We are at the third day of the Wide Annual Conference2010 in Bucharest – “Migration in the context of globalization” and we are talking with Ms. Samia Allalou.
Samia Allalou is a Paris-based Algerian journalist, television anchor and documentary filmmaker, and has been a board member of Women Living under Muslim Law (www.wluml.org) since 2007. At Wide conference she facilitated the workshop on women, migration and religion, especially Islam.
Q: First of all, I want to thank you for the opportunity of this interview and I hope you enjoyed the conference here in Bucharest so far. My first question would concern the ways feminism and the Islamic culture go together, first on a wider level and then specifically in the case of Algeria from your perspective.
A: There is a movement called Islamic Feminism, but I am not talking about this movement because I don’t agree with these theories. From a political point of view, Islamism is very different from feminism. But feminism would go together with Islam. Do you feel the difference? The words are very important. So yes, feminism goes together with religious Islam.
WLUML works with Muslim laws. Not all of the network’s members are Muslims, or if they are Muslims they fight for Islam, or they are even atheists, who don’t believe in God at all. So being a feminist and working on Islam is possible. And some Muslim feminists in WLUML, like Ziba Mir-Hosseini who is from Iran or like the members of the Sisters in Islam Organization, do a very good job reinterpreting the Quran. Because in all the religions you have the white side and the black side: in the Jewish religion, in the Christian religion and in the Islam. And we know that most religions are inspired by patriarchy and until now there were always the men who interpreted the religions and now it’s time to change this. Those Muslim women who are trying to reinterpret the Quran, the women are reading the Quran for ourselves and are trying to find the white side of the religion, the equality in the text, because in some countries you can talk about the universal rights of women before talking about what it is said in religion. In WLUML we have 3 ways to function: we make advocacy for women’s rights and for human’s rights, we make advocacy as an objective for secularism and the third way is reinterpreting religious verses, all in order to achieve equality between women and men.
Q: I have read Benazir Bhutto’s biography where she also tries to reinterpret the Quran. Are you continuing her work?
A: There are a many women who are working in this way, such as Iranian or Malaysian women. It is very interesting and Benazir Bhutto did not do this out of hazard. There is a big need for this when we are in a religious Islam state; we cannot go without those reinterpretations. You need to use the religion to say to women that it is not Islam, but it is what the men are saying, but it is not really like that; and then you can go to those women and talk about equality, about feminism, about domestic violence; for example when you want to talk about violence, you need to go from their own stories, you cannot tell them that violence against women is bad, at least in theory. You ask them, you try to talk about their lives and they begin to talk about their life. So with this perspective of life, even their lives seem strange:”I am not equal with my brother”, “I am not equal when I go out and when I work by night”. For example by night in Algeria you are harassed everywhere if you go out by night. You cannot live alone. There are migrant Algerian women in the South of Algeria who were aggressed only because they live alone. So when you begin to share those experiences with women, you can then arrive to talk about feminism, which is equality. Simple equality between men and women, it’s not theory. And then you can talk to them about what the International Convention is. Step by step. Step by step you arrive to universal rights. And then about secularism, because in some states the laic law says “don’t believe in god!”. There is no link; it’s only the separation between the religion and the law. This is what we tell to the women, if the religion is not linked with the law, you are equal, you cannot be violated, you cannot be aggressed and you don’t give up. Therefore they adhere; they get involved in our movement when they feel secured and confident.
Q: How do you feel the Algerian society and women rights have evolved after Algeria’s independence in the ‘60s? Did women rights developed at the same speed as their EU counterparts, was there a step back or was there just a different approach?
A: Women were in a war against colonialism in Algeria between ’54 and ‘62 and they participated intensively and effectively. Even men were proud because those women were participating equally with them to liberate the country. But in ’62, after the independence, men wanted to tell women, not directly but to explain to them in several ways that now the war was finished so go home. But the women didn’t want to. And they were fighting for their rights but in a silent way. The media didn’t show their movement in ’62 and ‘65, nor in the ’70s when there was a movement against a rumored Family Code in Algeria. The protests went on until 1984 when the conservatives in the Algerian government and in the Assemble voted the Family Code. There was only one party, the conservative unity, there wasn’t a democracy, and so the code wasn’t in fact voted but imposed. Since then the women has to obey to the husband and she needs a tutor – someone who is responsible for her, even if she is 60 years old she still needs a man, her father, her cousin or even her little brother to be responsible for her. When a men wants to divorce, for example, this process is unilateral, he just tells to the women or to the judge that the wife is divorced, she will receive a letter from the tribunal saying she is divorced and has to leave the home even if she has the guard of the children – she has the guard but she is guarded!- and she has to live alone. And in 2003, just before 2004, 20 years of living under the Family Code, we decided to launch a campaign to say “20 years enough!” and we try to find other ways to talk about this issue, not by politic discourse because it is not accessible to every women, so we thought of a film and then a song – a song is good because it is not very long – and we made a clip for this song and the text talk about what is the Family Code really about, in real lives. We launched this campaign very strongly in France and Algeria at the same time and in 2005 there were some amendments for some discriminatory articles; for example the women doesn’t have to obey anyone. The women can chose her tutor, but it still needs to be a man because women are not accepted – 1 man can be a witness but in the same time there needs to be 2 women to count for a witness.; then the family cannot be an obstacle if she wants to marry; and most important, from 2005, if a woman wants to divorce, she will stay in her home and the husband becomes responsible for the children is the woman doesn’t want this no more. Before he was the first one: woman, mother of woman, aunt and then the father; now he is second. And there is something very important that has changed since 2005 which is the Code of Nationality. This has nothing to do with the Family Code and it said before that children could have Algerian nationality only if the father was Algerian. Now it has changed, so that children are also Algerian whether the Algerian woman is married or not. There are people always asking for abrogation of the Family Code, we don’t need this code.
Q: Were there known cases of Sharia law being applied above secular law in recent decades and can Algeria have a positive influence in terms of women rights on less developed neighborhood such as Mauritania and Sub-Saharan West Africa?
A: Sharia law, I don’t accept it. There are laws, there are Muslim laws, Sharia doesn’t mean anything. The word is very fashionable. The Family Code is all inspired by religion and there is no parallel secular justice system in Algeria. In Mauritania for example there is a custom law. In Algeria there is like a convention, there are many things that are not written in the law, yet people are using those things, as customs or as inspired from religion. But in tribunals we talk about religion only concerning the Family Code – divorce, marriage, heritance, because in Muslim countries women are not equal in heritance either. About the influence of the WLUML International Network, this November we were organizing the Leadership Institute and there were 2 Mauritanian women and also Iranian, Senegalese, Pakistani, Indonesian, Bangladesh, Malaysian, Algerian, Egyptian, Nigerian, Indian, Chinese, French women, sharing and experiencing a lot of networking from all over the world. This way they know now there is a plan of action which is based on the problems in those countries are, on the obstacles and on the strategies or the issues to manage these obstacles. If there is, for example, a problem in Mauritania, it’s like in ’76 in the other countries of the network, so we try to push and to put more pressure to make a difference. It’s not always easy, but we try.
Q: I was puzzled to learn that many of the victims of human trafficking from Islamic cultures in the Caucasus and Central Asia end up as prostitutes or bought brides in fellow Islam states such as Turkey, The Arab Emirates and Iran. This might seem a bit hypocritical; do you think there is an acceptable level of public awareness on this subject?
A: No. In the Arab or Muslim states there is nothing about this. There is nothing because the media are not doing their job and even in the occidental media there is a big amount of hypocrisy because they don’t want to show this. Because people who are doing this are reach people, rich Arabs. And they don’t want to offence those rich Arab Muslims people. The problem everywhere is the silence regarding this issue.
Q: What strategy or pack of actions from the EU you consider would help most the women rights in Northern Africa and the Middle East: Economic incentives, coercion, or laissez faire
A: I think there is not a strategy from Europe, but I believe in strategies from women’s movement in Europe, this is really important.
Q: EU usually gives incentives like for health and trade, or they can force it like in Iraq. So is it a forced, is it economic or do you just go by yourself as a state?
A: Well it depends on the project. I know that in Algeria there are a couple of projects financed by the EU. But there should be more pressure coming from the EU. We can say it doesn’t exist and here is a problem of hypocrisy also. On one hand there is what they say in the EU about the women’s movement and on the other hand the relation between the EU and the local governments.
Q: There is also a difference because there will put less pressure on a rich or loyal country.
A: Yes, of course, this is the case with Algeria, petrol. There is not a lot of pressure and they hate this, there is also a kind o specter of a stranger’s hand which is doing all the bad things in our country. If you come from abroad and you say there is a problem in your country, you can not do anything about it, you don’t have the right. We can do this because we are from there, we can do it easily.
Q: We are debating in Romania for like 10 years about legalizing the prostitution. What do you think from a pragmatically point of view? Do you think that the Dutch model where prostitution is legal and they enjoy social security, health insurance and pension, is it better or should we keep it in the black market?
A: I don’t think that the black market is good for anything. So maybe to legalize it, but not to industrialize it, not to make it an industry, like in Germany, this is not a good example for me.
Q: So what would be cost-effective solutions in order not to have so many victims of human trafficking?
A: Maybe to make women do other things, training, there are a lot of jobs women can do. But they are often forced to prostitute. In my point of view the best option would be if we could help women not to give up, but to get training, to have a choice, to do what they want. We must give women the choice. If they are good with prostitution, ok. I wish we could help them so they have another choice, not to tell them do you want to be a prostitute or not. If she doesn’t know anything else, she will continue with it. But if we could help her have another skill and have another view on life, maybe she could do something else.
It was a pleasure to meet you, thank you!
Monica Sonia, PhD Candidate in International Relations with the National School of Political Sciences and Administrative Studies, Bucharest, Romania