Bouhired, Djamila (1937—)

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Bouhired, Djamila (1937—)

Algerian heroine of the War of National Liberation from France, 1954–1962, known throughout the Middle East as "the Arab Joan of Arc." Name variations: Djamilah. Born in 1937 to a middle-class Muslim family in Algiers (some sources cite 1935); married Jacques Vergès (her French attorney); children: three, Nadyah (adopted), Maryam, Ilyas.

It is one of the ironies of modern Algerian history that the greatest heroine of the Algerian War of National Liberation grew up in the 1940s believing herself to be French rather than Arab. Born in 1937 into a middle-class family, Djamila Bouhired was educated in Algiers at a school that inculcated in its students the belief that they were French. Like virtually all of the young Algerians fortunate enough in the 1940s to find themselves in school, and the great majority were not, she was raised with a French cultural consciousness and never learned to read or write in Arabic, the language that she and her family spoke at home. French was the language of instruction in her school, with the "foreign" languages offered being German, Italian, and finally Arabic. In a 1971 interview, she recalled that when she was a schoolgirl her teachers "taught us with the assumption that we were French. Paris was the capital, the mother of us all. The French parliament was our parliament, Vincent Auriol was our president, the French flag was our flag. Algeria? At that time it didn't exist. It was French Algeria. And we carried around our French identity every day in school. It wasn't easy to get rid of that identity; we'd had it all of our lives."

Having lost its empire in India and North America in the 18th century, France began in 1830 to create a new empire centered in North Africa. Although the ports were easily captured, Algerian resistance remained strong. Northern Algeria was not conquered until 1857, and the conquest of the southern part of the country was not completed until 1882. Local rebellions, including a massive one in eastern Algeria in the early 1870s, made it clear that European rule continued to be resented. The tripling of the indigenous population from 1830 to 1914 only worsened the poverty and ignorance of most Algerians. With few exceptions, the role of women remained subordinated to that of men in a traditional system of patriarchy. As late as the 1930s, less than nine percent of Muslim children went to school; only a handful of these were female. The hopes raised by World War II were dashed by the reversion to old colonial patterns by the end of the conflict. A tragic turning point in French-Algerian relations took place in 1945, when Djamila was eight years old. That May, French troops carried out a bloody massacre of the Algerian population when celebrations of the victory over Nazi Germany turned into nationalist demonstrations. Many thousands of Algerians were killed, but few if any significant reforms were initiated by the French colonial regime.

Harsh repressions by the French authorities and lack of a unified strategy among the Algerian nationalist leadership delayed by almost a decade any strong response to the continuing injustices of colonialism, but an armed uprising initiated by the National Liberation Front (FLN) on November 1, 1954, marked the beginning of the Algerian revolution. Although the uprising brought on a rhetorical response about the desirability of political and social reforms from Paris, the essential French reaction consisted of increasingly bloody military reprisals. By September 1955, there were more than 120,000 French soldiers in Algeria, a number that increased to 400,000 by the end of 1956. Although the Algerian rebels had to give up the idea of permanently capturing towns or large tracts of territory, French repression only strengthened the rebels' appeal to the Muslim majority, and by 1956 they had become highly effective at a strategy of urban guerrilla warfare.

The start of the War of National Liberation in late 1954 first resulted in an enthusiastic response from Djamila's brother who in turn recruited her for the nationalist cause. Youthful Algerian nationalists like Djamila became increasingly radicalized by the brutal treatment of FLN prisoners by the French. In one particularly dramatic instance of the escalating French efforts to crush the rebellion in blood, in June 1956 two FLN prisoners, one of whom had been crippled by his severe wounds while fighting the French, were guillotined. The response of the FLN was to announce that for every guillotined member of their organization, 100 French would be killed indiscriminately. The Algiers network led by Saadi Yacef, son of a Casbah baker, of which Djamila was now a member, was told to "kill any European between the ages of 18 and 54. But no women, no children, no old people." Within a week of the June 1956 executions of the two FLN prisoners, Yacef's squads had shot down 49 French civilians at random. The pied noir colonial settlers, assisted by allies in the French armed forces, retaliated with indiscriminate terror of their own, blowing up three Muslim houses, with a death toll of more than 70 including women and children.

By the end of 1956, Saadi Yacef had created a well-organized force of over 1,400 militants in Algiers, most of them young and willing to give their lives for the FLN cause. A key element in Yacef's terrorist strategy would be the use of young, attractive and Westernized Muslim women to plant bombs to spread terror among the European population of Algiers. Djamila Bouhired, who was personally devoted to Saadi Yacef, played a key role in recruiting many of his most selfless female militants. Besides Bouhired, these included Zohra Drif and Samia Lakhdari . On September 30, 1956, Bouhired, Drif, and Lakhdari attended a meeting with Saadi Yacef in one of his Casbah hideouts. Here they were told that the same afternoon each of them would place a bomb in a selected location in the European quarter of Algiers. When the first response of the young women appeared to be one of disbelief and shock, Yacef reminded them of the horrible mutilations suffered by Muslim children as a result of French bombings. Djamila and the other women took off their veils, tinted their hair, and put on the kind of bright, summery dresses worn by young European girls spending a carefree day at the beach.

As depicted in the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers in which Saadi Yacef played himself, each of the women was given a bomb of little more than a kilogram in weight. The bombs, which were timed to go off at one-minute intervals, were concealed in beach bags under bikinis,

beach towels, and suntan-oil. Two of the three bombs went off, one at a Milk Bar and the other at a popular cafeteria frequented by young couples. Djamila Bouhired's bomb, which she had placed in the hall of the Air France terminus, failed to go off due to a faulty timing mechanism. A number of deaths and severe mutilations resulted from the explosions, and as expected the French response was to ratchet up their violence against the Muslim population. Spontaneous outbursts of hatred between the French and Muslim populations erupted after each bombing, and on one occasion an innocent young Muslim mechanic was lynched by an outraged pied noir mob. Convinced that her activities would hasten the day of Algerian independence, Bouhired continued recruiting young women, some as young as 16, for the FLN cause; she also continued planting bombs herself. More than a decade later, she would recall: "My job was to plant bombs. I carried death with me in my handbag, death in the shape of time bombs."

Intense French efforts succeeded in smashing Saadi Yacef's organization by the end of February 1957. In April of that year, Bouhired was arrested while walking out of the Algiers Casbah. Strolling a few paces behind her, disguised as a woman and carrying a submachine gun under his traditional Muslim clothing, Saadi Yacef responded to Bouhired's arrest by drawing his gun and firing at her. She was only wounded, but it was clear that Yacef's goal had been to kill in order to prevent her from revealing important information about himself and his organization to the French. As soon as she had recovered from her wounds, Bouhired's French captors interrogated her using extreme forms of torture including electrodes attached to her body. Despite the intensity of her suffering, she revealed nothing. She derived strength and inspiration during her ordeal from the knowledge that other young women had chosen to sacrifice their lives for the goal of a free Algeria. One of her comrades, Aminah, had been discovered while on a bomb-placing mission; rather than endure torture, Aminah had taken poison and died. Other young FLN women, including a 19-year-old named Hasibah, had chosen death when the French troops gave her and her two male comrades a choice of emerging from their hideaway in a house or being blown up. All three chose to remain in the house and died in the resulting explosion.

Drawing upon her own courage and a rapidly growing tradition of revolutionary martyrdom by young Algerian women, Djamila Bouhired kept herself from revealing any secrets during 17 days of torture. Before his own capture in late September 1957, Saadi Yacef and his unit made several attempts to rescue her from the Maillot military hospital. Bouhired received a smuggled message concerning a rescue attempt in which she was to deceive the French by claiming to lead them to Yacef, and in which she was to throw herself to the ground while Yacef's forces ambushed her captors. She refused to participate in this action, not wanting "any brothers" to "risk their lives" to liberate her from French captivity. Another attempt to free her was frustrated at the last minute when French paratroopers took her away in a military vehicle just before the arrival of a FLN rescue team.

Few observers doubted the outcome of Djamila Bouhired's trial, which took place before a military court in Algeria in mid-July 1957. The special tribunal had an agenda of crushing the continuing Muslim insurrection and ignored the spirited defense of Bouhired's French attorney, Jacques Vergès. The entire trial was marked by irregularities and regarded by many observers as a travesty of justice. Bouhired and another defendant, Djamila Bouazza , were both found guilty and sentenced to die on the guillotine. By this time, however, public opinion—both in France and internationally—had begun to turn against an interminable war that saw ever more torture and other inhumane methods used to crush the efforts of national liberation. Bouazza's age (19) and the obvious courage of both women made a deep impression on public opinion outside of Algeria. French intellectuals took up the cause of Djamila Bouhired with passionate intensity, with her lawyer Jacques Vergès coauthoring an influential pamphlet discussing the merits of her case. Committees pledged to save Bouhired and Bouazza from the guillotine were formed in a number of European countries, and, as her case was discussed in the press, key members of the French government began to recognize the propaganda defeat they would suffer if the women were in fact put to death. In an Arab world awakening to the energies of national rebirth, Djamila Bouhired was celebrated in the media as "the Arab Joan of Arc."

In the last days of 1957, French President René Coty received an impassioned plea from Princess Laila Ayesha of Morocco asking that Bouhired's life be spared. The international furor over her fate did not abate, and, in early February 1958, a letter signed by 76 British Labour Party members of Parliament urged President Coty to grant Bouhired a reprieve from the guillotine as well as open an inquiry into the trial that had sentenced her to death. More dramatic and to the point were three days of demonstrations in front of the French embassy in London in February 1958 demanding that Djamila Bouhired not be executed. Bowing to the intense international pressure, on March 13, 1958, the French president commuted to life imprisonment not only the death sentences of Bouazza and Bouhired, but also the death sentence of another young female FLN activist, Jacqueline Netter Guerrodj .

Djamila Bouhired was taken to France where she was imprisoned until summer 1962 at the Rheims prison. With the achievement of Algerian independence in 1962, she was released and returned to Algiers. Soon after her return home, she married Jacques Vergès, the French attorney who had defended her with such energy at her trial in July 1957. Bouhired and her husband raised a family, beginning with an adopted daughter, Nadyah, whose father had died in the Algerian revolution. Two children of her own, a daughter Maryam and a son Ilyas, soon followed. Bouhired and her husband, a militant Communist, believed that Algeria's many problems could best be understood from a Marxist perspective. She ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Algeria's first post-independence National Assembly. Along with her husband and another of Yacef's former operatives, Zohra Drif, she published a radical journal, Révolution africaine.

The hopeful dreams of the early days of Algerian independence quickly evaporated. In 1963, a purge of Communists and other leftists forced Bouhired and her husband from the staff of Révolution africaine. Subsequently, she divorced Vergès and became involved in a business venture selling cosmetics. Bouhired withdrew from the national political scene, concentrating on raising her three children and working in local social improvement projects in her neighborhood in Algiers. As she entered middle-age, Djamila Bouhired became part of the history of not only her own country but the history of women seeking emancipation and equality in the modern Muslim world. The dreams of full equality for women, one of the goals of the Algerian revolution, were not realized as the 20th century came to an end. Massive problems of a stagnant economy and rapid population growth resulted in the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s and a virtual civil war in the 1990s. Though the hopes of the Algerian women of Bouhired's generation were not realized after the achievement of independence, the courageous example she set both during and after the revolution may one day guide a new and more fortunate generation of women in Algeria.


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related media:

Battle of Algiers (120 min.), produced by Magna-Rizzoli, directed by Gino Pontecorvo, 1967, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Bouhired, Djamila (1937—)

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