The frustrating ambivalence of veiled (and unveiled) Algerian women in the decolonisation struggle

Paola Tenconi is a student in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan, where she is focusing on her Arabic studies at the Institut Français du Proche-Orient while working part-time at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Alongside her studies she engages with extracurricular journalism, focusing on social issues and human rights in the Middle East.

A dangerous woman is ambivalent, unpredictable, and misread. This dynamic becomes especially evident in the context of colonial relations and power structures, in which imperial policies dictated the importance of deconstructing the cultures and politics of the occupied.

French colonial authorities exerted considerable efforts to understand, diagnose and categorize the ‘Other’, and a special importance was placed on making sense of the veiled Algerian woman. French attempts to understand and appropriate women’s struggles throughout the Algerian occupation highlight the perceived importance and underlying danger that native women presented to their colonial aspirations. The instinctive reaction of the French man in the face of the unknown—the veiled Algerian woman—was to unveil her, in attempts to relieve the frustration felt by the physical and metaphorical barrier of the haïk [i] to French colonial penetration.

This, in turn, was met by a fierce resistance: the veil was deliberately exploited by Algerian women, who proved to be very dangerous indeed—the extent to which they were misunderstood and underestimated by the French allowed them to play a decisive role in the armed resistance movement. Algerian women proved dangerous because they were not understood, allowing them to hoodwink the occupier and take up a position in the military and cultural struggle that shattered preconceived notions of their role in an Arab-Muslim society.

The palatable narrative of defending women’s rights became a defining feature of the French colonial mission in Algeria: predictably, the ‘medieval treatment’ and perceived oppression of women in Algeria was fodder for French legitimation of occupation. [ii] Frantz Fanon, whose pivotal work Algeria Unveiled extolled the role played by female members of the Algerian resistance, remarks that ‘great sums were invested in this combat’, both financially and academically: the Algerian woman, deemed ‘incomprehensible’, was extensively studied. [iii] Reflecting the perceived importance of understanding and subjugating Algerian women, ‘the symbolic appropriation of women by the colonists went hand in hand with their desire to appropriate Algeria’. [iv] French feminist groups and charities cropped up, ostensibly to ‘liberate’ local women from the deeply ingrained patriarchy present in Algerian society. [v] ‘Freeing’ the native woman became synonymous with opposing Algerian nationalist aspirations, and each action carried out for the benefit of Algerian women was to be accompanied by attempts to win them over. Colonists viewed Algerian women at once as oppressed and covered but also highly sexualized, considering them desirable objects whose conquest was both physically and symbolically obstructed by the veil.

Fanon has famously explored the colonists’ frustration of the ‘woman who sees without being seen’ [vi], and how the deeply objectifying colonial notions of a woman hiding her beauty behind the veil were accompanied by a sense of unease: the French colonists felt threatened by a woman who would not ‘yield or give herself.’ [vii] Playing into the colonial ritual of imagining a colonized country as a woman, the French mission ‘gave rise to a highly sexualized discourse in which violence crystallized in the body of the veiled Algerian woman.’ [viii]

Fanon’s work is especially useful in exploring the relation between geographical and sexual conquest in Algeria: in ‘Algeria Unveiled’ he deconstructs the colonial policy of unveiling both as a means of suppressing nationalist resistance as well as ‘making the Algerian woman available to the colonizer’s sexual advances.’ [ix] To this end nothing was more symbolic than the veil, a manifestation of the inaccessibility of Algerian women, thus functioning doubly as metaphorical and physical barrier to French colonial aspirations.

For the French colonists, the veil was shrouded in symbolism. Firstly, it functioned as a ‘fetish-object’ [x], at once marking the Otherness of the Algerian woman and feeding into the highly sexualized narrative of colonial occupation. Many academics perceive the French obsession with the veil and the resulting forced unveilings that took place as a metaphor for rape—and indeed, in many instances unveiling of native women did go hand in hand with physical assault, culminating in what Fanon referred to as a ‘double deflowering’ [xi] (the physical and symbolic rape of the Algerian woman). Above all, the veil was seen as the emblem of the ‘Other’, a ‘demarcation of Algerian society, [xii] cultural corset which prevented an intrusive colonialism’[xiii] – its existence was a direct threat to the colonial project.

Decker perceptively concludes that the veil acts as a ‘uniform that unifies the colonized feminine figure’, granting ‘homogeneous signification to the colonizer,’ [xiv] allowing for an appropriation of female struggles and bodies to engineer imperialist aspirations. This historical appropriation made its crude appearance with the public unveiling ceremonies that took place May 1958, perceived as a ‘rite by which the whole of Algerian society was offering itself, naked and willing, to the embrace of the European society.’ [xv]

The importance the French placed on the veil, deemed an opening into the heart of Algerian society and its conquest, gave it a new, politicized dimension. The veil soon became an instrument of cultural resistance, a calculated reaction to the French appropriation of the Algerian woman. French attempts to unveil and ostensibly modernize Algeria were met with a newfound impulse to hang onto the haïk, a response on behalf of local women tantamount to ‘shielding the indigenous society from the intrusion of French colonialism.’ [xvi] This was deliberate display of political agency: by choosing to wear their haïk at a time when the colonizer was doggedly trying to unveil, native women consciously asserted their Algerian-ness. By independently deciding to wage cultural resistance and exploiting their veil for strategic purposes, Algerian women also played on French colonial fantasies and Orientalist understandings of non-European women, who were seen as inherently submissive and passive. [xvii]

Beyond its symbolic use, the veil came to be a highly strategic instrument in guerilla warfare. Women tactically manipulated their veils to contribute militarily, enhancing terrorist tactics by fooling the French authorities: the veil allowed women to ““appear” and “disappear,” to sow paranoia, to give the impression that an attack could come at anytime, from anywhere.”[xviii] Donning the veil allowed women to play into French ideas of Algerian women’s victimhood and purity, freeing them of suspicion on military missions. Equally, by shedding the veil and adopting a ‘Westernized’ appearance, Algerian women, at the height of French-Algerian tensions were able to fool soldiers and infiltrate French-held areas:

Carrying revolvers, grenades, hundreds of false identity cards or bombs, the unveiled Algerian woman moves like a fish in the Western waters. The soldiers, the French patrols, smile to her as she passes, compliments on her looks are heard here and there, but no one suspects that her suitcases contain the automatic pistol which will presently mow down four or five members of one of the patrols. [xix]

When the French caught wind of this tactic, it once again became necessary to wear the haïk, this time to conceal more than the female gaze:

The Algerian woman’s body, which in an initial phase had pared down, now swelled. Whereas in the previous period the body had to be made slim and disciplined to make it attractive and seductive, it now had to be squashed, made shapeless and even ridiculous. This is the phase during which she carried bombs, grenades, machine gun clips. [xx]

Algerian women thus manipulated and ‘re-appropriated’ the veil as a fundamental tool of resistance and guerrilla warfare, exploiting French ideas of what lay under it. [xxi] They subverted all preconceptions of their role and the importance of the veil in the imperial mindset, liberating themselves from the shackles of the colonial gaze and occupation, as well as from their entrenched social status in Algerian society— if only temporarily.

Algerian women’s resistance was twofold: one struggle was waged against the French occupation, and another against deeply rooted notions of what their role in society was. They participated in the armed resistance against French colonial authorities often uninvited by their fellow Algerian nationalists, who had little faith in their political and military abilities.[xxii] These women saw their struggle—the struggle for social equality—appropriated by men on both sides in the greater context of the Franco-Algerian war. Unfortunately, the transition to a post-colonial independent Algeria did not put prioritise or even address women’s rights, failing to acknowledge the shift in social position they had assumed throughout the war. [xxiii]

Despite setbacks in achieving gender equality in post-colonial Algeria, female contribution to decolonisation efforts allowed women ‘to carve out new identities’ for themselves, [xxiv] forcing the men around them to realise the potential for women to assume new roles. Even outwith the context of the decolonisation struggle, in which many men saw their women obliged to assume new roles by circumstance, many Algerian women showed an unwavering resolve to break the existing social structure and gender norms. Their self-sustained drive to participate in the struggle against colonialism and oppression—both symbolic and literal—point to an undeniable agency, and a testament to their potential to subvert notions on both sides of the Franco-Algerian war of what it means to be a dangerous woman. As immortalised by Fanon:

Revolutionary war, as the Algerian people wage it, is a total war in which the woman does not merely knit for or mourn the soldier. The Algerian woman is at the heart of the combat. Arrested, tortured, raped, shot down, she testifies to the violence of the occupier and to his inhumanity. As a nurse, a liaison agent, a fighter, she bears witness to the depth and density of the struggle. [xxv]



[i] The haïk refers to the veil worn by Algerian women at the time. Decker, Jeffrey Louis. “Terrorism (Un) Veiled: Frantz Fanon and the Women of Algiers.” Cultural Critique 17 (1990): 177. Web, p. 188.

[ii] Fanon, Frantz. “Algeria Unveiled.” A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove, 1967, p. 38

[iii] Fanon, op. cit., p. 64

[iv] Lazreg, Marnia. “Gender and Politics in Algeria: Unraveling the Religious Paradigm.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15.4 (1990): 755-80. Web, p. 760

[v] Haddour, A. “Torture Unveiled: Rereading Fanon and Bourdieu in the Context of May 1958.” Theory, Culture & Society 27.7-8 (2010): 66-90. Web, p. 86

[vi] Fanon, op. cit., p. 44

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Haddour, op. cit., 86

[ix] ibid.

[x] Decker, op. cit., 189

[xi] Haddour, op. cit., 86

[xii] Fanon, op. cit., p. 35

[xiii] Haddour, op. cit., 70

[xiv] Decker, op. cit., 188

[xv] Haddour, op. cit., 76

[xvi] Haddour, op. cit., 77

[xvii] Racco, Peter. “The Dynamism of the Veil: Veiling and Unveiling as a Means of Creating Identity in Algeria and France.” The Undergraduate Historical Journal at UC Merced 1.1. (2014): 81-85. Web, p. 82

[xviii] ibid.

[xix] Fanon, op. cit., p. 58

[xx] Fanon, op. cit., p. 62

[xxi] Decker, op. cit., 193

[xxii] Amrane-Minne, Danièle Djamila, and Farida Abu-Haidar. “Women and Politics in Algeria from the War of Independence to Our Day.” Research in African Literatures: Dissident Algeria 30:3 (1999): 62-77. Indiana University Press, 1999. Web, p. 67.

[xxiii] Lazreg, op. cit., p. 755

[xxiv] Racco, op. cit., p. 83

[xxv] Fanon, op. cit., p. 66