Today is the 99th International Women’s Day and on this occasion, the International Committee of the Red Cross is raising awareness of women displaced by armed conflicts worldwide. Marking women’s day has now become an international tradition, but it is closely linked with women suffrage movements and was first observed on February 28th in accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. American women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month through 1913. The international character of this day was first established by German Socialist Clara Zetkinin in 1910 during an international conference organised by working women (Copenhagen), although no date was specified. The first IWD was first celebrated one year later by millions of women who rallied across Europe on the 19th March, demanding the right to vote and to hold public office, the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination. Many important historical events are associated with IWD such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City which killed over 140 working girls (mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants) due to lack of safety measures, the peace rallies held by women across Europe on the eve of World War I (on 8 March 1913) and demonstrations and ‘bread and peace’ strikes by russian women which proved to be the first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the West, International Women’s Day was commemorated consistantly during the turn of last century and it marked many efforts by women across the world to protest against injustice, war and discrimination. However, it dwindled gradually until it was revived again by the rise of Feminism in the 1960s.
It is sometimes hard to imagine that women have had to fight so hard for rights that we take for granted today, indeed rights many of us do not even see the point of. Maybe it is because we have ‘inherited’ these rights without really fighting for them or experiencing how it feels to be deprived of them. In fact, in most Arab countries, women were only granted the right to vote or stand for public office the last fifty years or so:
1949 Syrian Arab Republic (to vote)*
1953 Syrian Arab Republic**
1964 Libya, Sudan
1967 Yemen (The People’s Democratic Republic of)
1970 Yemen (Arab Republic)
* Right subject to conditions or restrictions/ ** Restrictions or conditions lifted
In the United Arab Emirates, where the Parliament is officially appointed, neither men nor women have the right to vote or to stand for election. In Saudi Arabia, men took part, in 2005, in the first local elections ever held in the country. Women however were not allowed to exercise their right to vote or to stand for election on that occasion. [Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union]
In Algeria, the situation of women has tremendously improved notably thanks to free public education. According to the latest national census undertaken by the Office National des Statistiques, women represent 15.6% of the population in employment (with a women unemployment rate of 25.8%). However, women outnumber men in many university disciplines and job sectors (eg. teaching and clerical jobs). Algerian women also work in the health sector, liberal professions and many are now seen managing private businesses especially in major cities. In rural areas, women participate actively in agriculture and paid manual jobs such as picking olives which are used to make olive oil, as well as many traditional hand crafts. Recently, more and more women have started their own family business consisting of preparing various traditional foods at home and selling them through a family member or an established food business (restaurants, food retailers, or private customers). This is a symptom of the Algerian transition towards capitalism, however most of these economic activities remain largely unregulated which puts some working women at risk and also does not ensure that this productive force is managed within a wider national economic development framework.
Historically, Algerian women are known to have actively participated in the national revolution and war for liberation. However, Algerian society has always been patriarchal (at least outwardly). Sadly, many thought that after the independance, Algerian women needed to be ‘put back at their place’ and although women continued to discreetly and relentlessly contribute to the welfare of their families and communities, they did not have a clear social status outside of the formal tutelage of a male family member. There are many Algerian women’s associations, but most of them have been assimilated at one degree or another by the political system in place. Indeed, the present Culture Minister, Ms Khalida Toumi has once been a fierce feminist and militant for women’s rights back in the 90s, right in the midst of the Islamist political onslaught which later turned into a bloodbath. Recently, Algerian feminist organizations (backed up by international NGOs) have been campainging about the Algerian Family Law (deemed to be unfair and even misogynist) and demanding reforms; in particular in aspects pertaining to marriage, divorce and property rights. The Algerian Family Law was revised back in 2005, however only artificially and its implementation has caused much confusion ever since. Some have blamed this timid change on conservatism and the islamist influence in the parliament which opposes radical reforms in favor of more equality between the genders on religious grounds (eg. polygamy, right of women to work in politics). The current Algerian president; Bouteflika, seems keen to be seen as a supporter of women’s rights and he is sure to appear later on in the 8 p.m. news bulletin with a speech to commemorate IWD. Nevertheless, El Khabar reports that Tunisian and Moroccan women have been declared to be the most ‘liberated’ in the Arab World according to a study conducted by the Washington-based NGO “Freedom House“.
Who knows what the future holds for Algerian women, many good things one should hope but much of it depends on women themselves. Certainly, we have been much delayed by colonialism and many political disasters. But the upside is that this should give us the advantage of learning from the experience of those who’ve taken precedence (i.e. the West) and try and avoid their mistakes. Western women movements have certainly much to teach us, but we also have much to contribute from our own cultural heritage. Gender equality certainly does not have to mean reversing gender roles, nor does it have to mean abolishing all social distinctions between men and women. It simply means more justice, it means realizing that justice is too important to be left entirely to individual whims of socio-economically-empowered men. It means realizing that women are full human beings, not appendages to men. And above all, it means growing enough spine to accept that women are noone’s property (even less feminists’ property). It all needs to be realized first and foremost by Algerian women themselves!