The Djamilas: Women of The Algerian War For Independence And The Art That Pushed Their Cause Forward

by Nour Regaya
14-04-2022

Halima by Mohamed Laroussi El Metoui is the first book I remember ever reading. It told the captivating  story of a young tunisian woman’s active role in armed resistance against colonialism in the tense climate of 1950s French Tunisia. 

The image of her wearing a white Safseri (traditional Tunisian white veil) and carrying a quffa (Basket) on her way to the hammam clung to my memory…there was no soap and no towels in her basket…There was a bomb. The young woman was to leave the hidden bomb in a French frequented part of town without bringing much attention to herself. 

Although Halima was a work of fiction, Algeria’s Djamila was a living breathing woman.

Halima English book cover

Halima English book cover

Algeria’s independence movement was a long and arduous journey that infamously cost the lives of more than 1 million people, a number that is, to this day, disputed by the French government.

The movement for independence began during World War I and reached its height after French promises of greater self-governing were not kept after the second world war. In 1954 the National Liberation Front (FLN) began a guerrilla war against France seeking to establish a sovereign Algerian state. A series of violent attacks took place in and around Algiers, which became known as the Battle of Algiers (1956–57). These violent attacks included a series of bombings, a few of which were conducted by Algerian women who had joined the resistance and took up the role of discreetly placing bombs and leaving them to detonate in public spaces frequented by French officials and civilians. As depicted in the cult classic 1966 war film “The Battle of Algiers”’,  most of these women were selected for their European passing appearance for which they would be mistakenly taken for French women thus would not arouse much questioning or suspicion from police officers.

Samia Kerbash in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Samia Kerbash in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Although only about 2% of the Algerian women joining the FLN engaged in such paramilitary activities, a number of these women received heightened international attention for their roles and  support during their trials that were stained with violence of varying forms. This attention can be attributed in part to an emergence of the war poster girl. An overall fascination with women combatants: i.e women choosing to be violent instead of taking up a more passive but “natural” role of nursing or feeding soldiers. Images like The Provisional Irish Army (IRA)’s women pointing rifles wearing sundresses, or The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)’s Leila Khaled holding an AK-47 rifle wearing a Keffiyeh after hijacking a plane, both shocked the public and captured its imagination.

IRA woman with assault rifle by Colman Doyle

IRA woman with assault rifle by Colman Doyle

Albeit this was true for Algerian women of the resistance, it was not the full story: FLN women like Djamila Boupacha and Djamila Bouhired were the center of international attention mainly because of the appalling mistreatment they received during some long and violent trials. Six of the Algerian women fighters were shockingly sentenced to death by the guillotine, a verdict that caused outrage and mobilized intellectuals and artists to push for the appeal of the decision.

Djamila Bouhired was 22 when she was arrested and tortured for information about a demonstration planned in the Casbah. Unwilling to share information despite the horrific torture she was subject to, Djamila would repestedly utter in protest: “Algeria is our mother”. When asked about this saying later on in her life, she would reveal that, as a child, she would refuse to sing the French national anthem at school and instead of singing “France is our mother” she would stand up and scream “Algeria is our mother” which would get her punished by the principal.

A few months after her arrest, Bouhired was tried for allegedly planting a bomb in a café. After an emotionally and physically taxing trial and despite her lawyer and future husband Jacques Vergès’s best efforts to spare her the capital punishment, Djamila was finally sentenced to death by the guillotine. 

Detained Djamila Bouhired in 1957

Detained Djamila Bouhired in 1957

After intense protests in support of the young woman took place all over Algeria and the Arab world, she was spared the capital punishment and was imprisoned in Riems for a few years and finally released towards the end of the Algerian War along with other algerian resistance fighters.

Portrait of Djamila Bouhired on the streets of Cairo on March 30 on the occasion of the celebration of Algerian International Day. Here is a portrait of Djamila Bouhired © Getty / Bettmann.

Portrait of Djamila Bouhired on the streets of Cairo on March 30 on the occasion of the celebration of Algerian International Day. Here is a portrait of Djamila Bouhired © Getty / Bettmann.

The story of Bouhired inspired many artists to pay tribute to her and show their support through their art. The legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz dedicated her song “Djamila” to her in which she addresses her in a letter/poem:

“My friend Djamila

I salute you wherever you are 

In the prison…in the torture you find yourself in

[ ]

I salute you Djamila,

You, beautiful flower of Algeria

Your story is sweeter than a childhood

It shows the face of the sun with victory

In Algeria, there are many olive trees

In their silences, the revolutionaries grow

They dream of justice, peace and olives

And in the nostalgia of their thoughts, flourishes a soft life

And a place for the sun and the children

In Algeria, in which where the earth revolts

When…when will we hear of good news?

My friend Djamila

Your fragile body

Blows like a storm

Like victory

In all the villages, near and far

The torrent runs through the streets

The shovels glow in the fields

The flags fly

I salute you for your freedom

I salute your fighting people

Who dream of life and peace

The flags fly

The flags fly”

Many other poems have been written about Djamila in support of her struggle, perhaps the most important one being that of Syria’s national poet Nizar Qabbani who is one of the Arab world’s most revered contemporary writers. The poem dedicated to the young woman is titled “Djamila Bouhired” and recounts in gruesome detail the extent of her torture in the military prison and paints her as a beautiful heroine with unwavering strength: 

“Name…Djamila Bouhired

Cell number…ninety

In the war prison of Oran Eyes like lamps at a temple 

And black Arab hair

Like summer

Like a cascade of sadness

A jug of water… and a jailer 

Her hands joined together in front of the Quran

A women in the morning light 

She utter…whisper like  The sad verses ringing

From Surah Maryam and Al-Fath

Name…Djamila Bouhired

A name written in flames

Dipped in the cloud’s wounds

In my country’s literature..In my literature..

Age twenty two

A pair of pigeons settled inside her chest

And a hole is a branch of peace

A women from Constantine

Her lips never knew makeup

Dreams never entered her bedroom

She never played like children

She had her eyes, on no necklace nor shawl

She did not know, as the women of France,  

The Please Cellars in Pigalle

Name…Djamila Bouhired

The most beautiful song in the Maghreb

The tallest palm

The oases of the Maghreb saw her

The most beautiful child

She tired the sun and didn’t tire herself 

O my Lord… is there under this planet

a human

Eager to eat..to drink 

From the flesh of a hardened mujahidah [women fighter]..?

Dim pastel lights

The coughing of a paralyzed woman 

She ate the shackles around her breasts

The way her enemies ate 

Lacoste [Rober Lacoste] and thousands of villains 

From the defeated army of France 

They defeated a woman

A woman..a crucified candle

The cuff bites her feet

Cigarettes are extinguished in her breasts

And blood from her nose..and from her lips

The wounds of Djamila Bouhired

She will have her freedom

The guillotine is being set up.. the wicked

Are using a woman without garment… a beautiful woman

And Djamilla between their rifles

Like a bird in the rain

Her tanned body

Shaken by the current

Burns on the left breast

On the nipple.. what a shame

Name…Djamila Bouhired

History.. of my country 

Say it after me, my children

History of a woman from my country

A woman who flogged the executioner’s guillotine..

A woman who dizzled the sun

Rebel from the Atlas Mountains

Reminiscent of.. citron flower..

How small is Joan of Arc of France?

When faced with the Joan of Arc of my country..”

 

Bouhired was also immortalized in the 1957 Egyptian film “Jamila, the Algerian” directed by Youssef Chahine. The film retells her life story and her struggle as a political prisoner. 

“Jamila, the Algerian” film poster (1958)

“Jamila, the Algerian” film poster (1958)

Iconic scene from the movie, often mistaken for a real-life image of Djamila.

Iconic scene from the movie, often mistaken for a real-life image of Djamila.

Bouhired currently resides in Algiers and has even made appearances in the 2019 protests that overtook the nation. In 2020, she was decorated as a Grand Officer by the Order of The Republic of Tunisia, her mother’s native country. 

Revolutionary war heroine Djamila Bouhired marches in the protests in Algiers, 13 March 2019. Source: B. Souhil, El Watan

Revolutionary war heroine Djamila Bouhired marches in the protests in Algiers, 13 March 2019. Source: B. Souhil, El Watan

Another one of the Algerian war heroines was Djamila Boupacha who was arretsted at age 22 in 1960 for attempting to bomb a café in Algiers. Her confession was obtained after being tortured and raped. Her subsequent trail garnered public scrutiny of the French government which despite having signed three international documents condemning torture was still using inhumane torture methods in Algeria and its other colonies. 

Boupacha in 1963

Boupacha in 1963

Boupacha’s trial was an important one for many reasons: the young woman decided to bring suit against her torturers and had French-Tunisian Gisèle Halimi as her lawyer. Though she did not deny her affiliation with the FLN and her commitment to Algerian independence, she did argue that a confession achieved under torture should not be admissible before the military tribunal that was to try her. Djamila was also backed by intellectuals Simone De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, artist Pablo Picasso and many others. Halimi and Beauvoir co-wrote “Djamila Boupacha: The Story of the Torture of a Young Algerian Girl which Shocked Liberal French Opinion”, the cover of which is a drawing of Boupacha by Pablo Picasso.

Djamila Boupacha by Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi book cover

Djamila Boupacha by Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi book cover

The book details Boupacha’s torture at the hands of French officials and the complete dehuminaztion of the Algerian martyr whose pain and suffering the French were becoming desensitized to. Beauvoir writes: “A twenty-three-year-old Algerian woman [Boupacha], an FLN liaison officer, was kidnapped, tortured, raped with a bottle by French soldiers: it’s commonplace. Since 1954, we have all been accomplices in a genocide which, under the name of repression, then of pacification, claimed more than a million victims: men, women, old people, children, machine-gunned during sweeps, burned alive in their villages, shot, slaughtered, disembowelled, martyred to death; tribes whole delivered to hunger, to cold, to beatings, to epidemics, in these “regrouping centers” which are in fact extermination camps – incidentally serving as brothels for the elite corps – and where more than five hundred thousand Algerians. During these last months, the press, even the most cautious, has unleashed horror on us: assassinations, lynchings, raids, manhunts in the streets of Oran; in Paris, over the Seine, hanging from the trees of the Bois de Boulogne, corpses by the dozens; broken hands; shattered skulls; Algiers red All Saints Day. Can we still be moved by the blood of a young girl? After all, – as Mr. Patin, President of the Safeguard Commission, shrewdly insinuated during an interview I attended – Djamila Boupacha is alive: what she suffered was therefore not terrible. “

Tunisian-French Lawyer Gisèle Halimi with Djamila Boupacha in Rennes 1962

Tunisian-French Lawyer Gisèle Halimi with Djamila Boupacha in Rennes 1962

Halimi and Beauvoir did everything in their power to reverse the death sentence Boupacha received. Through the book they insisted “that revulsion at Boupacha’s torture must lead to political action.” However, the Evian Accords ended the Algerian War for Independence, freed Boupacha, and provided the Army with immunity. So, despite all the efforts of Boupacha, Halimi, and Beauvoir, the Evian Accords meant that her torturers could not be held accountable for their actions.

Nonetheless the work and dedication of these women had an undeniable role in finally granting Algeria its independence and cementing both Halimi and Boupacha’s statuses as feminist icons in the Maghreb.

Luigi Nono

Luigi Nono

Luigi Nono was a politically engaged composer. His stunning monody Djamila Boupachá      (1962) is a heart-rending cry for solo soprano that pays tribute to the woman freedom fighter. In it, he sets to music the poem “Esta noche” by Jesus Lopez Pacheco that was written about her. As Nono puts it, “[Djamila is]a symbol for all of us of a life of love, of freedom, against any new form of oppression and neo-Nazi torture”. Susanne Crammer of The Stuttgart Eclat Music Festival wrote of the composition: “The unaccompanied singing for soprano is characterized by the interactions on the one hand between interval structures and sound ranges and on the other between tempo and human expression. Out of the chromatic tone structure, pentatonic, mostly diatonic intonations stand out, which can be interpreted as metaphors for Djamila’s childlike innocence.” These words hold incredible power coming from Bouhired as she and many other women knew first hand the role art played in mobilizing.

Boupacha recently (date unknown)

Boupacha recently (date unknown)

Although Bouhired and Boupacha are undisputed icons of Algeria’s war, they are two sole names among dozens of Algerian women fighters who were also victims of torture and sexual violence at the hands of the French.

In a newly independent Algeria, these women kept fighting for emancipation and equality. However, the economic crisis and exponential population growth caused a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and new laws allowing for a multi-party political system ultimately resulted in civil war(1991-2002). Equality for women took a backseat as a priority of the government throughout this period in Algerian history. Nonetheless, the Algerian war’s women fighters will forever be known for their work not just for Algerian independence, but also for women’s rights in Algeria. 

In 2020, when Algerian French actress Lyna Khoudri received The Most Promising Actress Award at the César Film Festival for her role in Papicha, a 2019 Algerian film recounting the struggles of a group of girls living in Algeria during the “black decade” (Algerian civil war) directed by Mounia Meddour, she recited some of Bouhired’s words from a letter addressed to the Algerian youth and published in Journal El Watan in 2019: ”.. It is up to you, the artists, who put light in the darkness of our daily lives, it is up to you who resist decay to impose ethics; it is up to you all to design your future, and to give substance to your dreams..”

These words hold immense power coming from Bouhired who knew first hand the power of art to mobilize emancipation movements. It was through these writings, films and paintings that the Djamilas’ stories reached people’s hearts and thus helped move entire nations in support of both Algeria and its women in having the freedom they long fought for.

Papicha (2019) Mounia Meddour

Papicha (2019) Mounia Meddour