|AUTHOR:||RITA A. FAULKNER|
|TITLE:||Assia Djebar, Frantz Fanon, Women, Veils, and Land|
|SOURCE:||World Literature Today v70 p847-55 Aut '96|
magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is
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Frantz Fanon uses the image of the unveiling of Algeria in A Dying Colonialism in drawing a connection between the land, the nation, women, and their bodies. Assia Djebar twists that image in her story "Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement" and in the "Postface" to the collection of the same name. Djebar uses the space of the city of Algiers rather than that of the whole nation. Twenty years after Fanon's polemic, Djebar examines the place of women in Algeria under the patriarchal nationalists, finding women's bodies and minds imprisoned by physical walls and mental veils. In a different kind of war, through her discourse, she seeks to contribute to the liberation of Algerian women, their gaze, and the voices which emanate from their material bodies.
Fanon's project included the liberation of women, within the nationalist project of Algerian liberation. However, he also makes use of the ancient metaphor equating land with women and women with land which can be found in texts ranging from the Koran (Surah II, verse 223: "Your women are a tilth for you [to cultivate] so go to your tilth as ye will"), to ancient Western, to modern Arabic literature. That this metaphorical relationship between land and women is shared in both the French and Algerian psyches is argued by Winfred Woodhull in Transfigurations of the Maghreb: Feminism, Decolonization, and Literatures: "The cultural record makes clear that women embody Algeria not only for Algerians in the days since independence, but also for the French colonizers.... In the colonialist fantasy, to possess Algeria's women is to possess Algeria" (16). This cultural fantasy extends, she maintains, even to French intellectuals, who, "like their military and administrative compatriots, make of Algerian women key symbols of the colony's cultural identity" (19). Algerian women were "at once the emblem of the colony's refusal to receive France's 'emancipatory seed' and the gateway to penetration" (19). Thus, not only was Algeria imagined as a woman to be possessed, but possessing (conquering, penetrating) an Algerian woman was a step toward possessing Algeria. As Fanon's title "Algeria Unveiled" indicates, this equating of land and woman is especially focused on the veiled woman. Woodhull concurs in her analysis of French colonial fantasy: "Whether the imagined contact between races or peoples involves a perilous siege or easy pleasure, a key point of contact, where Algeria is concerned, is the veiled or secluded woman" (20).
Fanon outlined the resistance by the colonized Algerian males (in collusion with Algerian women) to a purported colonial plot to defeat the Algerian nation by unveiling its women. In this work Algeria is depicted as a veiled woman, threatened with unveiling, which is tantamount to rape. In the collective psychology, according to Fanon, this leads to Algerian/male dishonor due to colonial domination either of the land or of the nation.
Fanon, a Martinican, Marxist, existentialist, and FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) supporter, celebrates in A Dying Colonialism the liberation and newfound power he claims Algerian women have fought for and won through their participation in the Algerian Revolution (as bomb carriers, for example). At the time of writing, year five of the revolution (1959), Fanon believed the newly won position of respect and apparent equality held by the female combatants (as described and, presumably, perceived by him) was permanent, an augury of the future "modern," socialist, revolutionary Algeria. Assia Djebar, eleven year his junior, was twenty-three in 1959, and in fact worked at approximately that time as a writer under Fanon, the then editor of the revolutionary newspaper El-Moujahid (Zimra, 190). She would undoubtedly have been familiar with Fanon's ideas, and in fact may have influenced them, for she could well have been an informant regarding the rare female students he describes who grew up not wearing the veil (Fanon, 39). I don't think there is any doubt that Djebar would have been familiar with Fanon's widely read monograph, A Dying Colonialism (orig. L'an cinq de la Ré:volution Algé:rienne, 1959). Djebar's collection of short stories Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (orig. Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, 1980) answers Fanon (1925-61), who did not live to witness the condition of Algerian women in postrevolutionary Algeria. Djebar has lived through this period and, twenty years after her collaboration with Fanon, takes stock of the place of women in the new society in her fictional and essay accounts, revealing the limitations but most especially the richness of the women's oral tradition, cutting through both traditional myths eulogizing the role of mothers and modern myths of the new woman standing equal to men. She maintains that, in this new role (by no means generalized to all Algerian women), women have often merely exchanged one autism for another (Djebar, WA, 148).
Fanon, in contrast, from an earlier moment in history, extols the virtues of the revolution and its positive consequences for women. In the following excerpt Fanon outlines, from his outsider (non-Muslim, non-Algerian) / insider (FLN militant) view, the ideological struggle over Algerian women's dress (their bodies, hearts, minds) in the "discourse of the veil."
We shall see that this veil, one of the elements of the
traditional Algerian garb, was to become the bone of
contention in a grandiose battle, on account of which
the occupation forces were to mobilize their most pow-
erful and most varied resources, and in the course of
which the colonized were to display a surprising force
of inertia. Taken as a whole, colonial society, with its
values, its areas of strength, and its philosophy, reacts
to the veil in a rather homogeneous way. The decisive
battle was launched before 1954, more precisely during
the early 1930's. The officials of the French adminis-
tration in Algeria, committed to destroying the people's
originality, and under instructions to bring about the
disintegration, at whatever cost, of forms of existence
likely to evoke a national reality directly or indirectly,
were to concentrate their efforts on the wearing of the
veil, which was looked upon at this juncture as a sym-
bol of the status of the Algerian woman. (Fanon,
has established the wearing of the veil as symbolic in the colonial
struggle and the perceived status of the Algerian woman as a field of
battle. He paraphrases the political doctrine of the colonial
administration as follows: "If we want to destroy the structure of
Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all
conquer the women; we must go and find them
behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the
men keep them out of sight" (37-38). The contention is that the French
wished to gain control of women's thinking
about the veil and thus in a sense gain control of their bodies. This
control of their bodies, which was at least in certain aspects the
prerogative of Algerian men, of fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons,
was to be lost to the Algerians and, according to Fanon, was believed
would lead to an end to the country's resistance to the colonization, a
defeat. (It must be granted that Fanon, even in a nongendered context,
considers the occupation of land tantamount to "occupation" of its
inhabitants: "There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand,
and independence of persons on the other.... Under these conditions,
the individual's breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing"
The struggle nevertheless is over penetrating women's minds in order to uncover their bodies. In baring women's bodies, Fanon surmises, perhaps due to discourses alluded to above in French and in Arabic (a language which he would not have understood), that women would be symbolically raped because they would be gaping open to a ravishing conqueror: "Every rejected veil disclosed to the eyes of the colonialists horizons until then forbidden, and revealed to them, piece by piece, the flesh of Algeria laid bare.... Every veil that fell, every body that became liberated from the traditional embrace of the ha"ik, every face that offered itself to the bold and impatient glance of the occupier, was a negative expression of the fact that Algeria was beginning to deny herself and was accepting the rape of the colonizer" (42). Thus, women who do not wear veils are equated to a ravaged and colonized country. In fact, these particular women are not raped. It is the country with which they are confused which is said to be raped.
Fanon uses what in his paraphrase of a work by Sartre is a rather vague term, "an aura of rape." Sartre employed this phrase in reference to Jewish women and the unconscious, presumably a "collective unconscious." Fanon, a practicing psychiatrist, takes it up in reference to either Algeria or Algerian women, or both. Fanon's reference is as follows:
Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Ré:flections sur la Question
Juive, has shown that on the level of the unconscious,
the Jewish woman almost always has an aura of rape
The history of the French conquest in Algeria, in-
cluding the overrunning of villages by the troops, the
confiscation of property and the raping of women, the
pillaging of a country, has contributed to the birth and
the crystallization of the same dynamic image. (45)
Fanon registers this cultural confusion of the "rape" of the country and the rape of its women, and he himself contributes to the continuance of the interpenetration/confusion of the two terms.
As a practicing psychiatrist, Fanon studied the dreams of both the colonized and the colonizers, and I suspect he was interested in delimiting some of the parameters of the "collective unconscious." In his analysis of the European men's dreams he makes a direct link between personal relations with individual women and the relations of one group, the colonizers, with the other group, the colonized: "Whenever, in dreams having an erotic content, a European meets an Algerian woman, the specific features of his relations with the colonized society manifest themselves.... With an Algerian woman, there is no progressive conquest, no mutual revelation. Straight off, with the maximum of violence, there is possession, rape, near-murder. The act assumes a para-neurotic brutality and sadism, even in a normal European" (45-46).
Fanon infers this conclusion from his dream data: "Thus the rape of the Algerian woman in the dream of a European is always preceded by a rending of the veil. We here witness a double deflowering" (45). Do we? Or is Fanon himself contributing to this sexualized discourse of the veil? While so-called colonial "rape" is confused with literal rape, unveiling is equated with rape. If indeed this description of the interaction of the "collective colonial unconsciousness" (Algerian and French) is accurate, the resulting digging in of the heels by Algerian men in reaction is precisely what Assia Djebar is battling. In fact, this "digging in" is precisely what Fanon had already detailed.
We have seen that on the level of individuals the
colonial strategy of destructuring Algerian society very
quickly came to assign a prominent place to the Alge-
rian woman. The colonialist's relentlessness, his meth-
ods of struggle were bound to give rise to reactionary
forms of behavior on the part of the colonized. In the
face of the violence of the occupier, the colonized
found himself defining a principled position with re-
spect to a formerly inert element of the native cultural
configuration. It was the colonialist's frenzy to unveil
the Algerian woman, it was his gamble on winning the
battle of the veil at whatever cost, that were to provoke
the native's bristling resistance. (46-47)
the one hand, Fanon allows that the Algerian male response is
reactionary, but at the same time he puts the onus of responsibility on
the colonialists and finds the end result, "bristling resistance," a
necessary antithesis in the Marxist struggle, which he outlines as
Fanon concludes that a woman's wearing of the veil is an indication of her patriotism or dedication to the struggle. He argues that the wearing of the veil by the female fighters was instrumental. At one point in the struggle it was removed so that Algerian women could carry unsuspected guns and bombs inhandbags and baskets. They returned to traditional dress when strategy dictated they carry larger arms. Yet for fighters or not, he claims, "The attitude of a given Algerian woman with respect to the veil will be constantly related to her overall attitude with respect to the foreign occupation" (47). A woman, then, may not hold an opinion on the veil, or an attitude toward her body (an opinion that overrides her commitment to the national struggle) which is at variance with that of the resistance--which Fanon states did not have an official policy on the veil (47). Fanon's generalization is a result of his dialectical thinking, which posits the wearing of the veil as a resistance to French cultural hegemony, just as he viewed the Negritude movement as a reaction to Western Manichean racism (47).
Fanon tries to get inside the mind of the young Algerian woman, but perhaps he projects some of the colonized male's views.
The Algerian woman, the young Algerian woman--ex-
cept for a very few students (who, besides, never have
the same ease as their European counterparts)--must
overcome a multiplicity of inner resistances, of subjec-
tively organized fears, of emotions. She must at the
same time confront the essentially hostile world of the
occupier and the mobilized, vigilant, and efficient po-
lice forces. Each time she ventures into the European
city [as a bomb carrier], the Algerian woman must
achieve a victory over herself, over her childish fears.
She must consider the image of the occupier lodged
somewhere in her mind and in her body, remodel it,
initiate the essential work of eroding it, make it inessen-
tial, remove something of the shame that is attached to
it, devalidate it. (52)
the shame attached to rape in this patriarchal society (I am not
referring to shame on the part of the criminal rapist) is confused with
a colonizing of the mind which cannot be separated from the body. If
shame is felt because a person is a colonial subject, it should not be
lightly transformed into the shame women are
made to feel as victims of rape. Perhaps this catachresis is a result
of men feeling feminized in the face of colonial domination. Djebar's
work continues Fanon's efforts to depenetrate--to unfuck--to decolonize
the mind, but it contributes as well toward a depatriarchalization of
the female mind and body, another kind of territorial invasion and
appropriation of resources. For, twenty years later, the Algerian woman
was still not at ease in the streets, and the shame she felt attached
to the mobility and exposure of her body was not due merely to the
colonial "penetration," which had long since withdrawn.
Djebar corroborates twenty years later the relationship between the veil, the body, and self-image which Fanon details in describing what he calls "the new dialectic of the body and of the world" (59) for the revolutionary woman. For comparative purposes, here is Fanon on the subject, followed by Djebar's 1979 explanation of the experience of the casting off of the veil. First, Fanon:
The veil protects, reassures, isolates.... Without the
veil she [the recently unveiled woman] has an impres-
sion of her body being cut up into bits, put adrift; the
limbs seem to lengthen indefinitely.... The unveiled
body seems to escape, to dissolve. She has an impres-
sion of being improperly dressed, even of being naked.
She experiences a sense of incompleteness with great
intensity. She has the anxious feeling that something is
unfinished, and along with this a frightful sensation of
disintegrating. The absence of the veil distorts the Al-
gerian woman's corporal pattern. She quickly has to in-
vent new dimensions for her body, new means of mus-
cular control. She has to create for herself an attitude of
unveiled-woman-outside. She must overcome all timid-
ity, all awkwardness (for she must pass for a Euro-
pean), and at the same time be careful not to overdo it,
not to attract notice to herself. The Algerian woman
who walks stark naked into the European city relearns
her body, re-establishes it in a totally revolutionary
fashion. (Fanon, 59)
formerly veiled woman experiences the veil as holding her body in a
defined space. In addition, she equates the part with the whole, the
veil with her clothes. Without the veil, she feels not only naked but
not whole. She senses no lines of demarcation between herself and her
environment, the exterior world beyond her body. This sense of
intermingling with the outside world is not a positive experience and
is a source of anxiety. Yet, as Fanon is writing about revolutionary
transformations, his statement that she "re-establishes her body in a
totally revolutionary fashion" is, for him, I believe, a positive
valuation of unveiling. The Algerian woman is in the process of being
"repatterned" from feudal serf to the woman of the socialist future.
Djebar also affirms the newly unveiled woman's sense of her nudity, and her anxiety in response to it. Accustomed to perceiving herself in need of male protectors, she views her clothing as protection against the gaze of marauding males not within the intimate circle of family and marriage.
The most visible evolution of Arabic [sic] women, at
least in the cities, has therefore been the casting off of
the veil. Many a woman, often after an adolescence or
her entire youth spent cloistered, has concretely lived
the experience of the unveiling.
The body moves forward out of the house and is, for
the first time, felt as being "exposed" to every look: the
gait becomes stiff, the step hasty, the facial expression
Colloquial Arabic describes the experience in a sig-
nificant way: "I no longer go out protected (that is to
say, veiled, covered up)" the woman who casts off her
sheet will say, "I go out undressed, or even denuded."
The veil that shielded her from the looks of strangers is
in fact experienced as a "piece of clothing in itself," and
to no longer have it means to be totally exposed. (WA,
in fact, will go on to make the point that when the Algerian exposes
her eyes and mouth to the world, she is perceived by males as exposing
other orifices, and therefore as symbolically naked, dishonoring the
male whose duty it is to "protect" her (138). Whereas in 1959,
according to Fanon, the danger is perceived as the woman's being seen
by the colonizer and Algerian men are virtually unaware of the veiled
woman, Djebar's postface essays in Women of Algiers reveal a different perception in 1979. Again, I present these two views back to back.
This woman who sees without being seen frustrates
the colonizer. There is no reciprocity. She does not
yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer her-
self. The Algerian man has an attitude toward the Al-
gerian woman which is on the whole clear. He does not
see her. There is even a permanent intention not to
perceive the feminine profile, not to pay attention to
women. (Fanon, 44)
Thus, there is another eye there, the female gaze.
But that liberated eye, which could become the sign of
a conquest toward the light shared by other people,
outside of the enclosure, is now in turn perceived as a
threat; and the vicious circle closes itself back up again.
Yesterday, the master made his authority felt in the
closed, feminine spaces through the single presence of
his gaze alone, annihilating those of other people. In
turn, the feminine eye when it moves around is now, it
seems, feared by the men immobilized in the Moorish
café:s of today's medinas, while the white phantom, unreal
but enigmatic, passes through. (Djebar, WA, 138)
"woman who sees without being seen" arouses fear in the now passive
Algerian male caught by the eye of a mobile Algerian woman in a public
place. The "unreal and enigmatic" woman is no longer the Orient or its
unveiled women in a romantic painting, but the veiled postrevolutionary Algerian woman. Djebar stages here an unexpected reversal in her attempt to analyze and turn around the situation of Algerian women through her manipulation of the discourse. If women are feared, they at least have some power through their gaze, even if the reaction will be to repress the feared behavior. Djebar, in her analysis, reveals that power.
In the above quotation Djebar links light with the outside, sunlight with women's liberation. Fanon, on the other hand, has made the point that women's seclusion in the home has nothing to do with an attempt to avoid the sun. He also argues that women themselves chose this interior existence as a means of national struggle.
The Algerian woman's ardent love of the home is
not a limitation imposed by the universe. It is not ha-
tred of the sun or the streets or spectacles. It is not a
flight from the world.
... The Algerian woman, in imposing such a restric-
tion [the veil, seclusion] on herself, in choosing a form
of existence limited in scope, was deepening her con-
sciousness of struggle and preparing for combat.
... All alone, the woman, by means of conscious
techniques, presided over the setting up of the system.
Although this interpretation proclaims women's
agency, as well as a gender-united front, Fanon is quick to point out
that there is an aspect of sclerosis in tradition (66). Fanon, however,
wants to believe that in the process of the revolution all imbalances
will be righted and the nation, already equated with its female
population, will be liberated, as will its women
(99, 100). Fanon is optimistic that through the revolutionary process
the question of the veil will fall by the wayside: "We are able to
affirm even now that when Algeria has gained her independence such
questions will not be raised" (47-48). Djebar's work points out that all has not been righted for women, that the injustices suffered by women
in Algerian patriarchal society have not been eliminated through the
revolutionary struggle by 1979, and that in some instances what was
positive about the past--going back beyond the resistance to the
colonizer and the Algerian woman's Marxist "entry into history" (Fanon,
107)--has been or is in the process of being lost.
Juliette Minces, in her article "Women in Algeria," takes a less positive view of women's role in the French-Algerian War than Fanon and gives credence to Djebar's "fictional" claims about the succeeding years. She contends that women were utilized in the war, albeit willingly, as auxiliaries and adjuncts. She maintains that relatively few women entered the battle on their own initiative (162). Moreover, she views women's role as essentially that of replacements, even as "sincere" and courageous bomb carriers: "That is, it was chiefly in the capacity of wife, sister, or daughter of this or that man that they became involved, especially among the lower classes" (163).
As regards the position of women in Algeria after the war, Minces claims that there has been scarcely any change in the role and status of women: "No profound campaign of liberation had been undertaken among women, much less among men" (166). The wearing of the veil was still prevalent, as "those who refused to wear the veil or be confined, those who wished to find salaried work, unless they belonged to the nascent administrative bourgeoisie, were rapidly labeled and often rejected" (168). Although women do have the political right to vote, the family law is restrictive, and the Algerian woman is still considered a minor in need of permanent guardianship (Minces, 168-69). Minces concludes as regards an Algerian feminist movement:
Women are superfluous as producers [partially due to
the high rate of male unemployment] and neglected as
citizens, arousing only defiance or irritation when they
try to make themselves heard. They are too little con-
scious of themselves as a group. It is thus improbable
that an effective feminist movement can be born in the
near future. (170)
In Assia Djebar's short story "Women of Algiers
in Their Apartment" the traditional structure of colonial national
allegory is subverted to create a reconfigured female body with a voice
and a subject's gaze. As in the previous model, as outlined by Fanon,
woman's body is confused with the land and the country. In Djebar's fictional text, set in the postwar period, the city is at first depicted as a space which encloses women
behind walls and balcony bars, like the prisons which enclosed the
freedom fighters during the revolution. One oppressor has been ousted,
but another remains; the Algerian patriarchy has not yet been
overthrown. In the end the city is depicted as an unveiled woman,
revealing herself without complexes, open to the world, an open port
baring her orifices without shame in the light of day--one model for an
ideal liberated Algerian woman at ease with and in control of her own
body. A repeated motif in the story, and in the collection of the same
name, is the veil, which covers the female body and, according to Djebar, muffles the voice of the woman inside (2). Women
are contained in enclosed spaces behind veils, physical walls and
mental walls, in houses with barred windows like those of a prison. The
female body as object of the male gaze must be covered. Its uncovered
orifices, starting with the mouth and eyes, are a threat to male honor
and result in female shame (awra). To take the subject position as the
one who gazes, to see outside, is to revolt, to assert a certain power.
Djebar links speaking and looking to the
claiming of public space by the removal of the veil or other barriers,
mental or physical. This claiming of a space and a language in which to
speak is a second revolution undermining male patriarchal hegemony. Djebar translates women's
colloquial Arabic, which is muffled by the dominant discourse of modern
standard Arabic imposed by the revolutionary FLN (a male patriarchy),
into the colonizer's language, French, a process which brings this women's discourse to light in written form. Women are to be seen and heard. Liberation, as described by the character Sarah, begins with women seeing and hearing one another (64), to effect an inner liberation and empowerment.
Djebar, in view of these circumstances of women's lives in the postwar period, plays with many of the themes of Fanon's discourse and the realities of the French-Algerian War. A female war victim of "medical torture" is transformed from a victim to a powerful healer; the French torture doctor is transformed into a highly specialized "native" physician, and finally, that physician is replaced by a "native" woman doctor. A dream of torture taking place in an operating room evolves into a "real-life" failed operation performed by the Algerian doctor, Ali, an operation ending in the death of an alcoholic nationalist leader. This dream of medical torture is Ali's, about his wife Sarah, who was a bomb carrier for the FLN and a torture victim. The scene in the "operating" room is overlaid with a scene of a burning village (douar), site of a French commando raid, including the bleating of a goat about to be sacrificed and the voices of children. Thus, female victimization is linked to national victimization, a violence done to the land. Both the nurses and the patient/victim wear "masks," although the victim's "mask" is alternately described as a blindfold or a white bandage. A torture machine is about to be applied, and the victim, at first associated with the goat, is likened to a child: "Again a child whimpers nearby, or could it be Sarah blindfolded, holes where eyes should be" (6). Similar images are evoked in the scene at the death of the cirrhosis patient.
In the operating room, a blindfolded head, a profile of
stone overturned. The patient has died on the operat-
ing table. The anesthesiologist redoubles his efforts for
a few more minutes. The oxygenation machine rum-
bles. Hollow silence among the six or seven white
masks. Gestures of gloves in an unreal burst of speed.
Irrevocably a corpse. (WA, 20)
patient wears a blindfold, the medical corps wear masks. The torture
machine is replaced by a life-giving oxygenation machine, but no life
can be breathed into the decadent FLN leader by the hightech male
Algerian doctor who is having difficulties in communicating with his
wife and son.
The dream of torture finally evolves into the successful treatment of a victim of the patriarchy (a structure upheld by the nationalists) who was not liberated by the war. Due to family brutality as well as colonial brutality, she had ended up at Independence as a prostitute, later to do the backbreaking work of a water carrier in a hammam (public bath) for paltry remuneration and no security. This "Fatima" (colonial name for an Algerian woman) is operated on by Ali's colleague, an "equal," a woman physician whose veil/surgical mask has an instrumental medical function. The elderly Fatma, in her delirium, has rejected her mask/veil: "It is me--me?--It is me they have excluded, me whom they have barred ... Me whom they have caged in ... me inside the rocks of silence of the white veil" (WA, 39; italics in original). She refuses what she views as burial in the shroud of a veil, yet she still hallucinates under medication that the operating room is a torture chamber and the scalpels and knife blades might be instruments of torture rather than of healing (39). In the end, however, that masked woman who focuses fully upon her (43) is a healer and not a torturer, who removes her mask/veil when it is no longer functional and, tired from her effort, smiles broadly (46). The female victim of the first scene has thus been transformed in Djebar's discourse into an "operator" with healing powers. The confined space of Ali's nightmare, the prison/operating room, is turned into a series of positive images as that surgically masked woman saves the day.
Related to the motif of torture is that of the prison. Following the war, the return to the veil for Djebar is a kind of prison for women. The link is directly made by the ex-bomb-carrier Sarah, who says she was a voiceless prisoner: "A little like certain women of Algiers today, you see them going around outside without the ancestral veil, and yet, out of fear of the new and unexpected situations, they become entangled in other veils, invisible but very noticeable ones.... Me too: for years after Barberousse I was still carrying my own prison around inside me" (47-48). In addition, the architecture of the city (some of it modern) serves to imprison women. Women's bodies and voices are suppressed, either literally or psychologically. Women are, generally, not allowed to "circulate" freely within the city, living behind walls, balcony bars, and/or veils. In "Women of Algiers in Their Apartment" Djebar places special emphasis upon the effect of modern architecture on secluded women's lives. In the past, secluded women enjoyed the sun from their courtyards, they had the right to leave the house to go to the baths, and, in villages, they went to the fountain, to fetch water. With the advent of indoor plumbing and vast subsidized housing projects, women's lives became even more secluded, as the following excerpt from the women's conversation in the public bath indicates: "The unknown woman intervenes: 'In a socialist village (and she cites her references: a daily paper in the national language that her little boy of ten reads to her every day), peasant women have broken the faucets so they can go to the fountain every day! ... such ignorance!'" (32). The term socialist indicates a critique of this system which Fanon believed would bring both modernity and liberation. The woman who speaks of other women's ignorance is herself illiterate, at least in standard Arabic, which has been imposed from the top down by the pan-Arabists of the revolution. Like so many of the other women in the stories, she is dependent upon her son in this regard. (For those others, dependence is especially economic.)
Baya, a highly educated young woman, nevertheless defends the village women's "ignorance": "What wouldn't I break, inside of me or outside if need be, to get back with the others? To get back to the water that streams, that sings, that gets lost, that sets us all free, if only bit by bit" (32). The union with other women, the flowing, the intermingling through the intermediary of water is one thing lost in the new mixture of traditional and modern.
In the "Overture" to Women of Algiers Djebar speaks of translating the voices of women she has been listening to since 1958 from a nonstandard Arabic, a "women's language," into French. This language is placed in opposition to the standard Arabic of the revolutionary patriarchy. Djebar wishes to record this "underground" women's dialect and expose it to the light (WA, 1), because the language has taken the veil, has become muffled. Like the covered body, it is associated with darkness, the cave. Although it cannot be readily heard, its voices are defiant. One impediment to speech is the set of sexual taboos imposed on the female body and its sounds. Still, although women's bodies may be imprisoned (by governments, by patriarchal customs, by veils), women's minds are not incarcerated (2). Djebar questions nevertheless whether the modern woman who circulates in the streets is truly liberated, or whether, in speaking, she remains intimidated by the male voyeur, "the eye through the peephole" (2).
In contrast, the public bath is a place of communication between women. It is the traditional space outside the home where women meet. In keeping with Djebar's introduction (the "Overture"), this site where so many women's voices are heard is described as "the mystery of a universe of subterranean water" (29). The physical contact between the women seems maternal, sisterly, yet sensual. In fact, Djebar seems to identify her work of recovering women's voices with that of the old water carrier and masseuse, Fatma. In the French version, instead of calling herself a water dowser, as the English translation has it, Djebar asks herself how she might work as a sorceress to bring to life the voices suspended in the silences of yesterday's harem (the paraphrase/translation is my own). Fatma the masseuse is described in this way: "Under the light that came down in oblique rays from the skylight, her villager's face, aged before its time, was turning into the mask of an oriental sorceress" (WA, 30). That release of voice, even if melancholy, is revealed in the following passage:
The bather who was singing near the marble slab
continued her somber threnody.
"What is she singing?" Anne asked under her breath.
"It's just one word she keeps repeating.... A lament
she's modulating," Sonia said after a minute. "She's
"It's more that she's consoling herself," Baya added.
"Many women can only go out to the baths...." (30)
are shown to be confined by the architecture of the city and the
customs of their society. One older type of architecture and nonmodern
custom is the public bath, which allows women to come together and to express their inner concerns through the intermediaries of massage and water.
Djebar's character Sarah wishes also to recover the voices of her ancestral past, the songs of women. She dreams of undertaking a documentary on the city and asks herself, "How to put an entire city to music" (16). Yet the source of this liberating excavation is her experience of the city as imprisoning: "Was she working on this ostensibly artistic project, a documentary of the city, in order to answer the interrogation that had begun to take possession of her these days? The city, its walls, its balconies, the shadow of empty prisons" (34). The project of bringing past voices "to light" (both Sarah's and Djebar's) is a liberating process, whether the walls be those of the prison or the harem.
Leila, a bomb carrier like Sarah, is drugged, not due to physical pain as is Fatma, but due to psychic pain. She is in a delirium. Her delirium is entitled "For [Toward?] a divan of the fire carriers." (In Arabic, a diwan is a collection of poetry as well as a divan, in the sense of a davenport. Leila is lying down.) Leila, the former bomb carrier and torture victim and probable rape victim, speaks out strongly against the physical and mental prisons of the city of Algiers. She herself has not been able to live up to the hopes for and the heroic image of the new woman Fanon depicts in his revolutionary optimism of the late fifties, a woman "bursting the bounds of the narrow world in which she had lived without responsibility, ... participating in the destruction of colonialism and in the birth of a new woman" (Fanon, 107).
Leila, in her diwan and in conversation with Sarah, asks about this new woman Fanon described to the world: "Where are you, you fire carriers, you my sisters, who should have liberated the city.... Barbed wire no longer obstructs the alleys, now it decorates windows, balconies, anything at all that opens onto an outside space" (WA, 44). The seclusion imposed by the Algerian patriarchy is like the state of siege once associated with the colonizer. The city is a prison for women. Leila complains too of the use made of the female body during the war for propaganda purposes: "In the streets they were taking pictures of your unclothed bodies, of your avenging arms in front of the tanks.... Your bodies, used only in parts, bit by little bit" (44). She reveals, in contrast to Fanon, a less than ideal attitude toward the female body and its expedient functions and uses for the FLN, even in the early days. Perhaps she is even calling into question the editorial decisions of FLN propagandists such as Frantz Fanon.
Sick in bed, Leila is still in prison. She is still reliving the war, for she cannot escape the war wounds her society does not help her to heal. In fact, the destruction of a war has not stopped for women in Algeria. She tells Sarah, "The bombs are still exploding ... but over twenty years: close to our eyes, for we no longer see the outside, we see only the obscene looks, the bombs explode but against our bellies and I am--she screamed--I am every woman's sterile belly in one!" (44). Women are still being damaged by the society's high valuation of women's reproductive capacities above all other qualities and capacities, making infertility a common reason for repudiation, leaving unmarried women to suffer due to their reduced status.
Leila even questions the entire premise of the war, that the enemy, the bombing victims, were radically other and separate, deserving of their fate. Like the Frenchwoman Anne, who sees herself connected to Algerian women, Leila feels a connection with her victims. She certainly questions whether the ideals for which Fanon claims the war was fought, human liberation both male and female, have been met (44).
As a prisoner and torture victim, a woman in Leila's situation would probably have been raped. Leila seems to have refused to keep her "shame" a secret and, in the interest of publicizing enemy atrocities, apparently spoke of it publicly. In so doing, she has only increased her public humiliation. In the long run she became a shameful outcast rather than a victim who sacrificed for her country (45). She does not even refer directly to what her countrymen would be ashamed of; she only underscores the lack of solidarity between men and women after the war. She laughs bitterly because times have changed, the tables have turned, and rape, then barely speakable, is once again unspeakable. Her speaking of it in public has brought shame upon her and erected walls between her and others, imprisoning her. Her speaking may have led to her fever, but Sarah, who has always been silent, finds that speaking is, finally, a release and a cure for her: a woman who listens to and truly looks at another woman "ends up seeing herself, with her own eyes, unveiled at last" (47).
Sarah was finally able to open up to the Frenchwoman Anne, whose life she had saved (in contrast to her former death-dealing military activities). She speaks of her mother's death while she was in prison, of her inability to weep. Not only veiled women have trouble finding voice, are imprisoned. Removing the veil, then, which Djebar claims muffles the voice, does not necessarily give a woman her voice. Deeply ingrained psychological encumbrances remain, or new ones are created by her circulating freely in a space which is not ready to receive her. Sarah, no longer a prisoner in the dreaded Barberousse prison, and circulating unveiled, still had psychological bars to contend with. Those psychological bars were related to the restricted life of her closest role model, her mother, who had but one daughter. She was very quiet and feared repudiation, perhaps because she had no sons. Unlike Sarah, a "fire carrier," her mother was a "water carrier" and foot washer to her husband--to Sarah, a sign of her subservience (49). Even though, as an adult, Sarah consciously rejected this role model, her mother's lack of liberty was like a phantom. Thus, she had no overt role model, which caused her to question her own freedom of movement and, inevitably, to follow her mother's example and suppress expression of her inner feelings.
Fatma, the downtrodden water carrier who gained little, if anything, from the revolution and who is to be treated by the woman surgeon, like Leila is delirious. She sees herself as powerful, without a veil, moving through the city in an ambulance, bringing forth women's music and voice, as the character Sarah and the author Djebar hope to do (38). She finds her voice in the light of day in the center of the city. This city, to be represented by Sarah with women's voices, is also figured as a woman by Djebar, as a courtesan, a more sexually free woman who is proudly open to the world, a pride far different from the male honor "lost" to the artist Delacroix and his powerful friend, who invaded a defeated nineteenth-century corsair's harem with their gaze ("Postface," WA, 134) to paint romantic masterpieces still on display in the Louvre. This pride, if not honor, is linked nevertheless with the corsair alluded to at the end of "Women of Algiers in Their Apartment," in association with the proud courtesan/city (52).
In the end, Anne, the Frenchwoman, decides not to take the plane to France, not to separate from her Algerian friend Sarah (51). As she and Sarah ride back from the airport, they, French and Algerian, like Fanon seeing the country as a woman, view the city as a woman, but reverse the possessive fear-of-rape theme. Their focus is on the positive aspect of her sensual opening upon the world.
In the old jalopy, on the road that led to the flat part
of town, open as a courtesan seemingly easy to get, be-
fore it turned into the arcade-lined avenue that carries
high its tight, white heart, the women--first one, then
the other too--were humming.
"One day we'll take the boat together," the first one
said. "Not to go away, no, to gaze at the city when all
the doors are opening.... What a picture! It will make
even the light tremble!" (WA, 51-52).
of the shame associated with "being easy," the city claims its "body,"
its sensuality, its pleasure in itself. The open city poses no threat
to the women, but rather offers a beautiful picture of trembling (orgasmic?) light, a liberating light so highly valued in Djebar's prose (see also L'amour, la fantasia, 79, 256, et passim). The city will be looked upon, the women
will gaze upon it. There will be no shame in this city's/female's
display of beauty, which is contemplated to the sound of female
"voices" in unison across nationalities and cultures. The patriarchal
structures under which Anne and Sarah have been living may not be the
same, but they are sufficiently similar to provide them a sense of
Djebar's women of Algiers, if they are like this last depiction of the city, resemble those in Picasso's lithograph collection of the same name (WA, 151). Those women open onto the light, heavily and unashamedly taking their space, revealing breasts, buttocks, and navel, "speaking" boldly, gazing out at the spectator proudly and joyously like the renegade pirates of the corsair tradition which Sarah and Anne hope to emulate at the end of "Women of Algiers in Their Apartment" (52; thereby confusing the whole issue of male honor and female pride). These new women are neither fire carriers of destruction nor water carriers of submission. Rather, they carry the light of the sun and, perhaps, the water which binds life.
Thus, Djebar has inverted the paranoid metaphor of a nation as a literally and culturally subjugated woman to that of a city as woman, free to determine her own sexual availability. In doing so, Djebar has passed from the enclosed space of the harem penetrated by the Western eyes of Delacroix's Femmes d'Algers dans leur appartement to the open space of Picasso's lithograph series of the same name, in a discourse which, like Fanon's, both uses and subverts European texts. They are both discourses manipulated in the cause of human liberation--in Djebar's case, in the cause of women's liberation from Algerian patriarchy twenty years after that country's nationalist war of liberation.
Woman and land/place are still confused, but this new confusion seems less deleterious (and ideologically less sanguine) for the condition of women than that of Fanon and so many others before him. The rape of a woman and the violent colonization of a country are such grave matters that perhaps the distinctions should not be blurred. The confusion seems only to provoke masculine fears of impotence and castration to the possible detriment of real, live women, while Djebar's subversion of the theme seems to fly in the face of such male illusions as the possessing of a woman as an object (land, nation) which represents one's honor. In contrast, Djebar's representation is of a woman as human subject, in possession of herself, even as that woman is an embodiment of the city of Algiers, a new variation on national allegory representing the land or nation as woman.
RITA A. FAULKNER holds degrees in French and comparative literature from Purdue University, has studied Arabic in Tangiers, has taught English at Kuwait University and the University of Bahrain, and is currently a doctoral student in comparative literature at the University of Illinois, specializing in francophone, Arabic, and English colonial and postcolonial literatures. The present article was written during her tenure as Traveling Scholar at Indiana University.
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