Books: Arab women's protests against violence

Brinda Mehta. Photo by Alixandra Greenman//The Campnail.com

ALGIERS- Right from the outset Brinda J. Mehta’s book claims that it “analyzes the links between creative dissidence and inscriptions of violence in the writings of a selected group of post-colonial Arab women,” including Assia Djebar, Leïla Sebbar, and Maïssa Bey (Algeria and France); Aïcha Ech-Chenna and Laila Lalami (Morocco and the United States); and Faïza Guène (France), Jalila Baccar (Tunisia), and Laila Soliman (Egypt). She argues that these “female authors destabilize essentialist framings of Arab identity through a series of reflective interrogations and “contesting” literary genres." (2) Mehta uses the same essentialist framings about identity that her selected authors are challenging. Not only do many of them identify as Amazigh, but Algerian/Maghrebi cultural anthropologists (Chadli 2009; Djeghloul 1984; Fadhlaoui-Zid et al. 2011; Gaïd 1990; Hannoum 2010; Oulahbib 2007) have denounced the myth of “Arab identity” or “Arab women” in the Maghreb, arguing that Maghrebis are Imazighen (Berbers), not Arabs, and they speak Arabic because of the Arab presence in the Maghreb dating from the spread of Islam in the early seventh century. Therefore speaking the language of the Quran does not mean that Maghrebis are part and parcel of the Arab ethnic group. Neglecting this context indicates an absence of historical rigor and ignorance or dismissal of Amazigh/Imazighen identity, which is defended by a cohort of postcolonial Maghrebi academics. To paraphrase the book’s subtitle, how can Mehta “de-orientalize the Arab woman” (18) when she groups all these women writers under the term Arab?

 Dissident Writings of Arab Women is replete with monolithic representations of women, as well as errors of interpretation and omissions. In the first three sections of the book, the term Maghreb is often supplanted in favor of the neocolonial phrase North Africa. Mehta is unaware of the current debates in the Maghreb (Laroui 2015) and France (Fellag 2014), arguing that this can be viewed as a racially tinged and historically loaded concept. Analyzing the Algerian War of Independence (30), Mehta gives a wrong date, 1958–62, when the exact date is 1954–62. Regarding the participation of Algerian women in the Revolution, she affirms:“For these women . . . active participation in the war was not only a patriotic duty, but, more importantly, a dynamic affirmation of their presence in the public arena of male politics” (49). But many women combatants had no feminist agenda.

 Feminism was an alien notion in many parts of the world at that time—France included. Islam was the driving force, though many Western feminists today try to dismiss this religious dimension.

 Mehta’s treatment of the Algerian Civil War (1991–2002) and the ensuing massacres of civilians relies entirely on a 1996 Amnesty International (AI) report, while recent reports by AI and other nongovernmental organizations are available. She neglects to provide a historical background of the January 1992 coup and how Algerian generals, a.k.a. “eradicators,” overturned the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) electoral victory and incarcerated hundreds of Algerians in concentration camps in the Sahara desert. Instead, Mehta advocates the point of view of the eradicators such as Khalida Messaoudi, whom she presents as a “revolutionary activist” who challenged the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its “corrupt regime” in 1995 (71). But Mehta does not tell her readers the whole story. Messaoudi later asked Algerians to vote for the “corrupt FLN” when President Bouteflika appointed her as culture minister (2002–14). Moreover, Mehta offers no balancing point of view to Marnia Lazreg and Zahia Salhi’s claims that “the Islamists were quick to capitalize on the festering [social] tensions” (69). These claims are given precedence over other renowned feminist perspectives, among them those of Salima Ghezali and Louisa Hanoune, who supported a democratic plurality including the FIS (Cheref 2006).

 In part 1 Mehta misrepresents Bey’s use of the enfumades example. This cruel war tactic of caging hundreds of Algerian civilians in grottos and then lighting the entrance on fire, causing mass suffocation, was practiced by French colonial troops, as described by Djebar (1985) in Fantasia, but in a different geographic location from the one depicted by Bey. As far as veiling is concerned, Mehta takes Salhi’s words for granted when she asserts that “the colonial presence of the French increased veiling,” overlooking Frantz Fanon’s (2004 [1959]) analysis and assertion that veiling was a sign of cultural resistance.

 In part 2 Mehta addresses the excruciating social malaise that has engulfed Morocco since its independence in her discussion of the violence and social/sexual oppression depicted in Ech-Chenna’s Miseria. Yet Mehta dismisses the Moroccan system of governance as the root cause of the problem and, naively defending King Mohamed VI (94), blames the ruthless sociopolitical and economic situation on the “Years of Lead” of his father King Hassan II. Chronology is not respected in this chapter, and references to works in Arabic by Khnata Bennouna (1981) or Leila Abouzeid (1989) would have given more impetus to Mehta’s analysis of Miseria.

 In the section devoted to Guène, it is startling to read that Guène is a “French youth of color” (20). This neologism is controversial among French young men and women of Maghrebi descent, as are other terms used by Mehta, such as “French youth of Black African origin,” “French citizens of color,” and “Arab-Muslims in France” (151). It is as if there were no Imazighen in the Hexagon. Though Mehta is aware of the historical dimension of the debate about naming (187n3), her claims in the main text are less nuanced.

 It would have been interesting if Mehta had engaged the works of scholars such as Albert Memmi (2010), Homi Bhabha (2004), Kateb Yacine (1994), Brahim Senouci (2008), Abdelkader Djeghloul (1984), Malek Chebel (1998), and Mohammed Arkoun (1998), who argue that the real issues faced by the Beur generation and Maghrebis are unemployment, rejection from mainstream society, lack of adequate education, discrimination, and navigating the role of Islam. Mehta draws on works by less relevant Western scholars, such as Alec Hargreaves (1997), about French-style integration and assimilation. Dissident Writings of Arab Women is marketed as a “useful resource for students and scholars of North African Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Francophone Studies, and Feminist Studies” (iii), but these audiences would do well to avoid the misconceptions and inaccuracies mentioned above.

 ABDELKADER CHEREF is an academic and a freelance journalist affiliated with the State University of New York at Potsdam. Contact: cheref@potsdam.edu or acheref@gmail.com.