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Hear me roar: The women behind Algeria’s revolution of smiles

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Hear me roar: The women behind Algeria’s revolution of smiles

Algeria’s ‘Revolution of Smiles’ toppled an entrenched and corrupt elite and has given new hope and energy to North Africa’s biggest country. But perhaps what is most significant about the revolution is the vital role played by women, as Sara Benaissa reports.

Algeria has been going through a year-long revolution, and the movement isn’t due to stop any time soon. It has seen millions of people, including Algerian women, take to the streets in Algeria, France and even London.

It all started with Algerian students in February/March last year. A staggering 70% of the country’s population are under the age of 30 and the unemployment rate is 11.7%. Students were fed up with a stagnant and corrupt government, and when then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika put his name on the ballot for a potential fifth term in office, students flocked to the streets in organised, peaceful protests.

They marched in their thousands to demand change and more opportunities for young Algerians. Their protests spread like wildfire on social media, until millions of people of all generations flooded Algerian cities with flags and banners demanding the whole system change. 

The demonstrations united the whole country, from the young and disenfranchised to the older battle-weary generation who lived through French-colonised Algeria, independence and a civil war. Algerians marched to see real change in their lifetimes, to witness the biggest country in Africa rise from systemic corruption and walk out of the shadows of civil war. 

It is without doubt a rare and historic revolution. It started and has remained peaceful, it toppled a sitting President, put many corrupt officials in prison and is still going strong one year on, even after the Presidential election in December. In fact, the revolution has been nicknamed the Revolution of Smiles because of its positive, peaceful energy and shared humanitarian goals. 

The ballerina of hope

And the Algerian revolution hasn’t just brought the old guard to its knees, it’s also given the women of Algeria a voice. The country has a high amount of young educated women, but also a history of Islamic fundamentalism which it is slowly but surely shaking off. 

Just before the revolution exploded onto the streets, two things were happening for Algerian women. First, young women (and men) had been navigating their lives via social media for years before the “Hirak” revolution started. This generation’s youth is no longer as isolated as their predecessors were during the 90s Islamist war or “the dark decade”.

Young people can now see at a click of a button what people their age have in other countries and were fed up with witnessing the drastic difference in social and economic freedoms. Crucially for Algerian women, social media represents a new public space where antiquated social norms are left at the digital door. Online they are more heard and have more freedom of expression than on the physical streets. 

Older women were the second catalyst. The women who remember a more open Algeria before the Islamist civil war hit in the 90s, who wanted to go back to those freer and more authentic times. Women who feel Algeria has lost itself in self-congratulating pride and stagnation. Women who remember an Algeria in the 70s and 80s that was poised to become the next jewel in the Mediterranean Sea. 

This pan-generational motive led hundreds of thousands of women across all age ranges and economic backgrounds to join the men on the streets, a place that is normally a male-dominated space. Algerian women understood that this was their chance to help forge a new Algeria with its women in the forefront. And to do that, women needed to move out of the home and fight for their space. 

Since, there have been endless stories hitting the news of women fighting for a better Algeria. In fact, the most emblematic picture for the Algerian revolution was taken by a woman, Rania G, a young photographer who decided to join the street protests in the early days of the movement. She captured Melissa Ziad defiantly dancing in the streets with her ballet shoes as Algerian men stood behind her and watched her pirouette.

Rania G’s March 2019 photo of Melissa Ziad – the ‘Ballerina of hope’ – became a symbol of the ‘Revolution of Smiles’

Rania’s Instagram post went viral and received 14,000 likes, her caption reading “You can only earn your freedom when you show the enemy you will do anything to get it”. Ziad was subsequently nicknamed the ‘Ballerina of hope’ by the Algerian newspaper, El Watan. 

Another symbolic image is of an old Algerian woman, dressed in traditional clothes while wrapped in an Algerian flag. The video shows her in front of an armoured police vehicle waving a sweeping brush as if she was trying to clean it, a defining and symbolic act – clean up the corruption and let us see a new Algeria. Many have connected the scene to the famous Tiananmen ‘Tank Man’ photo, where an unidentified man with his shopping bags stopped Chinese armoured tanks. 

Raja Meziane, a director, singer and actress posted a video called ‘Hello the system!’  where she slams her Algerian passport down, rings the Algerian government on a payphone and sings “Society is at a standstill. Culture is absent. People are leaving in boats. You think you are eternal. You have buried us living.” The video has so far received 41m views. 

Then there are women that weren’t previously famous and just wanted to stand up and be heard. Dr. Amira Bouraoui, a gynaecologist, who started a movement called Barakat or Enough!, has been fighting for governmental change since 2014. Not to forget the many hundreds of young, female social media activists who speak out loud and proud on the streets and are followed by Algerians across the world. 

The matriarchs of Algeria

These sort of strong, inspiring voices from Algerian women on the streets and in the media have directly played a role in the Revolution of Smiles and this has helped to strengthen the people’s resolve for change. It has brought a feminine face to a revolution in a country where women are often too absent in the public space. 

And that isn’t to say strong women in Algerian society is a new phenomenon, or men listening to them. Ancient Algerian society was matriarchal and Algerian women have long been venerated in Algerian culture, with many female traditions still standing strong. Algerian women were also integral in the fight for independence from the French in the 60s. In fact, the independence movement purposely created the myth of a brave female warrior so that all Algerians would see them as sisters-in-arms and crucial for the war effort. 

Once Algeria won the war and freed itself from colonial rule, the country sat back and looked outwards. People were excited to reclaim their past and their present and Algeria seemed to be teeming with African promise. But then Islamist fundamentalists tried to take control of the country in the 90s and the army took over to stop them. A decade later, Algerians pulled themselves out of civil war. But the army that originally saved the country, started to slowly smother it for 20 years.

It is exactly this complicated past that has contributed to the present-day female paradox of Algeria. Women here are as venerated as they are controlled, as respected as hushed away, as vital as they are a commodity. A lot of Algerian women are highly educated and encouraged to have strong personalities, but they are at the same time bound by traditions.  It is a country that is battling with two identities, and no more can you see this than in its treatment of its women. Algeria is in the midst of an identity crisis and consequently Algeria doesn’t know what it sees when it looks at its women. 

Toppling the pedestal

In the end, it was Algeria’s long and complex history in the area of female empowerment that pushed these women out of the door when demonstrations became revolution. They realised the time was right to take their heritage and fight for a future that belonged to all Algerians. They would help Algeria decide what it sees when it looks in the mirror. 

The women of Algeria became part of the sound of the street, of the public space. Algerian men and women stood together and shook the buildings of the crumbling elites with their collective, deafening voices. 

Even now, with the new President Abdelmadjid Tebboune freshly elected, the street watches on. Their new role is to hold the new government accountable. The Hirak movement is the country’s moral compass and a physical reminder to the elite that the people of Algeria have woken up and have seen the effect they can have when they band together under one flag. There is no turning back to the old ways, the government now needs to appease the street if they don’t want to rattle the lion’s cage.  

And for the women of Algeria, their own revolution is unfolding, on the street and in the home. For too long have the scars and shadows of the 90s Islamist war held them back. The Revolution of Smiles was the catalyst for bringing the female voice out into the open, and now everyone can hear the defining roar from the matriarchs of Algerian revolutions.

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