Algeria’s struggle for independence from the French would have looked very different without the involvement and participation of women. Some of the most prominent figures and symbols of the National Liberation Front were female combatants, at least to the outside world. In an article in for the Carnegie Middle East Center*, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck argues that these women were the exception, not the rule, and were used as propaganda for Western audiences. Women in the Algerian army were and continue to be portrayed in contradictory ways, upheld as emblems of gender equality but also occupying traditional gender roles as caretakers for male soldiers. In her article, Yazbeck explores the road to women’s integration in the Algerian military, from independence until today.
In developed countries, the recruitment of women into the military has been the subject of intense debate for over thirty years. Supporters assert the equal right of women to serve alongside men in the army, even in combat roles, while opponents fear that the very presence of women in what they see as a male institution undermines its esprit de corps and combat efficacy. Some argue that women cannot bear physical harm, although the integration of women into Western armies in increasing numbers suggests otherwise.
By way of contrast, the recruitment of women into Arab armies, even in noncombat roles, is rare and remains socially and politically contentious. So when the United Arab Emirates announced that one of its pilots who had flown combat missions against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria in 2014 was a woman, Major Mariam al-Mansouri, this generated considerable media interest. Algerian media paid similar attention in 2009 when Fatima Zohra Ardjoune, director general of the Ain Naâdja military hospital, was promoted to general, the first woman in the Algerian People’s National Army (PNA)—and in the Arab world—to reach this rank. Three years later, Fatima Boudouani became the second woman to be promoted to the rank of general in the PNA, and she was followed by three more women in 2015.
The status of women in the military had been made legally equal to that of men in an ordinance on February 28, 2006, and the military’s promotions of women from 2009 to 2015 broke an apparent taboo. The army has since put in place a formal policy framework for equal opportunities, and efforts have been made to apply it.
The equal opportunity policy enabled the PNA to portray itself as progressive, equal, and open to all members of the society it is supposed to represent. But this reflects more of a public-relations move than a substantive shift in the PNA’s approach. In practice, there is no equality, and the full integration of women remains limited in scope. Women in the Algerian army are portrayed in contradictory ways: they are seen as commendable symbols of gender equality, and yet the manner of their representation reveals them to be sexualized and marginalized. The traditional gender-based division of labor—with female military personnel placed mostly in subordinate or support positions where they remain aides to their male counterparts—is maintained.
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*CORRECTION: This article erroneously described Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck’s piece as originally published in Jadaliyya. It was, in fact, first published on the Carnegie Middle East Center’s website