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An Algerian Woman Caught Between Islamic and Western Ways

TO outward appearances, Leila Meriane is not a compromising woman. In a country where a growing number of women wear the Islamic veil, either by choice or under coercion, she dresses in European style as her navy slacks and red shoes testify.

A teacher of French language and literature, she is demanding of her students. And she doesn't ask anyone's permission when she decides to leave her house, as the Koran - Islam's equivalent of the Christian Bible - dictates.

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But at home, she doesn't wear shorts, out of respect for her brother who has adopted Islamic fundamentalism. ``It's a little thing, but a pretty good example of the kind of compromise that I as a woman can make in the interest of understanding,'' Ms. Meriane says. ``Both sides have their principles, but both will face compromises if we are to avoid becoming a schizophrenic society.''

The ``two sides'' she refers to are Algeria's growing number of Islamic fundamentalists and the secular, more Westernized share of the population. Algeria's women, who make up 52 percent of the country's 25 million people, stand at the heart of the confrontation, symbolizing both tendencies and getting caught at friction points between the two.

Some representatives of the country's growing number of women's organizations say they are tired of seeing their movement interpreted as a response to religious extremism, rather than an element of womens' emancipation worldwide.

But the issues these organizations face in Algeria are tied to the country's confrontation with fundamentalist Islam. Such issues involve a national family code that relegates women to the status of minors, an electoral law that effectively dilutes the impact of women voters, the right of women to circulate and dress as they choose without facing harassment or assault, and even the right of girls to practice sports.

``Many women say it's a good thing we have this fundamentalism, because that's what got us to organize,'' says Sanhadja Akrouf, a school teacher and officer in Algiers' Association for the Emancipation of Women. ``That may be, but the challenges they present are getting worse,'' she adds, especially with the country's economic crisis to back up their cause.

The right of women to work is being threatened, Ms. Akrouf says. ``In the mosques they tell the young unemployed men that women are stealing their jobs. In the schools, there is a growing tendency to use the promotion system to the disadvantage of girls.''

Such challenges come on top of the institutionalized hardships presented by Algerian law. In the family code, men have an unquestioned right to seek divorce, while a woman's right is subject to a list of conditions. Property and inheritance laws favor men, and women must obey their husbands.

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With the right to vote, women could constitute a powerful political force. But with an electoral law that allows one voter to cast ballots for up to three absent voters, women often find their husbands or brothers voting for them.

Yet Akrouf says the struggle of Algerian women is not principally with legislation, but with mentalities.

``Tunisia has had a more progressive family code than ours for some time, but that doesn't mean problems are any fewer for women there,'' she says. ``That's why we have to change thinking, especially reaching the minds of young girls.''

Fundamentalists make the same argument, but their women's organization rejects Western culture as its own form of female enslavement.

Between two divergent points of view, Leila Meriane hopes for compromise. ``I'm not for everything in Western society,'' she says, ``like the extreme individualism. There's a lot in Islamic teaching that is good for men and women. We need to find a middle ground.''

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