Wednesday, 21 November 2007


The Representation of Women in The Battle of Algiers

Authors: Danièle Djamila Amrane Minne; Alistair Clarke
Published in: Interventions, Volume 9, Issue 3 November 2007


Gillo Pontecorvo's documentary-style film The Battle of Algiers
centres on the military techniques used by a powerful modern army
against an urban guerrilla force that was led by small groups of
civilians who were poorly armed and lacking in training but who had
the benefit of popular support. Women played a major role in the
resistance and without them it could not have lasted the eight
months that it did. However, that role is not entirely apparent from
Pontecorvo's film, whose main concerns are elsewhere; women are on
screen for only about fifteen of the film's 121 minutes. It is clear
that the director wished to pay them hommage, as the film begins and
ends by showing us the faces of women involved in the struggle.
Nevertheless, much remains to be said, and more research is needed,
on this topic.


The 'Battle of Algiers' is the most famous period in the Algerian
war of decolonization. It witnessed the overt use of extreme
violence, yet, in spite of the disparity between the forces
involved, it was initially a perfect example of how a professional
army could be thwarted by an urban guerrilla movement and, later on,
of the development of a military strategy to defeat and destroy
revolutionary movements.

From January to September 1957, Algiers was placed under military
rule. During that eight-month period, an entire army set about
hunting down a mere handful of resistance fighters who, in spite of
the state of siege in the city, succeeded in conducting a very
active campaign of urban guerrilla warfare. While the
expression 'Battle of Algiers' is an accurate reflection of the
warlike atmosphere that took hold of the city's streets and affected
all its inhabitants, it should be stressed that the battle was only
one episode, albeit the bloodiest, of the armed conflict in the

As justification for placing Algiers under military rule, the French
government authorities pointed to the 550 to 600 armed attacks that
had taken place between April and December 1956. Therefore an urban
guerrilla campaign was already well under way by the time
the 'Battle of Algiers' broke out, creating a climate of insecurity
difficult to bear for the European population. Moreover, the FLN-ALN
(ALN = Armée de libération nationale, or National Liberation Army)
decided to call a week-long strike, from 28 January to 4 February,
in order to demonstrate peacefully to the rest of the world and to
the United Nations in particular that it enjoyed the full support of
the Algerian people. In the capital city, Algiers, with its
permanent contingent of foreign journalists, the strike was likely
to achieve maximum impact.

For the colonial authorities, it was imperative not only to break
the strike, but to break it in Algiers. Thus, citing as a pretext
the increasing number of armed attacks and fears of a general
strike, the civilian government resigned and, on 7 January 1957,
General Massu was issued with full powers to restore law and order
in Algiers.

According to the 1954 census, Algiers had a population of 596,000,
of which 303,000 were Algerians. The FLN-ALN benefited from an
effective support and assistance network, but the number of armed
militants fully engaged in the struggle remained fairly limited; in
August 1956, Saadi Yacef estimated a total of 500 men (Yacef 1982:

As well as lacking in numbers, the fedayeen2 were also extremely
vulnerable because they were poorly armed. Colonel Yves Godard's
description of their weaponry reveals the extent of their plight:

Their weapons are ill-assorted and old-fashioned. Their firearms are
often stolen, exclusively French-made and, apart from a few pistols,
are the same model currently used by the army and police. So the
area hasn't yet received any weapons from outside. They have managed
to build up their own stocks by taking whatever they could find from
former OS depots, stealing weapons here and there, the underworld
included, and by robbing solitary policemen.3 Pistols and revolvers
are the fedayeen's main weapons. A few important men have a sub-
machine gun, usually an MAT. (Godard 1972: 275)

Compared to a population of 300,000 Algerians, including 500
moudjahideen, the French deployed an intervention force that was
estimated by General Massu himself to consist of 30,000 fully-
equipped men (Massu 1971: 44). That represented one police officer
or soldier for every two adult male civilians.

Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers offers a remarkable
account of the daily struggle waged by the inhabitants of the
casbah, which became the focal point for resistance, as well as
repression. It carries out a detailed study, on the one hand, of the
techniques employed by the French army, which was in the exceptional
position of possessing full civilian and military powers, and, on
the other, of the efforts of the resistance, which enjoyed a level
of popular support exceeding even its own expectations. The period
reconstruction is so convincing that it is tempting even for viewers
who themselves lived through the events to think they are watching
archive footage.4

Pontecorvo focuses on the methods of warfare and, in particular, the
increasingly systematic and organized repression employed with a
view to defeating a poorly equipped urban guerrilla movement that
nevertheless survived for a full eight months. Indeed, this is the
most interesting aspect of the film from a historical point of view,
which explains why it has been used by both French and American
intelligence services for the purpose of staff training, as seen in
Marie-Monique Robin's documentary Escadrons de la mort, l'école
française ('Death squads, the French School', 2003). But all the
various dimensions of a subject cannot be dealt with in a single
film. The Battle of Algiers, seen from different angles, may yet be
the subject of future documentaries, films, or works of fiction or

When one examines the role of women, for example, which is my
principal concern here, one finds surprisingly widespread militant
activity. The Battle of Algiers sets out to pay tribute to women
activists, beginning with the image of a woman pushing a straw
basket with her foot and ending with the demonstrations of December
1960, in which a woman without a veil is seen dancing with a flag
that bears the initials 'FLN'. However, their contributions to the
struggle - unlike those of men and children - are severely
underplayed. Women appear on screen for a mere fifteen of the film's
121 minutes and, at times, the significance of their role in the war
of national liberation is overlooked altogether.

For instance, one of the opening scenes shows a condemned man being
taken to the guillotine. Some male prisoners shout 'Allahu akbar
(God is the greatest)' and 'Tahia el-Djazair (long live Algeria)',
but no reference is made to women in this context. In fact six women
militants in Algeria were sentenced to death, though none of them
was sent to the guillotine (two were minors and their sentences were
commuted to forced labour for life, while the other four were
granted a pardon and sentenced to life imprisonment). It was partly
thanks to women that news of executions had a significant impact,
particularly during the Battle of Algiers (the names of sixty-nine
militants guillotined in Algiers, forty of whom were executed in
1957, appear on a list drawn up by the National Moudjahideen
Organization) as most of the messengers in such cases were women.5
The FLN-ALN organization in Algiers decided to respond to executions
by launching attacks against the civilian population. While lengthy
discussions took place concerning the adoption of such a strategy,
attacks were said to be justified by the disparity between the
forces involved and the need to make the European population of
Algeria realize the extent of the violence with which the war was
being waged. Nevertheless, several groups tried to attack strategic
targets without harming civilians.

The role played by prisoners' relatives, who provided a link between
Barberousse and the resistance, was particularly important.6 In
Algiers, the Barberousse prison (also known as Serkadji) was
situated on the outskirts of the casbah. The women's block was on
the ground floor, beside the prison entrance, which meant that women
prisoners were often the first to hear the grating noise made by the
heavy prison gate as it opened at daybreak for the truck containing
the guillotine. Together with male inmates, they would all sing
patriotic songs in support of the men facing execution. Outside, as
soon as the curfew was lifted, the wives and mothers of prisoners
would arrive to visit their loved ones, bringing them provisions if
they were allowed. Whenever they saw water flowing under the
enormous gate, they would know immediately that executions had taken
place: it could only be the water used to wash away the bloodstains.
They would run over to read the names of the martyrs, pinned up on
the gate on a white sheet of paper. They would surround the victim's
relatives and, once a guard had handed them the victim's few
possessions, walk them back to their homes, spreading details of the
number and names of the executed men. Remarkably, almost all these
women were illiterate.7 Nevertheless, as prisoners' relatives they
came into contact with lawyers, and little by little - queuing up to
obtain visitors' permits, queuing up again to get into the prison,
and obtaining permission to take a few diligently saved-up
provisions in with them - they acquired some knowledge of legal
matters and developed into a well-organized and active prisoners'
support group. They formed a link between the prisoners and the
outside world, and held demonstrations outside the prison and in
front of local authority and government offices.

Women were part of the very first resistance groups, and some were
arrested as early as the beginning of 1955.8 There are reports of
their involvement in street demonstrations soon afterwards. In his
book A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne stresses the importance
of 'demonstrations by men and women' in Skikda, in August 1955, and
points out that, in Ain Abid, the mine workers who killed a number
of Europeans in retaliation for collective repression did so with
shouts of encouragement (youyous) coming from women (2002: 124).9

Traditionally, women did not attend burials at cemeteries but,
during the war, men and women (and sometimes even children too)
organized entire demonstrations to mark the burial of former
militants. La Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger reported such an event for
the first time on its front page of 20 January 1956 under the
headline, in large print, 'Violent Demonstrations in Tlemcen':

At the burial of Dr Benzerdjeb [who had been arrested as a suspect,
and whose body was found on 19 January 1956 with signs of having
been tortured], violent demonstrations (Wednesday evening and
yesterday morning) in Tlemcen. In the morning, a crowd gathered in
Sidi Boumediene and around Metchkana school. When the order was
given, women and children threw stones at cars.10

Throughout the war, demonstrations were almost always mixed,
including those during the Battle of Algiers. Yet, in the scenes in
the film showing the demonstrations of 27 to 28 January 1957 and at
the beginning of the seven-day strike, only a handful of women
appear. In fact, the Battle of Algiers, probably the most difficult
period for the resistance, also gave women their most vital role. As
shown in Pontecorvo's film, the resistance suffered heavy losses and
became increasingly restricted in its movement, especially in the
casbah, which was completely surrounded. Gradually, women began to
play a more significant role and even partially replaced men in the

In an interview I conducted during research for my doctoral thesis,
Zohra Drif described the situation as follows:

To begin with, I simply carried out orders, but conditions became
increasingly difficult, the casbah fell under tight control, and our
brothers wouldn't have been able to carry out their work without us.
Our lives were like theirs, but our activities could be more
adventurous because we could go out wearing the veil. They were the
ones shut up at home. Once, we dressed them up in veils to go
outside; they had to dress up like us if they wanted to go out.
(Amrane Minne 1994: 138)11

Women were indeed responsible for an increasing number of meetings,
of weapons deliveries and of the bombs that were planted. In the
film, apart from the sequence where Ali la Pointe is being tested,
only a short sequence lasting twenty-eight seconds (dated 20 July
1956, at 11 a.m.) shows a woman giving a pistol to a member of the
resistance, who kills a soldier before giving it back to her. Later,
following a brief skirmish with soldiers, a group of men in women's
veils manage to escape into a house where two women help them to
hide (see Figure 1). But such scenes tend to consist of fleeting,
abstract images, in contrast to the warm and lively portrayal of a
small boy, Little Omar, who manages to steal a loudspeaker from some
soldiers in order to call people to strike (in response to which
women are seen shouting youyous of encouragement).

During the seven-day strike, according to numerous witnesses, women
activists went from terrace to terrace urging people to strike and
offering financial assistance from the FLN. According to Zohra Drif:

During the seven-day strike, people began to come down from the
casbah. Djamila, Hassiba and I started to hold meetings from one
terrace to another to urge women to continue. Djamila was a fiery
speaker and had the advantage of speaking their language. [Djamila
was from the casbah, so she spoke the casbah Arab dialect.] It was
amazingly successful - women are so dynamic and they supported us.
After about half an hour, security officers arrived and the same
women protected us. (Amrane Minne 1994: 139)

Djamila Bouhired was the most famous woman active in the resistance
during the war. A film (Djamila l'Algérienne by Youcef Chahine,
1958), a book (Pour Djamila Bouhired by Georges Arnaud and Jacques
Vergès, 1957) and several songs (such as those sung by Ouarda El
Djazaïria, the famous Egyptian-based Algerian singer; by Hadja
Hamdaouia, the popular Moroccan Cheikha; and by the Egyptian singer
Souad Mohamed) pay tribute to her exploits and the hardship she
endured. No other individual from the Algerian revolution had films
or songs devoted to her (or him) during the war, and just one other
book recounts the epic tale of another revolutionary, who also
happened to be a woman: Djamila Boupacha by Simone de Beauvoir and
Gisèle Halimi (1962). Djamila Bouhired was one of the major women
figures of the resistance during the Battle of Algiers and was
arrested in April 1957. La Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger led with the
headline: 'Capture of Djamila Bouhired in casbah, Tuesday at dawn.'
Yet never once is her name mentioned in the film.

In her interview with me, Djamila Bouhired confirmed Zohra Drif's
version of events:

During the seven-day strike, I had to go out to contact brothers
outside the casbah. On my way back, I bought croissants in the
European districts where the shops were still open. For the first
two days, it went perfectly in the casbah: everything was closed and
nobody left their homes. But the paras broke into people's houses
and smashed shop windows and, on the third day, people began to come
out. We suggested to Saadi that we should go from terrace to terrace
to talk to women. So Zo, Hassiba and I went out. I did the talking,
because I was from the casbah, and it was easier to talk to them in
the local dialect. I explained the importance of the strike and
urged them to keep it up for just a few more days. One woman said to
me: 'There you are telling us not to go out, but I saw you yesterday
coming back with your pastries.' We had to be quick because any
small gatherings were reported immediately. After about half an
hour, the paras arrived. When they tried to come after us, women
helped us to escape by taking us from one terrace to another.

Hassiba Ben Bouali, a social worker, was one of the first women
resistance fighters to be given shelter in the casbah and was active
throughout the Battle of Algiers alongside Zohra Drif, Djamila
Bouhired, Saadi Yacef and Ali la Pointe. She appears at the
beginning and end of the film (although her name is easy to miss)
with Ali la Pointe, Little Omar and Mahmoud Bouhamidi in their
hideaway, which is then blown up by the army, killing all four of
them along with fifteen civilians and soldiers, according to La
Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger of 11 October 1957, which published
their photo and all of their names.

The most spectacular operations carried out by the resistance in the
Zone Autonome d'Alger (ZAA, Algiers Autonomous Area) were bomb
attacks, which were especially frequent during the Battle of
Algiers. La Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger reported thirty-five bomb
explosions in Algiers between 7 January and 15 August 1957. It only
gives the bomber's name in twenty-two of those cases. Seven of the
bombings were carried out by fedayeen, three of whom died from the
explosion. One bomb exploded while it was being set, killing the man
setting it but sparing the fedaeeya who had come to pick up the bomb
and who managed to escape. The remaining fourteen bombs were planted
either by fedaeeyat acting alone (in five cases) or by teams of two
consisting of a fedaeeya in charge of transport and a fedayee (in
nine cases).

Two thirds of the bombings involved a fedaeeya acting alone or with
another fedaeeya and, whenever a team of two was involved, the
fedaeeya was in charge of transport. In the film The Battle of
Algiers, the bombing sequence is indeed the longest sequence showing
fedaeeyat. It lasts for nine minutes, including one minute and
twenty seconds devoted to the women putting on make-up to act as a
disguise. They are shown to be relaxed but do not exchange any
words. In the press, however, their photographs appear on the front
pages of the newspapers, their young faces bearing a look of
determination. Their statements are often reported, almost all of
them stressing that the bombings were necessary on account of the
disparity between forces involved. But that by no means rules out a
sense of regret for civilian victims. Baya Hocine, who was 17 years
old when she was arrested, and was described in an article in La
Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger as 'showing off' at the time of her
arrest, displayed a very different attitude during our
interview: 'The bombs I don't like to talk about that!' she told

Given that The Battle of Algiers portrays the historical events with
such precision and that much of the dialogue seems like an exact
reconstruction of reality, the most remarkable aspect of the film
from the point of view of my analysis is the complete absence of
speaking roles for women activists. Women are almost totally silent
throughout the whole film. This is all the more striking because, in
fact, the atmosphere within resistance groups was usually
characterized by a close camaraderie between men and women,
sustained by lively debates. Furthermore, many women activists had
studied at university. Of the members of the resistance appearing in
the film, focusing on the group led by Saadi Yacef and Ali la
Pointe, only two had been to university, both of whom were women,
namely Hassiba Ben Bouali and Zohra Drif. Besides their usual
militant activities, they played a prominent role in debates
concerning the political situation, possible activities, advocacy
for the liberation movement, and so on. They were responsible for
handling important correspondence and information to be sent to the
FLN's underground newspaper El Moudjahid. Zohra Drif, for example,
wrote all the letters to Germaine Tillion with a view to obtaining
an agreement putting an end to executions and attacks.13 She
describes as follows the role she had to take on in drafting
numerous documents:

Whenever something had to be written, I did it. For instance, there
was a leaflet explaining that, every time a prisoner was executed,
there would be bombings in Algiers, and a report on the torture
taking place every day and night in Algiers There was also the
correspondence with Germaine Tillion In fact, one of the happiest
moments of my life came after my arrest. One day I was taken to
Office No. 2 next to the national library, and I saw a copy of El
Moudjahid newspaper on the table, whereas before we had only ever
seen the Roneo. I felt a sense of victory and freedom. And I saw a
published version of the report we'd written on torture, printed on
two large pages. Colonel Trinquier shouted at me: 'Look at this!
Look what you've been saying about France!' (Amrane Minne 1994: 141)

In her preface to the book of interviews I edited, Michèle Perrot
notes that Zohra Drif was 'one of the few women to take part almost
on an equal footing in the running of the "Battle of Algiers",
serving as its "in-house" writer (like George Sand in Paris in
1848)' (Amrane Minne 1994: 8).14

The under-representation of women in the Algerian war of
decolonization has been reported in studies of the period, including
in the work of some historians.15 It can partly be attributed to a
traditional view of the role of women, which assumes that it is
normal for women to help out with the kind of everyday tasks they
usually perform anyway. The fact that they often risked their lives,
and even occasionally their children's lives, to deliver supplies,
meet contacts or provide shelter to members of the resistance is
often overlooked. Even women with political duties or technical
responsibilities (such as running a field hospital or the
secretariat) have remained in obscurity.

There have been very few films focusing on the role of women. Thus,
for example, a documentary directed by Hadj Rahim on the prison in
Algiers, Serkadji, which totally failed to represent women inmates,
provoked an indignant response from former women prisoners.
Barberousse, My Sisters, a film by two filmmakers, Bouabdallah and
Mouzaoui, based on a public debate with former women prisoners
following a screening of the film Serkadji, was an unexpected
success. (As noted above, Barberousse and Serkadji were alternative
names for the same notorious prison.) Parminder Vir, an English
woman filmmaker, made an excellent documentary on Algerian women,
entitled Women at War (Formation Films, 1992), which was released in
Great Britain and in some Nordic countries. She made several visits
to Algeria and put together a series of touchingly honest and
emotional accounts. However, the film has been shown only once in
Algiers, on the initiative of Mr Kareche, Director of the Algiers
Film Theatre, and never in France.

As far as Pontecorvo's film is concerned, the fact that women are
poorly represented can be explained, as I suggested earlier, by the
choice of a very specific theme, namely the military strategy and
methods used by a major power to defeat a poorly equipped but well-
supported urban guerrilla movement. When artists, writers,
historians or participants in the war describe their experiences,
each provides a different view of this traumatic period. No one can
tell the whole story. But all these fragments of truth, and even,
paradoxically, all that remains unspoken, gradually help to write
history, perhaps the most terrifying aspects of which remain still
to be discovered.

1. Amrane, Minne and Danièle, Djamila ((1993)) La Guerre d'Algérie
(1954-1962): Femmes au combat Editions Rahma , Ryadh el Feth
2. Amrane, Minne ((1994)) Des femmes dans la guerre d'Algérie:
Entretiens Karthala , Paris
3. Arnaud, Georges and Vergès, Jacques ((1957)) Pour Djamila
Bouhired Minuit , Paris
4. de Beauvoir, Simone and Halimi, Gisèle ((1962)) Djamila Boupacha
Gallimard , Paris
5. Godard, Yves ((1972)) Les Trois Batailles d'Alger Fayard , Paris -
vol. 1: Les Paras dans la ville
6. Horne, Alistair ((2002)) A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962
Pan Macmillan , London - [1977]
7. Massu, Jacques ((1971)) La Vraie Bataille d'Alger Plon , Paris
8. Tillion, Germaine ((1960)) Les Ennemis complémentaires Minuit ,
9. Yacef, Saadi ((1982)) La Bataille d'Alger Editions du Témoignage
Chrétien , Paris - in collaboration with Hocine Mezali
1Editor's note: see Harrison's article below for more detail on the
history of the phrase 'Battle of Algiers'.

2Fedayee (feminine form: fedaeeya; masc. plural: fedayeen; fem.
plural: fedaeeyat), meaning an urban fighter willing to sacrifice
his or her life for the faith (literally) and, by extension, for his
or her political convictions. Cf. moudjahid (feminine form:
moudjahida; masc. plural: moudjahideen; fem. plural: moudjahidat),
meaning guerrilla fighters motivated by faith or political
convictions; and fellagha, a pejorative term used by French
colonialists to describe the guerrilla fighters (original meaning:
highwayman or bandit).

3OS (Organisation secrète): A secret organization originating in the
nationalist movement.

4Editor's note: the author lived in Algeria from the age of 10.
During the War of Independence she was a member of the clandestine
urban guerrilla force in Algiers; she was arrested during a clash
with the security forces and remained in prison until the end of the
war. Subsequently she worked as a professor of history at the
Universities of Algiers, Béjaia and Toulouse, and has now retired.

5Traditionally in France women sentenced to death were pardoned. The
last women to be executed were an abortionist under the Vichy regime
and a spy at the end of the Second World War who had refused to
request a pardon.

6In her book Les Ennemis complémentaires (1960), Germaine Tillion
describes her negotiations in the casbah with Saadi Yacef on behalf
of members of the French government, which sought to put an end to
executions and attacks. She managed to reach an agreement, which was
not respected by the French state.

7In 1954, according to the General Population Census of 1954, 91 per
cent of the Algerian population were illiterate. Only 4.5 per cent
of women and 15 per cent of men knew how to read and write.

8Source: electronic file from the Ministry of the Moudjahideen.

9The title of the French version of Horne's book, Histoire de la
Guerre d'Algérie (Paris: Albin Michel, 1980) lacks the evocative
quality of the original, which is an echo of Kipling's lines on
the 'White Man's Burden'.

10A thorough reading of La Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger ('Algiers
Daily Dispatch'), an overtly colonialist newspaper (only pro-
government newspapers were authorized for publication), provides the
reader with details of virtually all 'the events', to use the
terminology used at the time. These articles are written in a biased
and cursory manner but provide a wealth of information concerning
locations as well as the names and social status of victims,
suspects and arrested persons. While women are often ignored in
history books and other accounts, they are frequently mentioned in
the newspapers of the time, often making the front pages.

11Men's use of the veil is depicted in documentaries on the war and
was mentioned frequently in La Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger.

12La Dépêche quotidienne d'Alger of 21 February 1957 has the
following front-page headline: 'Arrested nine days after their
crime, the stadium bombers - four men and two girls, all Muslims -
are also responsible for previous attacks.' The headline is
accompanied by a photo of the six fedayeen.

13See note 5 above.

14Professor Michèle Perrot is a specialist in women's history. She
co-edited, with Georges Duby, the first encyclopedia of women's
history in the West.

15Editor's note: see Amrane 1993.

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