The Private Life of Islam: A Review
[First printed in Women & Revolution #10, Winter 1975-76]
Private Life of Islam: A Young Doctor’s Harrowing Account of a Season in an Algerian Maternity Hospital.
New York: Liveright, 1974.
Algerian masses’ successful war of national liberation against French colonialism was for the early New Left a living symbol of the revolutionary potential of the “Third World.” Along with the overturn of capitalism in Cuba, the self-proclaimed construction of “socialism” in Ben Bella’s Algeria focused the vicarious “anti-imperialist” energies of the radicals of the 1960’s, as the Spanish Civil. War had embodied the “anti-fascist” anti-sentiments of an earlier generation.
Unlike the social revolutions which established deformed workers*states in Cuba and later in Indochina, the Algerian war for national independence stopped short of any fundamental transformation of the class nature of Algeria. At a tremendous human cost, the mainly peasant Algerian liberation fighters drove the French from their country but did not destroy capitalism, instead replacing the colonial rule of French capital by the domination of a native bourgeoisie which remains tied to imperialism through the world market.
American New Leftists uncritically solidarized with the struggle to build “socialism” in post-revolutionary Algeria. They viewed the Ben Bella regime as unequivoclly progressive and considered it axiomatic that the defeat of imperialism would open the road to socia emancipation. Rejecting the Leninist view that only a socialist revolution under the leadership of a proletarian revolutionary party can accomplish the liberation of all the oppressed, the New Leftists envisaged many “vanguard” layers—the colonial masses, American blacks, women, youth—each of whose struggles would automatically advance the aims of the other oppressed strata.
The reality of the grinding oppression of women in post-revolutionary Algeria explodes this myth. Neither the Ben Bella regime nor the less leftist Boumediene government which succeeded it significantly altered the subserviant position of women in Algerian society. “Socialist” Algeria has shown itself completely incapable of completing even elementary democratic tasks, instead finding itself compelled to buttress the Muslim religion and and the authoritarian family structure as essential props of bourgeois rule.
The Private Life of Islam demonstrates the reactionary role of religion and the family in perpetuating the degraded condition of Algerian women. The book is a young British doctor’s account of his training in an Algerian maternity hospital, a place where women are mutilated and killed as often as helped. The hospital is run “like an obstetrics book turned upside down, every do a don’t, every never an always.” The incompetence of the hospital staff is matched only by its sadism.
The staff has no time for the fear, pain or even hygiene of its patients. Beds, sheets and patients are covered with food, blood, excrement. Those infants who survive delivery are wrapped in rags and left unchanged and unwashed until they leave. No medical histories are charted,.and examinations are cursory or skipped entirely. Curettage is routinely performed without anesthetic, although bottles of it sit unused on shelves. If a slip of the hand punctures the womb, it is removed—with curses for the extra work.
The foreign doctors excuse their criminal neglect of medical standards and ordinary human decency by reference to the attitude ‘of Algerian men themselves toward the patients. In incident after incident, terrified and suffering women are mocked, insulted., struck and most often simply ignored by male relatives and the hospital staff. Ian Youing sums up one young husband’s attitude toward his wife’s confinement as “a trip to the vet.” Still filled with moralistic ideals, Young guiltily waits for one of the patients to reproach him with a look or a word for his complicity, bul the women submissively accept the pain and brutalization as their lot.
The deprecatory attitude toward women emerges clearly in one bit of dialogue between members of the hospital staff:
“‘It’ll be born dead at this rate.’ Fatma says to the girl: ‘if you don’t push harder next time, it’ll be a little girl.’ And to me, Djamila says: ‘A dead baby, or a little girl—it’s kifkif, it’s the same thing’.”
In another incident, a young girl who has become pregnant after being raped faces a choice between returning to her village, where she will be killed by her father to avenge the family’s dishonor, or going to prison for the “crime” of bearing an illegitimate child. Occasionally a woman informed of her pregnancy timorously asks for an abortion, but most respond with despairing resignation.
Ian Young is indignant and ashamed. Blaming the foreign doctors, he seeks government aid to institute hospital reforms. He goes to see a bureaucrat described as a real “revolutionary.” He initially flatters and conciliates the English doctor but he reveals his true attitude by boasting of how he put a doctor’s wife who is a nurse, back in “her place” by telling her: “Medicine comes before women, Madame. Show some respect for your husband.” Young gradually comes to understand that the hospital is the product of the society which, supports it: “These men were the unhappy executors, working in blood, excrement and death, of the most respected attitudes in Algeria.”
“We prefer the woman who gives birth to a pilot, to the woman who becomes a pilot herself.”
–Mouloud Kassim, Member of the Revolutionary Council
Algerian rhetoric concerning women’s liberation and socialism notwithstanding, the government upholds Islam. Some Muslim reformists, citing the Koran’s injunctions against burying female infants in the sand and noting the vagueness of the passages used to justify the enforced seclusion of women and the wearing of the veil, claim that true Islam provides equality between the sexes. But the Koran makes itself abundantly clear on its attitude toward women:
“Men are superior to women on account of the qualities which God hath fitted the one above the other and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful during the husband’s absence, because. God hath of them been careful. But chide those for whose refractoriness ye have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is high, Great!”
The “equality” of Islam is the equality of apartheid. That is how Algerian women lived before and during the French occupation and that is how they continue to live today—covered up, locked up, uneducated and sold in marriage to strangers, often as children. Seclusion may be vague in the letter of Koranic law, but, it is wholly in keeping with its spirit. The religious teachings of Islam, like the teachings of Judaism and Christianity, depict women as excessively sensual and morally inferior, needing the guidance of men to protect them from their own weaknesses.
The French made use of the Islamic degradation of women to justify denying democratic rights, particularly suffrage, to Muslims. The Algerian reacted with increased Muslim orthodoxy, praising their women as the perpetuators of their true culture against French influence. Due to their seclusion, Algerian women were indeed less affected by French influence than were Algerian men, although the French made a special effort to reach them. During the struggle for national liberation, the French initiated public pro-French unveilings of Muslim women and organized a Feminine Solidarity Movement which offered them medical care, legal aid, gifts and education, in an attempt to draw them out of their isolation and into the service of French imperialism.
The FLN (National Liberation Front) responded with the slogan “For a free Algeria, not a free French woman!” Rather than raising a genuinely socialist program for women, thus releasing them from the bondage of Islam as well as from French imperialism, the Algerian nationalists took the veil as their symbol! They placed the oppression of women on the pedestal of revolution.
The popular film “Battle of Algiers” dramatizes the heroic role of women in the struggle, but it was expediency not ideology which integrated the FLN, and this equality of the barricades was short-lived.,
On the eve of independence the Algerian masses had before them the possibility of sweeping away their own feudal elite along with French domination and of advancing their struggle past the attainment of bourgeois democracy and on to the construction of a socialist society. The petty-bourgeois leadership of the FLN, however, did everything in its power to avert such an outcome and ensure the future of Algerian capitalism At Evian the FLN pledged economic cooperation with French imperialism in exchange for technical and financial aid, a pledge which made the completion of even democratic tasks impossible. Respect for French landholdings meant that only deserted land could be distributed. The promised agrarian revolution necessary to feed the cities’. war-swollen population was put off year after year while French industrialists continued to suck oil out of the Sahara.
For women the mass unemployment and food shortage which followed the war meant starvation and mass prostitution. Even child prostitution was common.
The constitution proclaimed Islam the national religion and the family the basic unit of Algerian society. Men, since they were automatically considered the heads of households, were given preference in employment. Polygamy was only moderately restricted. Forced marriage was forbidden by law, but for most women, with no possibility of employment, the only practical alternative to marriage was suicide.
The Algerian revolution did achieve national liberation from the yoke of French imperialism, but it did not free the urban and peasant masses from poverty and exploitation, nor from the savage social oppression which is rooted in the fabric of capitalist class rule. In the era of imperialist decay, there is no room for independent capitalist development of the underdeveloped countries; the weak “national bourgeoisie” cannot break from even the most reactionary and feudalist elements of its class and is consequently propelled into the arms of foreign imperialism. Far from building “socialism,” countries such as Algeria cannot even address the democratic tasks formerly associated with bourgeois revolutions. It remains for the revolutionary proletarian party, which must also be a “tribune of the people,” to lift the veil of women’s oppression in Algeria.