Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Islamists Strike At Women In Algeria War

IF you are a woman in Algeria - especially a working woman - you're fair game for Islamic terrorists.

Algeria is the only nation where Islamists target women. This is an unprecedented departure from the tenets of Islam, which say men must protect women.

About these ads

Tales from three Algerian women on a recent US visit reveal a world where people must defend themselves daily against possible attacks by religious militants and, some say, government counterattacks:

* Amal Boumediene writes for the al-Watan newspaper in the capital, Algiers. Fearing reprisals, she reveals little of her personal life, but notes she "is never able to see my mother" because she must move frequently to avoid being killed. Journalists are one of many targets for Islamists.

Recently, Ms. Boumediene attended the funeral of a fellow journalist who she says was killed "because she was a woman ... killed because she was a journalist."

Algeria's Islamists began targeting women in May 1992, resulting in about 400 being killed by the end of last year, according to the Algerian government.

Particularly targeted are women like Boumediene who hold jobs and refuse to submit to the new politicized Islamic morality.

The death toll for 1995 has not been released. But on June 22, another five women aged 15 to 21 were found dead with their throats slit in a village in western Algeria. About 40,000 people have been killed since the government in January 1992 canceled elections that an Islamist group - the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - was poised to win.

Boumediene routinely interviews and reports on victims of terrorist attacks.

About these ads

"I will never forget the look on Hadjira's [an Algiers victim of terrorism] face - all of the fear and suffering in the world," says Ms. Boumediene, who wears a traditional long tan skirt that completely covers her legs. "She had been kidnapped and held for two months by fundamentalists, along with 10 other little girls - one only 10 years old - raped several times a day in the name of Islam."

Another - 15-year-old Farida - refused to submit to the terrorists. She was skinned alive. "We have the pictures."

Because of the stories Boumediene writes, her life has been threatened twice by terrorists - via faxes to her office.

She has had to overhaul her lifestyle. "I move frequently, and never carry press credentials," says the journalist, who was also sentenced to one year in prison by the government.

About two years ago, Boumediene wrote an article criticizing the government for releasing a terrorist who had thrown a bomb in a crowded cafe. The Justice Ministry asked her to appear in court. When she refused, she received the sentence for failing to appear. It was later suspended.

"The government's policy regarding terrorism was somewhat incoherent," she says. "It's gotten better - it has become conscious of the fact that there is a danger to women in Algeria because of fundamentalists."

Boumediene, speaking in French through an interpreter, says she has become suspicious of everyone - from Islamists to the government, even her family and friends.

One evening after work, she was lying on her bed relaxing when her 18-year-old brother, who is not an Islamist, came in to chat. As they were talking, he stepped out on the balcony. "I was seized with panic. I thought he was calling a terrorist to kill me," she says. But he had just walked out to look at the street below.

* Fatiha Allab is married, the mother of three, and a political scientist who teaches at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations in Algiers. She also conducts research on terrorism.

Although the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) - an armed offshoot of the FIS - issued a blanket death threat for all professors who teach at the university and three of her colleagues have been killed in the last two years, Mrs. Allab insists on living in her family home and driving herself to work.

She also says she is more "exposed" because she lives in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, which receives less police protection than better-off neighborhoods. "I refuse to be intimidated. If it [an attack] happens, it happens," she says, as her left foot taps the floor continually.

Allab says that her fellow professors who side with many of the GIA's goals have not stopped teaching despite the GIA's call to do so.

Her relationship with those professors hasn't changed despite the country's divisions, she says. "They have their position, especially on the social situation, where they advocate a tougher interpretation of Islamic law. But our discussions are free, open."

Defends Islam

A devout Muslim, she says that "Islam is a great religion of progress with universalist principles that do not violate human rights." But "[politicization] is a dangerous deviation. My Muslim brothers vulgarize the religion. I have no problem with Islam; it's with Islamismo."

Allab, whose father was assassinated by the French near the end of Algeria's war for independence, says the Islamists who use the religion to further their aims part with the spiritual content of the Koran, Islam's holy book. She says they espouse a political ideology, using slogans rather than scripture.

* Fatima Karadja, who sports a blond coiffure and elegant Western suit, is married to a pharmacist, and has two children. "Sometimes I receive threatening phone calls. And friends report to me that they have seen my name in a mosque as one condemned to death," she says, with a tone of defiance.

Mrs. Karadja lives in an upper-class neighborhood, where police are nearly omnipresent, but says she never feels safe.

"In October 1994, my 25-year-old sister who lives with me was nearly kidnapped," Karadja says. "We live on the same street as the American Embassy, and about 2 p.m., two men tried to drag her into a van." Neighbors who happened to be driving by rescued the young woman.

But Karadja says her sister was traumatized by the event, and refused to leave their home. So in December, Karadja decided to send her to Paris for a few days.

Unfortunately, the sister got on the Dec. 24 Air France flight to Paris that was hijacked by GIA militants. "She nearly had a breakdown," Karadja says. "She recognized one of the hijackers as one of the boys who tried to kidnap her."

French commandos stormed the plane on Dec. 26 on a Paris runway. The four hijackers were killed and the 172 passengers and crew members were saved.

Karadja, who is not a "big practicing Muslim," says she trusts no one: "You have the fundamentalists on one side, the government on the other, with the people in the middle."

Her job is director of the Center for Abandoned Children in Algiers. She tells the story of one man named Mr. Yasir who, after being married for 10 years but having no children, chose three children from her orphanage to raise.

But a few weeks later he returned the children. He was forced to, he said, after being harassed by Islamists in his neighborhood for taking in children who were born in "sin" - meaning children born most likely as a result of rape.

A few weeks later, his wife stopped by the center. She said her husband had been hit by a bus and killed when leaving Friday afternoon prayers.

French impact

Karadja comes from an old, established upper-class Algiers family. And the French influence is easily discernable in her appearance.

France arrived in Algeria in 1830 and left only after an eight-year war that created an independent state in 1962. French officially annexed Algeria and tried to assimilate Algerians into the French culture. Algeria has a longer history of Western influence than any other Mideast country.

Algerian women participated as guerrillas and liaisons during the fight with France. And when the new socialist government was formed by the National Liberation Front that waged the war, women and men were granted equal rights. The new government was considered one of the most liberated experiments in the Mideast.

But years of mismanagement by the FLN left the country economically drained and fertile ground for a budding Islamic movement. Since the 1980s, Islamists have battled to unseat the government and create another Islamic state in the Mideast as in Iran.

FIS emerged as the largest opposition party in 1989. As they gained a foothold in economically depressed areas, they advocated a stricter interpretation of Islam.

FIS won a first round of elections in December 1991, but the government canceled the second round. FIS leaders and hundreds of activists were subsequently jailed.

Anwar Haddam, head of the FIS delegation to Europe and Washington, says "FIS, along with the freedom fighters [GIA] are opposed to and condemn attacks against individuals ... who exercise their right of peaceful expression - such as politicians, intellectuals, writers, journalists, who are not directing or taking direct part in security operations involving the rule of force."

He asserts it's the government perpetrating the attacks and making it look as though it's FIS. "Who is benefiting from the terrorist attacks?" he asks.

Dr. Haddam says FIS seeks a political solution, but the armed wing, the GIA, will continue to attack the military and its infrastructure. "Algeria is at a state of war declared by the military when it stopped the elections."

The Algerian women who came to New York City to participate in a forum at Hunter College argue that the violence did not erupt after the government canceled elections, but escalated. "It began well before FIS was approved [in 1989]," Boumediene says. Women had acid thrown in their faces for refusing to wear the veil, and their bare legs lacerated, she says.

Mohammed Seghir, consultant on Algerian Islamic affairs to the FIS delegation in Washington, says the women from Algeria don't reflect the whole spectrum of Muslim women - they are the minority, he says.

Dr. Seghir says there's a majority of Algerian women who prefer FIS to the government. And he denies that FIS wants to set up an autocratic Islamic state in the Mideast - "for a government to be credible, it has to have a strong opposition," he says.

But Fahima Hariti, an Algerian Muslim woman who was granted political asylum and lives in New York, says women can't go backward now. "Sure there are abuses by the government. But we were able to fight the FLN and gain some rights. According to FIS, if young boys are out of work, it's our fault because we have their jobs. If there's an earthquake, it's our fault because we did not yield."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.