emigration, which obscures the fact that a sizable portion of French Muslims are relocating out of France, not because of purely religious reasons, but rather due to the prevalence anti-Muslim discrimination. (Again, this contrasts starkly with reports on alyah, which unavoidably identify antisemitism as one, if not the main, reason for emigration).

French Muslim emigration is highly diverse, thus eluding gross characterizations. French Muslims are leaving their country for social, economic or religious reasons, often a mix of those. Notably, diverse segments of French Muslim society are on the move: students in search of a more open society; young professionals looking for an environment that will acknowledge their qualifications free of discrimination; devout families seeking to observe their religious lifestyle without obstacles, etc. French Muslims, then, are seeking a better future in a variety of countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, the Maghreb, particularly Morocco, according to an article in Al Huffington Post Maghreb and the Arabic Peninsula (United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar). Interestingly some of the cities they are drawn to are also places of immigration for French Jews—London and Montreal for example. In Canada, Montreal is the preferred city of French Muslims of North African origin due its Francophone culture and comparatively affordable cost of living, noted a blog in Muslim on the Road.

According to blogger Fateh Kimouche, “the question is no longer whether one should leave, but where to go: Great-Britain, Canada, Belgium, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Dubai, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia.” Writing towards the end of Nicholas Sarkozy’s presidency, in 2012, Kimouche claimed that the growing climate of “unbearable Islamophobia” under that government, had prompted many Muslims to reconsider their future outside of France. To demonstrate this, Kimouche had asked the readers of his blog to answer the following question: “Is the current climate of Islamophobia in France encouraging you to leave the country?” Thirty percent responded “No, but I think about it sometimes” (329 votes); 26 percent “Yes, I am planning to leave as possible” (285 votes); 23 percent “Yes, but I do not dare taking the leap” (245 votes) and 21 percent “No, I am intending to continue living in France” (227 votes). In sum, almost half of the 1,086 individuals who took the poll expressed a desire to leave France. These numbers are difficult to analyze given how little we know about the respondents; however, the very fact that this question figured on a French Muslim conservative website might give us some insights into the mood of at least a small portion of this community. Significantly, this poll and its accompanying article generated a new cycle of comments last year. These comments appeared four years after the article’s original publication, thereby suggesting that at least some Muslims started doing research about leaving France, presumably after the terrorist attacks of November, 2015. Daoud, from the northern town of Mulhouse wrote in March, 2016: “Life is going to become hell for us in France. Let’s be realistic: the “douce France” is over. To be proud of our beliefs or to hug the walls; to stand upright or to abandon our convictions: this is a choice that everyone will make according to one’s principles.” Oum Zakariya’s comments echoed those of Daoud: “I do not like France anymore, she who rejects me, who repels me and who always refers to my “Muslimness” (“islamité“). I am no longer a person, a citizen, a vital spark, a French woman, no, now I am a threat to security, to public order…”

Additional resource:

For more on the exodus of friars and nuns from France, see: Patrick Cabanel, “Le grand exil des congrégations enseignantes au début du XXe siècle. L’exemple des Jésuites,” Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France 81, n°206 (1995): 207- 217; Guy Laperriere, Les Congrégations religieuses. De la France au Québec, 1880-1914, Tome I – Premières bourrasques 1880-1900 ; tome II – Au plus fort de la tourmente 1901-1914 (Sainte-Foy: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1996, 1999).

Geraldine Gudefin is a 2016 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-residence and a doctoral candidate at Brandeis in the History Department.

 

Explore Jews and Gender with HBI’s Gilda Slifka Internship

By Amy Sessler Powell –

What do Jewish women comedians share in common with niddah, the Hebrew term describing a woman during menstruation? What does Klezmer music as a stage for women’s expression share with Jewish feminist underground comics from the 1970’s or artistic reinterpretations of Biblical women like Miriam and Leah?

They are all research topics chosen by HBI Gilda Slifka summer interns during the past three years. Other than that, their common thread is that they produce fresh ideas about Jews and gender worldwide, the mission of the HBI.

These research opportunities are available to a future class of interns. HBI is accepting applications through April 20, 2017 for next summer’s group. The paid, residential program combines an independent research project on Jews and gender with support for another scholar’s research. The program is supplemented by brown bag lunches where each scholar involved in the program meets with the group. Once per week, there is a trip or workshop with either Jewish groups in the greater Boston area including Mayyim Hayyim, a traditional mikveh reinvented to serve the needs of Jews today, Keshet, an organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, the Holocaust Memorial, Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. and more. Details for the undergraduate and graduate applications are detailed on HBI’s web site.

2015 Gilda Slifka interns visit Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA.

2016 Gilda Slifka Interns on the steps of Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I.

Ruth Fertig, one of last summer’s undergraduate interns and a Brandeis senior, says the Gilda Slifka internship gave her the opportunity to work on a significant project that was personally meaningful. “I was able to not only do academic work that pertained to my personal interests and what I am studying in school, but to begin interrogating my own personal experiences as a Jewish woman and what they meant for me and for those around me,” Fertig said.

HBI’s founding director Shulamit Reinharz describes the internship as “the complementary third piece,” to the winning combination of superb courses and rewarding personal relationships that college students deserve. It enables them to explore research and often leads to greater explorations as students move on to the next stages of their lives. For example, many HBI interns pursue graduate degrees at Brandeis and in other academic settings with their summer intern project serving as a springboard for future research interests.

Sarah Litvin, a 2005 HBI intern, described the experience working of working with gifted scholars and spending the summer exploring the Brandeis library at her own pace for her own project as “life-changing.”

“Not only did I learn how much I enjoyed researching women’s history, but the specific project that I began as an HBI summer intern became the topic of my undergraduate thesis and now, more than 10 years later, that research is central to my doctoral dissertation in U.S. History at the CUNY Graduate Center,” Litvin said.

Another former intern, Golan Moskowitz, now completing his Ph.D. at Brandeis, established a connection with HBI when he was a summer intern eight years ago. Since then, he has continued his relationship with HBI by giving a scholarly talk on his dissertation research last year, blogging for Fresh Ideas from HBI, receiving the HBI Student Prize for one his papers, serving on the Graduate Academic Advisory Council, and receiving an HBI Research Award for his doctoral research on “Wild, Outside, in the Night: Maurice Sendak, Queer American Jewishness, and the Child.”

It is an example of HBI’s tradition of nurturing young scholars. “I owe much of my academic and professional success to HBI for its offering of personal connections, moral and financial support, and opportunities for cultivating my voice and articulating my perspective within a community committed to Jewish gender studies,” Moskowitz said.

Sarah Snider, a graduate intern last summer who is completing MFA in creative writing at Notre Dame University said, “I had such a wonderful experience at HBI and everyone was so kind and supportive. I really feel like I left with great mentors and role models, and I loved meeting and forming relationships with like-minded peers,” said Snider.

In addition to the experience in the moment, she has stayed in touch with the HBI staff, professors, and former interns since last summer for an overall “wonderful and enriching expansion to my personal community of Jewish feminists.”

For more information on the HBI Gilda Slifka Internship or to apply, visit our website or contact Debby Olins, HBI Academic program manager.

Amy Sessler Powell is HBI’s director of communications.

Not My Feminism

By Ruth Nemzoff and Janet Freedman –

Editor’s note: An op-ed in the New York Times by Emily Shire, Bustle politics editor, Does Feminism Have Room for Zionists and a response in the Nation by Palestinian-American feminist activist Linda Sarsour, Can You Be a Zionist Feminist? Linda Sarsour Says No prompted a national dialogue on the subject. Ruth Nemzoff and Janet Freedman share new views on the subject. – 

Whoa! Who decided that feminism and anti-Zionism should be conjoined and expressed through actions such as support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement?

We, two feminists, offer another perspective.

Both of us have​ ​years of experience as successful feminist organizers.​ We resist the notion that it is necessary to declare oneself anti-Zionist to be pro-Palestinian. We do not support that idea any more than we believe that the Black Lives Matter movement has no room for police safety as some detractors charge. We believe feminism requires us not to deprecate, but to analyze.

Campaigns against Israeli policies such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions forbid intellectual exchanges, and this is antithetical to feminism. BDS directs feminist energy away from finding ways to a peaceful solution that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. It oversimplifies, using terms such as decolonization and anti-imperialism and other tropes, usually without definition or explanation, and often distorts actual history. BDS resolutions are equated with a pledge of solidarity with Palestine, while placing those who oppose that strategy in the enemy camp, assumed to be opposed to justice and even made the objects of scorn and vitriol.

If the intent is to bring Israel to negotiations for peace, BDS is counterproductive. The current Israeli government, unlike previous coalitions, cites BDS to support positions and policies that will not promote peace. It has been joined by many on the political right within the U.S. The Palestinians, too, hold fast to positions and policies inimical to peace. Our response to feminists is to resist polarization and to redouble efforts that have made progress toward increasing communication and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, including camps, high tech programs, and joint economic initiatives and to encourage further such efforts. We seek partners in these endeavors within the Jewish and Arab world.

Yet some pro-Palestinian activists within the feminist movement are pushing in the opposite direction, going even beyond BDS to an advocacy of “anti-normalization,” an end to all interactions with Israel. This raises fears that peace is not the real aim of the anti-Zionists within progressive movements. Do they seek to widen divisions to justify the destruction of Israel? Do feminists wish to ally themselves with that goal?

Feminist activism should be based on continual study, reflection and dialogue. Discussions about Israel/Palestine demand and deserve a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the long and complex historical, familial, religious, spiritual and political sources of the present conflict. They demand and deserve a sustained commitment to a peaceful resolution, no matter how distant and difficult that now seems. That longed-for resolution can be realized only through engagement with those with whom one disagrees.

It is easy to feel despair and fear when a way toward peace seems obscure, but yielding to the valorification of one “side” (whichever “side” you claim to be on) and the demonization of the “other” is not an expression of feminism.

Ruth Nemzoff, Ph.D, is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University and author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and of Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family. She is the Former Assistant Minority Leader, New Hampshire House of Representatives.

 

Dr. Janet Freedman is a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the author of Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness Raising and Small Group Practice (McFarland, 2014)

Reprinted with permission from the Huffington Post

Decolonizing Modernity and the Celebration of Tradition: Exploring Spaces of Feminine Perseverance in Algeria

By Michelle Mann –

I arrived in the square, gingerly eating my pre-packaged ice cream cone and feeling exposed as I walked past the bored shop owners with my light tunic, blond hair and loose cropped pants. In Algeria, a country with strict visa requirements and very few tourists, foreigners are never anonymous, especially not if they are walking in the historic neighborhood streets between Rue Didouche, Moustapha Pacha hospital, and the Algiers train station on a quiet Friday after prayer time.

Woman in haik walking past the historic Sidi Ramdane Mosque, Algiers Casbah

Young girl sitting on the steps of the Ali la Pointe Memorial, Algiers Casbah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tired of acting like I knew where I was going when I didn’t, I quietly took a seat among a group of heavily veiled women sitting together in the Meissonnier square. “Salamu alaykum,” I said with a nod. “El jau skhana el youm, n’est ce pas?” ( “It is very hot today, don’t you think?”) After a few minutes of skeptical stares and giggles from the women, one elderly and frail-looking woman, her face daintily covered with the traditional Algerian haik, began to speak to me in perfect and eloquent French. She grabbed my hand with surprising strength and explained that she was going to adopt me for the afternoon, since it was terribly sad and not entirely proper for me to be all alone in the streets on the holy day of rest.

Zoubida, I learned, was nearing her 87th birthday. A lifelong resident of Algiers, she knew every street, every building, and recalled decades of history with astonishing clarity. For hours we sat in her favorite spot under the shade of the hospital as she told me about her life – how her father had fought in the French army during the First World War, how she had been called a dog by a French nurse and refused treatment at that very hospital as a child, how she had lived in the Casbah during the fight for independence, how she had survived the terrorist attacks and military reprisals that had occurred during the Algerian Civil war of the 1990’s. Now, she told me proudly, she lived right next to the hospital, and could get free treatment whenever she needed it. “I don’t understand why the young people want to leave,” she mused, “after we fought so hard to give them all of this. What more can they possibly want?”

Sharing the news of the day, Algiers Casbah

Algeria is a beautiful land of palpable paradox: full of hope and disillusionment, solidarity and factionalism, where the weight of the past both forges an intensely strong sense of national purpose, and lays heavily upon the possibilities of the future. As a Ph.D student who had spent several years trying to find Algerian voices hidden in the punctual language and unrelenting pragmatism of the French colonial archives, I was overwhelmed, and humbled, by the forthrightness and willingness of Algerians – particularly Algerian women – to share their own experiences and stories.

Zoubida’s hospitality and candor inspired me to spend the rest of my two-month research trip listening to and learning from the women of Algiers. I talked for hours with the housekeepers at my residence, I visited the female keepers of the saintly shrines of Algiers and Oran, and sat with the pious women of the new Great Mosque in Oran. I chatted with young mothers in the hammams, admired the skill and craftsmanship of products made by rural women on display at officially sponsored cultural festivals, and cried with the other guests at the wedding of Zoubida’s niece each time she stepped out of her bridal chamber in a different, stunningly beautiful, handcrafted gown.

Wedding fashion, Constantinois style

Wedding fashion, Constantinois style

 

 

 

 

 

 

I discovered what many in Algeria already know – that Algerian women constitute a major source of their nation’s cultural strength. During the colonial era, women played a significant role in anti-colonial resistance by preserving and transmitting cultural practices seen as ‘authentic’ to Algerian identity. During the Algerian War of Independence, women were active participants who carried weapons, placed bombs, transmitted messages, hid materials and even fought in combat. In addition to hardship and the loss of loved ones many suffered torture, sexual abuse or displacement. In the decades following Algerian independence, the country has struggled to define the role and status of women, as part of a larger struggle between religious and secular visions of the country’s postcolonial identity.

The ongoing discourse about Islam’s place in Algerian society is rooted in the nation’s complex colonial past. Algerian society was, and still is, deeply marked by the influence of French culture and language, a reality which sits uncomfortably alongside a deep bitterness as part of the legacy of the long history of French colonial violence. Many young adults, who lived through the civil war but not the war of independence, seem to feel both pride and muted frustration at what they see as the unfulfilled potential of their country. This young generation of Algerian women and men have ambition and drive to undertake new projects, to help their country grow and progress, but feel blocked by a lack of agreement about what direction that progress should take.

This tension is nowhere more apparent than in the question of women’s place and status in Algerian society, which has long been contested. Many Algerian women are extremely proud of their identity as Muslims, which is deeply tied to their identity as Algerians. Algerian cultural emphasis on wifehood and motherhood allows women with these titles to have power in their families and in their communities. However, many women are also frustrated with what they see as unequal limitations on women’s dress, freedoms, and legal rights. In their interpretation, the war of independence initiated a dual struggle which is not yet completed: to free their country, and to free themselves, a sentiment richly conveyed in the literature of Assia Djebar. This struggle, which does not fit neatly into the binaries we associate with secular feminism in the industrialized West, continues to this day – on the margins of public discourse, but ever present.

From the perspective of the Algerian government, the interrelated questions of Islam, secularism, and women’s rights remains extremely delicate. The Algerian Constitution is based upon a commitment to equality, but Algerian social and cultural authenticity are also bound up in a commitment to Islamic values.

In this context, cultural celebration provides a good middle ground, a culturally authentic, inclusive and relatively uncontentious outlet, a space for celebrating women’s roles in Algerian society in a way which brings women into the public sphere without affronting the moral sensibilities of more conservative members of society. This emphasis is evidenced in the government’s sponsorship of a wide range of female-dominated cultural celebratory events: from storytelling festivals in Kabylie, to catered receptions for female artisans, to a major month-long summer carnival (Dar -Djaza’ir) that highlights the dress and dance of a different region each night. These efforts to celebrate feminine traditions of cultural perseverance, I believe, show the resiliency and strength of living cultural tradition in Algeria, and constitute an essential means for the decolonizing of modernity through an emphasis on tradition as living, evolving practice.

Kabyle grandmother with twins

Kabyle pottery on display at the Journée de la Femme Africaine sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our upcoming conference, Women as Agents of Change? Fresh Perspectives on Gender & Religion, we will see that this is a universal as well as particular story. Women of all faiths – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, secular – are seeking to find new ways of reconciling cultural traditions and identity with a desire for autonomy and equality. Each of our panelists will explore how women across time and space have employed similar techniques: negotiating spaces of freedom between conflicting systems, and celebrating tradition as a means of pressing for change. Join us for what will assuredly be a stimulating discussion of the many ways that women are negotiating spaces of liberty and perseverance between tradition and modernity.

Michelle Mann recently received her PhD in History from Brandeis University, and is currently teaching for the Brandeis Writing Program and the Brandeis Summer School. Her work analyzes the history and evolution of modern European-Muslim relations in the Western Mediterranean.

 

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Special Event:

Women as Agents of Change? Fresh Perspectives on Gender & Religion, co-sponsored by the the HBI and the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.  was on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Speakers included Brandeis University doctoral candidates April French on Baptist and Pentecostal women in Siberia during the Soviet era, Natalie Cornett on 19th century Polish women’s activists, Michelle Mann on women in Algerian society and HBI 2016 SIR Geraldine Gudefin on Jewish women in early 20th century U.S., and was moderated by Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, associate director of HBI. 

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