Those who think that Algerians have been passive victims of their country's political problems need look no further than the Algerian women's movement for a change of mind. Twenty-five years ago, a unique relationship developed between Algeria and the non-profit organisation, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), which is going strong even today.
WLUML provides assistance to women whose lives are governed by so-called "Islamic" laws or customs. The organisation opposes the use of faith to further political causes and builds awareness of women's rights violations committed in the name of Islam.
In 1984, Algerian women watched in amazement as the government passed a law that institutionalised women's legal status as "minors". Women had demonstrated against the ratification of this law for more than two decades, believing it stood in stark opposition to Article 29 of the Algerian constitution, which declares, "Citizens are equal before the law, regardless of birth, race, sex, opinion or any other condition of personal or social circumstance".
Algerian feminists responded immediately. Demonstrations against the law intensified and three women were put in solitary confinement without proper investigation or trial. In reaction to this injustice, nine women from Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Iran, Mauritius, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Pakistan founded WLUML to support the struggles of these women in Algeria and elsewhere.
WLUML member Marieme Helie Lucas, an Algerian sociologist, recalled: "The three Algerian women were released within a month and a half of campaigning, with telegrams arriving on the president's desk from everywhere in the world."
WLUML continued playing an important role in Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s between the outlawed political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and the Algerian government. Despite the difficult environment, women continued the struggle to reinstate their legal rights as equal citizens while simultaneously enduring indiscriminate violence as a result of the war.
WLUML provided these Algerian women with a platform to voice their frustrations by inviting them to participate in international conferences, including the United Nations' World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where they could publicly denounce the crimes against women that the FIS and other armed Algerian groups had committed.
WLUML continued to work on behalf of Algerian women even when violence from the war gradually lessened and international focus was diverted elsewhere.
In January 1999, the Algerian government presented its official report on discrimination against women to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. In response, the WLUML and New York University's International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic collaborated on an unofficial report outlining "the rise and ongoing threat of politicized, violent religious fundamentalism [in Algeria] and its project to impose its particular view of Islam through the theocratization of the state and/or through violence and terror".
In 2001, female workers in the small Algerian town of Hassi Messaoud were savagely assaulted by a crowd of 300 men following a sermon by an extremist imam at the local mosque. WLUML encouraged international networks to respond to the incident by sending letters to the Algerian government. Along with several Algerian human and women's rights associations, they pressed for the defendants to be tried in court.
Several perpetrators were convicted and found guilty in 2004, and the assaulted women were formally acknowledged as victims.
More recently, Cherifa Kheddar, the chair of Djazairouna, an association of families that are victims of terrorism, was threatened in 2008 with unfair dismissal and continuous harassment by Algerian authorities after she revealed to the public the government's reconciliation policy (the Law on Civil Concord) with armed Islamic political groups, including the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Islamic Front for Armed Defence (FIDA), and for speaking out about crimes committed but pardoned without trial.
In the end, the government suspended Kheddar from her position, although it never formally dismissed her from the job. After a nomination bid from WLUML, Cherifa was awarded the International Prize for Human Rights by the International Service Human Rights Awards on 8 December 2008.
Today, the international spotlight is no longer on Algeria, but WLUML remains watchful of discrimination against Algerian women. This unfailing support of WLUML's international network provides women's movements in the country with the necessary strength to stand up to all kinds of pressure and to continue the difficult path towards full acceptance of women's rights in Algeria and beyond.
*Samia Allalou is a Paris-based Algerian journalist, television anchor and documentary filmmaker, and has been a board member of WLUML (www.wluml.org) since 2007. This article is part of a series on Muslim women and their religious rights written for the Common Ground News Service