Algeria’s Sexist Family Code Is Long Overdue for Reform

The most important and controversial element in the Algerian gender politics scene is the Family Code.

Although women’s rights activists have been struggling to reform the Code’s sexist legislation for decades, it continues to discriminate against women before the law today. Therefore,the Algerian women’s movement continues to revolve around the struggle against this Family Code. The Family Code debate is structured around two opposing poles: the Muslim identity affirmed by Islamists and the equality vindicated by feminists and women’s associations. Whenever the Family Code issue is discussed in Algeria, Algerian feminists strive to repeal it, while Islamist women struggle to maintain and even reinforce it.

The Algerian Family Code, which became law in 1984, codifies sexism in all family matters. This Code proclaims women to be minors under the law, as it defines their existence only as daughters, mothers or wives. Article 8 of the Family Code institutionalises polygamy by giving permission to husbands to marry up to four wives. Article 39 makes it a legal duty for Algerian women to obey their husbands. Article 11 prevents women from arranging their own marriage contracts unless represented by a matrimonial guardian.

Algerian divorce laws also discriminate against women. Indeed, women are unable to apply for divorce under Article 54. The Algerian scholar Zahia Smail Salhi explains this as follows:

While a man needs only to desire a divorce to get one, it is made a most difficult, if not impossible, thing to be obtained by women. Women may obtain divorce only by submitting to the practice of kho’a (Article 54), ‘which allows women to divorce on the condition that they give up any claim to alimony. Khol’a [sic] is the problematic ransom that women must pay for their freedom, just like slaves’.

The Algerian Family Code stipulates that divorced wives and mothers have no right to the family home, which is automatically awarded to the husband. The father’s consent and authorisation are required for the most basic needs of a child, including enrolling him or her at school and approving his or her participation in school activities.

In 1999, feminists hoped that the election of Abdul Aziz Bouteflika as president would bring a radical change in Algerian gender politics. However, despite the support he got from women and prominent feminists like Khalida Messaoudi, the new government made major compromises with Islamist groups and did not acknowledge women’s ordeal under the dictates of the sexist Family Code. In March 2004, women’s associations launched a campaign aimed at preventing the Family Code from surviving into its twentieth year. The campaign ‘20 ans—Barakat!’, which means ‘20 years—enough!’ in the Algerian dialect, was led by five associations advocating gender equality. In July 2004, the collective 20 ans—Barakat wrote its vindications in a letter to the president.

In 2005, Bouteflika announced the introduction of modifications to the Code. Nevertheless, these changes preserved the discriminatory laws included in the 1984 Code. For instance, polygamy has been maintained. Women are still not able to divorce easily. Nor are they able to marry without the presence of a guardian. They still do not have equal inheritance rights, as brothers continue to inherit double what their sisters inherit. The changes introduced by the 2005 amendments abolished the wife’s duty of obedience vis-à-vis her husband and modified the minimum marriage age to 19 for women and men. However, Algerian women have been left under masculine tutelage. Algerian feminists were disappointed as they did not consider these amendments a real progress towards equality.

The struggle to reform the Code qualifies as feminist by virtue of its interrogation of the legal hierarchy constructed on the basis of biological differences between maleness and femaleness. However, the Algerian sociologist Feriel Lalami explains that the female activists operating in this movement did not refer to themselves as feminist because accusations of Westernisation made them cautious when using this term. But this situation has changed during the Algerian Hirak.

The Hirak is a popular movement protesting against dictatorial rule in Algeria. Many women’s rights activists joined these pro-democracy protests. Many identified proudly as feminist and sought to link the fight against the regime to the fight for equality. These feminists repeated that Algeria cannot be either free or democratic without respecting women. The ‘feminist square’ they set up brought feminist activists together under one umbrella. The slogans raised by these feminists reflected their insistence on the repeal of the Family Code, which prevents equality between women and men.

In Algeria, feminism is still considered a minority movement. However, commentators have noted that this feminist square helped popularise the term ‘feminist’ in Algeria. Feminists hope this popularisation will lead to a positive impact on the struggle to repeal the Family Code. The Hirak movement ended the rule of Bouteflika. In December 2019, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was inaugurated as the new president. Tebboune promised a ‘New Algeria’, and feminists want gender equality to be one of the main pillars of this New Algeria. In his inaugural speech, Tebboune vowed to engage with the Hirak movement in a spirit of trust.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2021, Tebboune honoured a number of Algerian women and asserted the importance of the roles which women had always played in the country and will continue to play in the New Algeria. One year later, on the same occasion on 8 March 2022, Tebboune honoured more Algerian women for their achievements in various scientific and professional fields and asserted his commitment to improving the situation of Algerian women. A few months separate us from March 2023, but the demands of Algerian feminists have not been met yet. If this Code is still in place, does this mean that Tebboune’s annual lauding of women is empty rhetoric? Algerian women want a stronger commitment to gender equality. Will their struggle lead to the abolishion of the Family Code during Tebboune’s presidency or not?

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Jyhene Kebsi, 18 Aug 2022

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About the author

Jyhene Kebsi

Dr. Jyhene Kebsi is the Director of Learning & Teaching at Macquarie University. Her research focuses on transnationalism, postcolonialism, globalization and asylum.

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Hello Author and readers:
The piece makes it look as if Algerian men are and have been experiencing a heady, joyful life, with all the patriarchal setup in their culture. In practice though, both men and women of the lower classes are enduring misery! The problem with certain gender activists is that they adamantly reject the class division, and worse reject to see that the gender question is a deviation from the more pertinent struggle, the class one. I mean, what the capitalist class wants more than keep the lower classes in false struggles and preoccupations. I pray this makes some sense. I can elaborate further if need be.

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