ALGERIA: Algeria Breaks Silence on Violence Against Women

Thursday, December 27, 2007
Northern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Her face is swollen, her eyes are red and her nightdress is torn in places. Fatima tries not to let us see what has happened to her. After being beaten last night by her younger brother, she is now one of ten patients in a small hospital in Rouiba on the outskirts of Algiers.

In another room, far from the eyes of the outside world, another young woman signals to us through the window and smiles with difficulty. Karima was raped two weeks ago, but in this small hospital that word is never used. In order to prevent a scandal, people say she is ill.

These two women, one of them beaten and the other raped, and the secrecy and shame in which their suffering is shrouded, are stark examples of violence against women in Algeria.

After Karima was raped by her brother-in-law, both families chose to keep the matter secret. The emotional aftermath was overwhelming and she tried to kill herself.

"I took her away, far away from anyone, to this hospital to spare her another ordeal – a mental asylum," said Linda, a social worker and member of an association which supports women victims of violence. She said there are dozens of women like Karima, who will leave the hospital in a few days only to face the acute mental suffering she will deal with for the rest of her life.

Karima is not alone.

In 2006, more than 8,000 women reported being victims of violence, up from 5,000 in 2004 and 7,400 in 2005. These figures could indicate an increase in violence, an increase in women reporting crimes against them, or perhaps both. More and more women are speaking out, but the "golden rule" of silence continues to hold sway over most.

Particularly in rural areas, women who have been beaten, raped or subjected to other forms of cruelty are terrified of causing a scandal. They refuse to lodge complaints and some even refuse to talk. "In some cases the true picture is easily double the official figures", said Mériem Belala, president of SOS Femmes en Détresse, an NGO which campaigns for women's rights, listens to women and provides them with legal assistance and shelter.

"This violence affects all social classes and almost all regions of the country," Belala said. Figures from the Mustapha hospital in Algiers estimate that of the 9,000 beaten women who seek hospital treatment each year, half are housewives and nearly one fourth are professionals in middle management. More than half are between the ages of 35 and 45. Three-fourths of the attacks occur in the victim's home and while the majority of cases involve bruises from punching and kicking, injuries also include fractures and burns. 11% require sutures.

To respond to the crisis, a determined sector of Algerian society has waged a campaign to uphold women's rights, acknowledge affected women as victims of violence and push for more stringent punishments for attackers. A number of associations and institutions organised under the National Co-ordinating Body are working to protect women who are victims of violence.

[Boualam Senhadji] A meeting of Algerian women's associations provides a forum for groups to share strategies to protect women's rights
At the El-Yasmine centre for women in distress in Bou Ismail, twelve miles outside of Algiers, the staff works hard to convince women that, contrary to what society tells them, they are victims and they are not alone.

In early December, the centre showed Sid-Ali Mazif's film "Violence against Women". Opening with disturbing images of bruises, wounds and fractures accompanied by the trembling and anguished voices of victims, the film portrays the suffering Algerian men inflict upon women.

Through the stories of Hassina, Kheira and Assia, women at the El-Yasmine centre found that many women from all regions and classes share the same fate, often at the hands of their husbands, brothers or sons.

"It's very difficult to get some women to talk," Mazif said of his work. For him the film highlights part of life's realities in Algeria and provides insight into why some Algerian men are violent towards women.

Medical professionals speaking to Magharebia said husbands who beat their wives often do so for no specific reason. At least one Algerian psychiatrist has pressed further for an answer.

"We've got into the habit of dealing with things the other way round – looking at the victim rather than the attacker", said psychiatrist Farida Benzine, one of the few women to work with violent men in Algeria. "Although it ought to cause a scandal," she said, "marital violence is still a private matter.

"You don't ask men why they beat their wives," said Salim, who preferred not to use his real name. This was the only reply given by the man of roughly forty, who is currently awaiting trial for battery charges in Algiers. He refused to answer the question, "why did you beat her?" Many other men who have been tried for attacking their wives, sisters and even mothers have responded similarly.

Benzine said that although the voices of battered wives are beginning to emerge, those of violent men, who are even more reluctant to speak, are rarely heard.

"A man will never admit right away that he is violent," said Benzine.

Speaking of Salim, whose wife miraculously survived one of his unusually violent attacks, Benzine said he did not appear to her to be very different from other men who beat their wives.

"At first he denied the facts, saying it all came down to the temporary madness of his wife who [supposedly] hurt herself." After agreeing to try some "self-improvement", Salim admitted that he "knocks her about", but only "a tiny bit", she said.

Benzine said that Salim's self-improvement lasted two years. "After several interviews with me, he began psychiatric therapy. At first he felt like he was being forced into it – but then he got on with it."

At the request of his wife and her family, the couple divorced and Salim was later given a suspended prison sentence. "As a mountain-dweller, he believed it was his fate," Benzine said.

Salim had a very harsh upbringing in an environment where violence was one of the only means of communication. He often stood by and watched violent scenes in which his mother groaned after his father hit her. As a child he believed it was normal for "daddy to tell mummy off".

When questioned by Benzine, he was unable to explain why he beat his wife. After each dispute he felt regret and remorse, and said that deep down he knew that nothing entitles him to attack his wife, Benzine said. During the sixth month of his psychiatric sessions he decided to "totally reform his behaviour and his ideas". He changed, said Benzine.

Whether perverted or psychotic, everyday or extraordinary tyrants, the overwhelming majority of violent men are "extremely dependent on their partners", she said.

Salim then took the highly unusual step of asking his wife to remarry him. He has been waiting three months for an answer.