A few months after Faten and I discussed issues like identity, feminism and women’s rights, popular protests erupted in the streets of Algeria, leading President Bouteflika to resign after a twenty-year rule. I didn’t want to publish Faten’s interview without including her thoughts on the current situation in her country, and she gracefully accepted to answer more questions.
In the few months since we spoke, the people of Algeria, your country, have taken to the streets and demanded regime change. And they were successful! I know the battle is not over and the Algerian people are still pushing to secure civilian rule, but I wanted to ask you what that meant to you. What was your initial reaction when you heard about the protest?
During the week leading up to 22 February – the day when the first major march took place – I was apprehensive. I didn't know what the reaction would be to a mass movement. I think all Algerians were waiting to see what would happen. The day went through with no major clashes, but I was still apprehensive. I thought, this is just the calm before the crackdown. Then the second Friday of protests came, then the next.
Watching all of this unfold from outside of the country was emotional. I can't tell you how many times I watched the videos and cried.
As an Algerian woman living abroad, have you been involved in this process at all? How do you see yourself participating in this new chapter of your country's history?
In March, I booked a plane ticket so I could spend the weekend in Algeria just for the protest, then I decided to do so as often as my work schedule allowed me to. Whenever I can, I join the protests in Algeria at the weekends and then I go back to The Netherlands and go about my usual business.
It is a moment in the history of the country I felt could not be missed. But as you say, it is not over. The fight goes on. The youth of the country have shown their determination and especially their maturity despite having been depicted as a "lost generation" for so long.
“The youth of the country have shown their determination and especially their maturity despite having been depicted as a "lost generation" for so long.”
What do you hope history books will remember about this moment in national history?
There’s one moment I hope they will write about. It was during the first couple of weeks of the movement, in the city of Khanchela (in the Eastern part of the country). Someone managed to climb on the roof of the city hall to take down a large poster of Bouteflika that was standing next to a huge flag. The other protesters were shouting at him: "take down Bouteflika's poster but leave the flag".
To me it was such a symbolic moment, and it brought me to tears. What they were saying was: "we will take you down but we won’t touch the integrity of our country". The people are the real protectors of a nation.
Algerian women have been instrumental to the ongoing movement. What has their role been, and why do you think they were so active?
I'm glad you didn't ask "did women play a role?" – which is the question I often get... Women have indeed been instrumental in many ways, some bigger and some smaller. It was clear from the start that women were important to have in the marches to keep the "silmiya", the peaceful character of the movement. From the start, people were conscious that a lot of testosterone would have provided an easier justification to violence, and that the government couldn’t be as violent when there were women and children amid the protesters.
Women are also central to the political debates taking place. One of the key questions we are facing now is: what is our vision of a society in a democratic Algeria? The role of the women is essential, and women’s rights organisations and some public figures were able to put the issue on the table. In fact, a so-called civil society meeting failed before it even started, for many reasons including its unwillingness to recognize gender equality as a foundation of any democratic transition.
“One of the key questions we are facing now is: what is our vision of a society in a democratic Algeria?”
What is the biggest change you hope this moment will bring about for Algerian women?
The current movement broke a lot of taboos about the women’s role in society, and it also brought to the forefront gender-related issues. There is a focus on the reform of the family code as an indicator of progress. That code has to be revised as far as I am concerned. But it does not stop there. Political change must bring along a fundamental shift in society's perception of the role of women.
To me that starts with the acceptance that not all women have to follow a certain path to be considered acceptable. For example, in recent years the idea that women's decency is secured only if she wears the hijab has gained some ground. But I am optimistic. There is solid debate which we did not have before. And now that politicians are out of the space I can see that there is greater tolerance for diversity.