Herstory and Algeria’s Zina: A Dual-Reading of Assia Djebar’s: Women of Algiers in their Apartment, by Alexandra Nargiz Jérôme

In her novel Women of Algiers in their Apartment, Assia Djebar takes the first steps towards reconciling the effects of the postcolonial world with the history of women’s participation in the struggle for Algerian independence. As Clarisse Zimra notes in the afterword of the most recent translation of the novel, “(Djebar’s) entire corpus grapples with issues attending the passage from colonial to postcolonial culture: the definition of a national literature, the debate over cultural authenticity, the problematic question of language, and the textual inscription of a female subject within the patriarchal background.” The novel itself was intended to be read by Algerians, but was not well-received there. Like many of her contemporaries in the genre of contemporary Arab women’s literature, Djebar is faced with censorship and the increasingly potent influence of Islamist groups and authoritarian governments over the dissemination of contrary gender ideologies, especially those which are produced by women themselves: Qasim Amin is acceptable. The likes of Assia Djebar, Hanan al-Shaykh, and Fatima Mernissi are not. The patriarchy controls gender ideologies across disciplines: women counter with a gynocentric approach to reconfiguring the socio-historical puzzle.

The novel’s title, which refers to the painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Eugene Delacroix, is Djebar’s nod to the pre-colonial, the colonial, and the postcolonial containment of women to various degrees within Algerian society. As such, this article approaches Women of Algiers in their Apartment in a two-pronged analysis: the first is an analysis of the metahistorical attributes of the novel and the standard uses of literary criticism. The second is a reading of Djebar’s allegorical use of the nation as woman and the reclaiming of the nation by contemporary Islamist groups. Thus the book may be read in two manners: as a work of the metahistorical imagination and as an allegorical critique/epitaph of contemporary, Islamized Algeria. The conclusion remains the same: Women of Algiers in their Apartment refers to the compartmentalization of women and their neo-harems.

The Metahistorical Reading

In writing Women of Algiers in their Apartment, Djebar articulates the new social organization, the creation of the “neo-harem.” That is to say that the spaces that women create for themselves are part of a new harem experience: they are compartmentalized into various levels of the gendered caste-system within Algeria. This caste-system is inevitably altered by war and in the wake of conflict, women are inevitably returned to this functional construction of women’s social containment. In the novel, Djebar takes the (supposedly) historical portrayal of Delacroix’s harem of women, and it pushes it forward through the struggle for independence and into the post-independence era. Women of Algiers are indeed in their apartment but the apartment that they are in is one that is erected with social boundaries, the concrete of mental asylums, compulsory veiling, and reinvention of Maghreb Islam.

Women of Algiers in their Apartment is at once a celebration of women’s participation in the war for independence and at the same time a reflection on the tragedy of war for and its impact on women. Women are operatives in the novel who straddle two realities: war and postwar. This reality is particularly gruesome when one realizes that the heroes of the war, the women, were systematically relegated to the ranks of drug users and pushed back into harems and mental asylums posing as harems. Djebar illustrates this particular notion of dispensability of women through her protagonists visit to a painter friend

    …Yes, the great Leila. Do they give a damn if she’s
    a drug addict; does she harm others, those decorated
    together with her? Absolutely not! (21)

Leila is indeed insane, but she is tormented by the memories of her time at battle and as a participant in the war. Djebar recounts that her

nightmare: the looks of women veiled in white or
black but their faces freed, who were weeping
silently behind a windowpane… these disappeared
aunts and grandmothers, were weeping over her,
over her dismantled memory. (22)

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Sean Wiebe