The Veil in Colonial Algeria: the Politics of Unveiling Women



On October 18, 2017, the Québec government passed a controversial legislation — Bill 62 — forbidding anyone whose face is covered from giving or receiving a public service. The declared purpose of Bill 62 was “to establish measures to foster adherence to state religious neutrality”. Québec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée has also declared that the face-veil ban was instituted in order to ensure proper communication, identification and security during the exchange of public services. And while Vallée affirmed that the law did not target any specific religious groups, it is clear that it was specifically aimed at the Muslim community in Québec. Not only are Muslim women in Québec the only ones who cover the face but public debates on “reasonable accommodation” that have taken place over the past decade in Québec have largely targeted the Muslim community in Québec and in particular Muslim women wearing the veil.

The controversial Bill 62 — the first one of its kind in North America — largely resonates with the 2004 French law that prohibits the “wearing of signs or clothing with conspicuously manifest students” religious affiliation’ in public schools, and with the 2010 French law that prohibits the covering of the face in public space. Just like with the Québec Bill 62, the 2004 French law did not target any specific religious groups (in fact, the 2004 law also applied to Jewish boys wearing a skullcap and to Sikh boys wearing the turbans), but it is largely believed to have principally targeted Muslim girls .

Over the past decades, few clothes items have stirred as much controversy in Europe and in North America as the Islamic veil. Indeed, supporters of laws such as Bill 62 in Europe and in North America have argued that the veil is a religious sign which is unwelcome in a secular or a religious neutral state and/or that it is more than a religious sign or part of a person’s right to practice her faith, but rather a sign of resistance to modernity (paradoxically, the use and the type of veil worn by most young women — the hijab — is a modern phenomenon), to assimilation and integration, a dangerous manifestation of a so-called “clash of civilization,” or a political action. But Europe, and more specifically, France’s fixation with the Muslim veil is not new. It did not start with a perceived fear of a growing Muslim population “invading” the public space in France — even though only a minority of Muslim women wear the veil in France — or with the fear of the rise of political Islam in France. France’s fixation with the Muslim veil goes back to a colonial period during which French colonial officials in Algeria developed a long standing obsession with Algerian women and the veil.

This article does not focus on the recently passed Bill 62 in Québec nor with the legislations passed in France with regard to the Muslim headscarf. Rather, my article looks specifically at French colonial’s attempts to unveil women in colonial Algeria. It traces the history of a long and complex fixation that ultimately led in May 1958, right in the middle of the Algerian decolonization war, to a public unveiling of a few dozens or hundreds Algerian women. While it would be easy to draw parallels between the role the veil played in the Algerian colonial context and the present-day situation in Europe and in North America and, while it can be done to a certain extent, it is important to note that the historical contexts, the stakes and the meanings of the veil in both situations are significantly different.

It is almost impossible to talk about the veil in colonial Algeria without mentioning the work of the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who worked in the Algerian hospital of Blida from 1953 until his death in 1961. Indeed Fanon is one of the first analysts to have highlighted the significance of the veil in the colonized-colonizing relations in colonial Algeria. In the first chapter of his Sociologie d’une Révolution (translated into English as A Dying Colonialism), Fanon asserts that French colonial officials in Algeria engaged a war against the veil from as early as the 1930s. According to Fanon, French colonial officials saw the veil as the barrier between the Algerian colonized society and the French colonial one, and believed that colonization could not be complete without conquering women, which included the removal of the veil:

“if we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society […] we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil.”

(Frantz Fanon, Sociologie d’une Révolution, 1959).

In that respect, Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement — long considered as the “first true Orientalist painting” — is illustrative of the centrality of women in the colonial project, and one of the earliest manifestation of French’s fixation with Algerian women, the veil and its significance in the political and military conquest of the Orient. Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement is a painting by renowned French artist Delacroix of three Arab women sitting around a water pipe in what is supposed to be the interior of a harem in Algiers. When Delacroix displayed his painting at the Salon de Paris in 1834, it won praise from art critics, and had been accepted as a true representation of the interior of a harem even though “the Orient of The Women of Algiers is an Orient that was a creation of Delacroix’s culture” as art historian Todd Porterfield writes in The Allure of Imperialism: Art in the service of imperialism 1798-1836 (1998). Part of the success of Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement was “that it evoked both desire for the harem women and repulsion at the Orient’s inferior social and political systems.” However, French fascination with Delacroix’s painting was also due in part to the fact that Delacroix was able to penetrate — with the help of the French military — a Muslim harem in Algiers. Fanon’s analysis of the French desire to unveil women is particularly relevant in understanding the political significance of Delacroix’s work. Delacroix by penetrating and unveiling in his painting the interior of a harem, was able to reveal unveiled Muslim women and thus to penetrate into the heart of Algerian society during the early conquest of Algeria. Indeed, the penetration of the harem became a sign and result of the French imperial power (Todd Porterfield, The Allure of Imperialism, 1998).

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Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, painting by Eugène Delacroix (1834) / Public Domain.

Delacroix’s painting is not the only French representation that had attempted to unveil and reveal the private homes of Muslim families and the faces and bodies of Muslim women. Another well-known example — and a particularly depressing one — is the collection of French picture postcards of Algerian women which were produced at the beginning of the 20th century and which were reunited in Malek Alloula’s 1986 book, Le harem colonial. The postcards featured young Algerian veiled women in their private homes who gradually unveiled. It also included pictures of half-naked/half-veiled women, thus reflecting the Frenchmen phantasm of the Oriental female and the inaccessible wall that represented the veil. Similarly to Delacroix’s work, the postcards cannot be dissociated from its colonial context and the unveiling and thus possession of the Algerian woman represented the political and military conquest of Algeria.

Throughout the colonial period, Algerian women were part of the French imperial project. The status of Algerian women and their projection as backward, illiterate, ignorant, secluded, oppressed by a religion perceived as misogynist and static and ancient traditions, and eternally passive and idle, stimulated intense debates on Algerian Muslim identity, which, as well as being generally categorized as culturally distinct from its European counterpart, was considerably markedly inferior. As illustrated by Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement and by the picture postcards of Algerian women, throughout the colonial period, artists, writers, officials and/or academics produced great quantities of textual and visual material representing the degraded fate of the “Muslim” women in Algeria. Algerian women — symbolized by polygamy, harems, and the use of the veil — were represented either as oppressed, secluded, uneducated simpletons unable to speak for themselves, or as the subject of the pornographic and sexual fantasies of European men.

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“Unveil yourself! Be a woman like any others.” Propaganda posters distributed by the 5th Bureau of Psychological Action during the Algerian Revolution. / Service historique de La Défense, photograph by Flora Hergon.

A few works advocated female education and the enfranchisement of Algerian women but mostly on the grounds that French-educated Algerian women had the potential to become good Frenchwomen, and act as catalysts for raising the Algerian population to the level of French civilization. These arguments, which promoted France’s civilizing mission and advocated the assimilation of Algerians into France, automatically implied, however, that Algerian women’s emancipation could only be achieved through the adoption of French culture — an idea that gained practical significance during the war. Overall however, all the attention on the degraded status of Algerian women was used to reinforce the colonialists’ view that Algerians were so different that they could never be assimilated to France, and would never absorb French civilization or merit political or civil rights.

The level of civilization of Algerian society thus came to be equated with the social and sexual condition of the Algerian woman and judged by customs such as veiling and polygamy. The position of Algerian women therefore justified continued colonial rule in French eyes and was used to affirm the superiority of France’s culture and civilization, and inevitably became the excuse used to hinder Algerians’ assimilation and their acquisition of full French nationality and consequently of any political or civil rights.

When Algeria became officially annexed to France in 1834, Algerians were not considered full French citizens but, rather, French subjects and they did not benefit from any civil or political rights. It was not until the Senatus-Consulte of July 14, 1865 and the law of 1919 that Algerians had the possibility to apply for French citizenship, but only if they abandoned their personal status, which meant renouncing customs and practices such as marriages and inheritance based on the Islamic law. Not only was access to French citizenship a controversial step for Algerians, it was also possible only after a long inquiry and a complex administrative procedure. Access to French citizenship was also based on whether an Algerian was judged sufficiently assimilated to French culture and values. Only few Algerians had applied and were able to become naturalized French (see Patrick Weil, “Le statut des musulmans en Algérie coloniale — une nationalité française dénaturée,” 2005). As Joan Scott writes in The Politics of the Veil (2007), “Here was the paradox of the civilizing mission, and it is persists to this day: the stated goal was to civilize (to assimilate) those who finally could not be civilized.” And indeed although the status and rights of Algerian women became part of the colonialist discourse, in practice, little was done to improve their condition, and the French continually maintained that Algerian society could not be civilized or assimilated. The outbreak of the Algerian decolonization war in November 1954 and, consequently, the participation of young and unveiled Algerian Muslim women in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the movement that waged the war against France, brought the question of women in the forefront of the war. Muslim Algerian women were not anymore passive, oppressed, uneducated and/or unable to speak for themselves but active participants in the war.

While the French government engaged in large-scale military operation against the FLN, it also worked on reforms it believed were necessary to defeat the FLN and achieve peace. Most reforms were designed to achieve the integration of Algeria into France and therefore complete equality between Muslim Algerians and the Europeans living in Algeria and the right of every Algerian to be a French citizen with full civil and political rights. It is within this framework — the promotion of the integration of Algeria into France — that the French implemented measures in favor of Algerian Muslim women. French reforms designed specifically for women promised to emancipate Muslim women and to bring about a real change in the status and lives of Algerian Muslim women.

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“Are you therefore not pretty? Unveil yourself!” Propaganda posters distributed by the 5th Bureau of Psychological Action during the Algerian Revolution. / Service historique de La Défense, photograph by Flora Hergon.

Although the French did not design a specific policy with regard to veiling, the veil remained central to the debate. Direct attacks on the veil eventually took place in May 1958, in the middle of the decolonization war, during pro-French Algeria demonstrations in Algiers that lasted a few days. Orchestrated by the French army and with the help of the wives of prominent French military — General Salan and Colonel Massu — Algerian Muslim women joined the demonstrations. During the demonstrations, the public and media quickly turned its attention towards Algerian Muslim women whose presence symbolized Muslim’s support for a French Algeria and for the policy of integration. Some Algerian women let the wives of prominent French generals unveil and “liberate” them; others removed their own veils and burned them while the crowd applauded. Furthermore, during the demonstrations, Algerian Muslim women chanted “kif kif la française” (like a French woman) and sang the French national anthem and the military Chant des Africains, hand in hand with the French, and thus claimed their assimilation to French culture. A few days later, on 19 May, the pro-French Algeria ultra press, the Écho d’Alger, published a front page article on the unveiling of Muslim women during the demonstrations titled “thousands of Muslim women have asserted their desire to progress in the French nation”.

The unveiling of Muslim women in May 1958 left a strong mark on the FLN, and there is no doubt that it carried a strong symbolism. The veil was a symbolic barrier between the two communities and the most visible sign of a distinct identity. In the eyes of the French and as demonstrated by the unveiling of May 1958, it symbolised the last bastion of Algerian Muslim resistance. Fanon denounced the colonial and symbolic implications of the May 1958 unveiling of Algerian women and identified “every veil that fell, every body that became liberated from the traditional embrace of the haïk as the “negative expression of the fact that Algeria was beginning to deny itself and was accepting the rape of the colonizer.” (Sociologie d’une Révolution, 1959). And indeed, the French army saw the removal of the veil as opening the way to Muslim women’s liberation. The General Government in Algeria believed that: “The vast movement of fraternization and solidarity resulting from May 13, 1958 seemed to have brought a change in Muslim society because it promotes the advancement of women.” It was also believed to be the first and necessary step towards integration.

Over fifty years after May 1958, the veil is still the subject of intense debates. The historical contexts are clearly distinct but there is remarkable consistency in reading the veil as the main symbol of the Islamic religion and culture. Critics of the recently passed legislations in France and Québec have rightly argued that while secularism has been the justification behind the legislations, racism, and in particular, Islamophobia have been the main drive behind the various legislations that have targeted the Muslim communities in Europe and North America. As Joan Scott argues convincingly, the veil in the political discourse of French Republicanism has continuously denoted “both a religious group and a much larger population, a “whole” culture at odds with French norms and values” (The Politics of the Veil, 2007). Within this discourse, the veil is projected as the symbol of a religious belief and culture that is perceived as different, dangerous and inevitably inferior to the Western one — a discourse that finds its roots in the colonial period.