Between 1954 and 1962, Algerian women played a major role in the struggle to end French rule in one of the most violent wars of decolonisation of the twentieth century. Our Fighting Sisters by Natalya Vince (Manchester University Press, 2015) is the first in-depth exploration of what happened to these women after independence in 1962. Based on new oral history interviews with women who participated in the war in a wide range of roles, from members of the Algiers urban bomb network to women who supported the rural guerrilla, the book explores how female veterans viewed the post-independence state and its multiple discourses on ‘the Algerian woman’ in the fifty years following 1962, from the euphoria of national liberation to the civil violence of the 1990s. It also examines the ways in which these former combatants’ memories of the anti-colonial conflict intertwine with, contradict or coexist alongside the state-sponsored narrative of the war constructed after independence.
Vince, Natalya, Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Memory and Gender in Algeria, 1954-1992, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015,
ISBN: 978-0-7190-9107, 296p.
Published date: May 2015
Price: £15.99 (paperback)
How are women, gender and political violence performed, received and portrayed? The question and the inherent epistemological and methodological issues at stake is at the centre of the renewed feminist research agenda on violence and numerous publications have tackled the problem since. The news coverage of female suicide bombers has led to numerous publications on how the narratives of women suicide bombers actually embody not only predominantly western patriarchal values but also a series of lingering colonial prejudices towards the populations of former western colonies. However, these laudable contributions do not always succeed in challenging the enduring perception that the status and roles of women in the Arab and Muslim world boils down to a strict battle between tradition and modernity.
This point is highlighted in Vince’s monograph dedicated to the Algerian women who played major roles during the struggle to end French rule in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s. Based on interviews with women who participated in the war in a wide range of roles, from urban bombers to members of the rural guerrilla support network, the volume explores how female veterans viewed the post-independence state and its multiple discourses on “the Algerian woman” in the fifty years following Algerian independence in 1962. Key to the structure of Vince’s monograph is to chronologically and carefully investigate what these female veterans remember about their past involvement and how they accept, compose or reject official discourses about them. Following the literature on contested past and collective memory, she shows how war-time is inexorably revisited through complex frames involving more or less precise family histories, local contextualisation and grand narratives about war, independence, endurance and commitment to the cause. Each of the twenty-six interviews she conducted shows how recollection follows lines of resistance, resilience and accommodation as much as it involves forgetting and recreating memories. With Our Fighting Sisters, it is not about official memory versus a vernacular one but rather the careful investigation of how dominant frames and particular moral readings influence the different individual accounts of these female veterans.
Vince’s approach is a sensible and sensitive one; an ethnographic account of women’s recollection of their past, the way they frame it, understand it, cope with it and finally live with it. She does not show surprise or fascination for the enthusiasm and the various moments of delights expressed by her interviewees. On the contrary, she verifies using various abundant written sources, challenges and analyzes the coded political statements, and explains the euphemisms and structuring metaphors used by her interlocutors. As such, she avoids many traps including perhaps the most important one in this particular Algerian context: the narrative of political legitimacy and its upshot, the narrative of revolutionary authenticity. It allows her to uncover a troubling sociological reality:
The extent to which independence offered new opportunities for female veterans would depend on their socio-economic circumstances, level of education, family status and geographical location” (135).
All these women contributed to the war of independence and they all have something to say about it. Some of them are rural and illiterate while others are urban ad well-educated. But these determining factors do not preclude easy conclusions on who lives better with her past involvement. The pages dedicated to the national heroine Djamila Bouhired are simply moving:
the symbol had consumed the individual, limiting her choices to a politically and socially acceptable path” (159).
It was a socially acceptable path that in the 1960s and 1970s was formulated within the limits of a gender-neutral citizenship (being Algerian rather than a woman) as a product of two convergent moralising views: social conservatism and an official discourse on the purity of nation, putting the war of independence and its heroes on a pedestal. According to Vince, this particularly constrained narrative lasted until the heated debates around the 1984 Family Code. How this policy opened the possibility to another self-representation of some of these women is a fascinating point (198); many of her interlocutors moved away then from this heroic state-sponsored understanding of their past and contributed to the realisation of new versions of the nationalist genealogy.
Our Fighting Sisters is an extremely rich and well-documented monograph but perhaps not always straightforward for someone who would have a limited prior knowledge of Algeria and its messy colonial and post-colonial history. Furthermore, while Vince uses different autobiographical materials to corroborate her interviews, investigating these sources in the context of ongoing disputes over how to interpret Algeria’s past could have been pushed even further. Finally, the transmission of these women’s stories – and especially the rural ones – is less documented in Vince’s monograph. Perhaps this point could constitute the basis of another work. But these are minor criticisms.
At the crossroad between feminism, nationalism and memory studies, Our Fighting Sisters offers an intriguing and salutary work on how individual women’s memories intertwine, disrupt and corroborate Algerian state-sponsored narratives of the war, nation and women. It is also an excellent reminder of how the act of remembering and talking through one’s past is never done outside pre-existing forms of social organisation and marks of respect, resentment, nostalgia and reputation.