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Τρίτη, 16 Ιουνίου 2009

Re(dis)covering female identity and female body: The duality of femininity within colonialism, national liberation struggles and nationalism.

Fantasia (music)

From Wikipedia
The fantasia (also English: fantasy, fancy, German: fantasie, French: fantaisie) is a musical composition with its roots in the art of improvisation. Because of this, it seldom approximates the textbook rules of any strict music form.

Fantasia (culture)

From Wikipedia
Fantasia is a traditional equestrian performance practiced during cultural festivals in Morocco, and occurs traditionally to close up berber wedding celebration in Maghreb. Fantasia is an imported name, the actual traditional term used is “Game of gunpowder”.

It consists of a group of horse riders, wearing traditional clothes and charging along a straight path at the same speed so as to form a line, at the end of the ride (about a two hundred meters) all riders fire in the sky using old gunpowder guns. The difficulty of the performance is synchronization during the acceleration and specially during firing so that one single shot is heard. The horse is referred to as fantasia horse and is of type barb. Gunpowder is called ‘Baroud’ and traditional gun ‘moukahla’, hence the name “la3b el baroud” or “game of gunpowder”.

The performance is inspired from historical wartime attacks of berber and desert knights. Nowadays, Fantasia is considered as a cultural art and a form of martial art; it also symbolizes a strong relationship between the man and the horse, as well as an attachment to tradition.
The novel, as suggested from its title, Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade, refers to the musical fantasia and more specifically to Beethoven’s Quasi una fantasia, as well as to the Arab fantasia, which is a ritualistic firing of traditional guns to signal either war or celebration. Djebar refers to Beethoven’s symphony in the beginning of the section titled Voices from the Past, whereas she constantly refers to cultural fantasias, celebrations of weddings that never took place, because of colonial intervention.

Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar intertwines an impressive blend of written and oral historical accounts and memoirs portraying the violent colonization of Algiers from both a French and an Algerian standpoint stirred together with the writer’s own memories of colonial as well as independent Algeria.

Djebar initially states colonial history in the form of diaries, letters and published accounts of French soldiers and officials, searching through them to uncover places where women spring to the surface and their involvement is recorded in spite of history’s and historiography’s determination to obliterate their participation as well as their existence.
But the enemy slips back in the rear. His war is mute, undocumented, leaving no leisure for writing. The women’s shrill ululation improvises for the fighting men a threnody of war in some alien idiom: our chroniclers are haunted by the distant sound of half-human cries, cacophony of keening, ear-splitting hieroglyphs of a wild, collective voice. Bosquet muses over the youth killed defending his sister in the luxurious tent; he recalls the anonymous woman whose foot had been hacked off, ‘cut off for the sake of the khakhal…’ Suddenly as he inserts these words, they prevent the ink of the whole letter from drying: because of the obscenity of the torn flesh that he could not suppress in his description.
(Djebar, 56)

In her effort to represent women, Djebar reveals the words of women fighters in the struggle for national independence translating them from Arabic to French. In the section of the novel titled Voices from the Past Djebar gives a record of women’s stories and disturbs the link between the spoken and the written, putting forward the constraints of established history as opposed to the plethora and vividness of oral tradition. In this way, Djebar revises established history and effectively decenters the colonizer’s adaptation of history creating space for the involvement of women in the struggle for national independence. The novel evidently exposes not only the cruelty of colonialism, but also the hypocrisy of the patriarchal elite as well as the wicked intolerance of fundamentalism.

The concept of linear history is challenged by Djebar, who presents an alternative view of the autonomy of the national as well as the personal, the past, the present and the future. Djebar moves in time, between past, present and future.
Djebar joins her own voice and life story with the voices and stories of other women, of Algerian women activists replacing history established by the colonizers with women’s experience and filling up the gaps of female silence with female expression. Djebar does not speak for or to the subaltern women, but instead she speaks with them stressing the collective character of female expression. Djebar carries out the way her own life story is thoroughly related to the silenced and forgotten testimonies of other women:
Can I, twenty years later, claim to revive these stifled voices? And speak for them? Shall I not at best find dried-up streams? What ghosts will be conjured up when this absence of expressions of love (love received, ‘love’ imposed), I see the reflection of my own barrenness, my own aphasia?
(Djebar, 202)
In conveying their stories, women reclaim not only their individual and collective voices, but their bodies as well.

Female body

The issue of female body and female sexuality has connotations for politics – that is, for the relations of power and control that govern a society. Women and their bodies are symbolically producers of boundaries.

Femininity is linked to nationhood. It is often in the course of nationalism that women are identified with nations:
In the year when Algiers fell, an only daughter was born to the Kulugli Caïd of Mazuna, Si Mohamed Ben Kadruma. She was called Badra, meaning ‘full moon’. For the people of Mazuna, Badra’s beauty – her green eyes, milky complexion, rounded bosom, her figure, slender as a young palm tree, her jet-black hair that fell below her waist – all attested to their city’s past splendour.
(Djebar, 84)
Her faith similar to that of the city: the night before her wedding she was kidnapped.
‘Sister, did you ever, at any time, suffer “damage”?’

The word suggesting rape – the euphemism: after the soldiers passed close to the river, the soldiers whom the young women lying hidden for hours could not avoid. The soldiers whom she met. And ‘submitted to’, ‘I submitted to “France”,’ the thirteen-year-old shepherd-girl might have said. Cherifa, who in fact did not submit to anything, unless it be today, the present emptiness.

Once the soldiers have gone, once she has washed, tidied herself up, plaited her hair and tied the scarlet ribbon, all these actions reflected in the brackish water of the wadi, the woman, every woman, returns, one hours or two hours later, advances to face the world to prevent the chancre being opened in the tribal circle: the blind old man, the watchful matrons, the silent children with flies about their eyes, young lads already distrustful:
‘My daughter, has there been “damage”?’
One or other of the matriarchs will ask the question, to seize on the silence and build a barrier against misfortune. The young woman, her hair no longer in disarray, looks into the old woman’s eyes, sprinkles scorching sand over every word: rape will not be mentioned, will be respected. Swallowed. Until the next alarm.
(Djebar, 202)
The novel is overwhelmed by stories of kidnaps and rapes. The colonizer seems to assume that the veiled woman, the Other is within herself a nymphomaniac. Moreover, the colonizer presumes that to conquer women will lead them to an easier and unavoidable conquer of the nation as a whole, since women are then spin of the nation and especially in Algeria, where apart from the visible patriarchy, a concealed matriarchy exists as well. Rape is penetration and therefore, in the colonizer’s mind, to rape a woman is to penetrate not only her but her nation as well.


(from Wikipedia)
Harem (Turkish from Arab Hāram, forbidden) refers to the sphere of women in a usually polygynous household and their quarters enclosed and forbidden to men.

Hāram (forbidden), originally entailing “women’s quarters”, literally: “something forbidden or kept safe”, from the root Harama “he guarded, forbade.” The trilateral H-R-M is common to Arabic words entailing forbidden.

Female privacy in Islam is emphasized to the extent that any lawful breaking into that privacy is Hāram “forbidden”. Contrary to the common belief, a Muslim harem does not necessarily consist solely of women with whom the head of the household has sexual relations (wives and concubines), but also their young offspring, other female relatives, etc.; and it may either be a palatial complex, as in Romantic tales, or simply their quarters, in the Ottoman tradition separated from the men’s selamlik.

It is being more commonly acknowledged today that the purpose of Harems during the Ottoman Empire were for the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women would be educated so that they were ready to appear in public as a royal wife. No forms of sexual activity took place in those Harems.

The Harem became fetishized by West, who understood it as a place of luxury and leisure. The Western understanding of the Harem was constructed in the context of Orientalism. While the norm of Western society is the monogamous relationships, the harem became the “Othering” of Western tradition and was depicted through imaged of naked women, who were always sexually available and stimulating.

Harem = the domestic sphere. The space of women’s seclusion.
For my part, I lived at a time when, for more than a century, the vilest of men from the dominant society had imagined himself a master over us. So there was never any chance of him assuming the cloak of seducer in women’s eyes. After all. Lucifer himself shares an identical kingdom with Eve.
Never did the harem, that is to say, the taboo, whether be a place of habitation or a symbol, never did the harem act as a better barrier, preventing as it did the cross-breeding of two opposing worlds; as if my people, my brothers and thus, by definition, my jailers, had first been decimated, then uprooted, and finally risked the loss of their identity: curious dereliction which caused even their sexual image to become blurred…
(Djebar, 128)

The relationship between body and language– both written and oral language.

The body is a site for linguistic transcription and re-inscription, along a bilingual field – Arabic and French.
Ever since I was a child the foreign language was a casement opening on the spectacle of the world and all its riches. In certain circumstances it became a dagger threatening me.
I discovered that I too was veiled, not so much disguised as anonymous. Although I had a body just like that of a Western girl, I had thought it to be invisible, in spite of evidence to the contrary; I suffered because this illusion did not turn out to be shared.
I did not realize that by this assumption I was putting on a symbolic veil. I had passed the age of puberty without being buried in the harem like my girl cousins; I had spent my dreaming adolescence on its fringes, neither totally outside, nor in its heart; so I spoke and studied French, and my body, during this formative period, became Westernized in its way.
(Djebar, 126 – 127)

Djebar’s discussion of the veil representing her own avoidance of seclusion along with her access to academia constitute an implication that the female body is a sign of prospective revolt and knowledge that jeopardizes male power:
When I am growing up – shortly before my native land throws off the colonial yoke – while the man still has the right to four legitimate wives, we girls, big and little, have at our command four languages to express desire before all that is left for us is sighs and moans: French for secret missives; Arabic for our stifled aspirations towards God – the Father, the God of the religions of the Book; Lybico-Berber which takes us back to the pagan idols – mother-gods – of pre-Islamic Mecca. The fourth language, for all females, young or old, cloistered or half-emancipated, remains that of the body: the body which male neighbours’ and cousins’ eyes require to be deaf and blind, since they cannot completely incarcerate it; the body which, in trances, dances or vociferations, in fits of hope or despair, rebels, and unable to read or write, seeks some unknown shore as destination for its message of love.
(Djebar, 180)

Women’s centrality in national character and the rewriting of history from a female perspective

a) Djebra’s story as well as the stories of women fighters she represents constitute also the story of Algeria and illustrate the crossing from suppression and colonization to autonomy and the constitution of an independent nation.

b) The re-writing of history is common in the project of nationalism. Usually, this is undertaken by dominant structures or powerful persons and thus, it continues to be a male-centered history. Djebra however brings women in the front of history, uncovers their silenced stories and accounts for their revolutionary role. In this re-writing of history women seize being in the margins and reclaim not only their true identity but also their civil as well as political rights as full citizens in the nation, to the construction of which they contributed.

The image of the dismembered hand at the end of the novel symbolizes both Algeria vandalized by the colonial power and mutilated by a history written by others (French soldiers, officials, historians, artists) and Algerian women torn apart in their endeavor to represent themselves.
Eugène Fromentin offers me an unexpected hand, the hand of an unknown woman he was never able to draw.
In June 1853, when he leaves the Sahel to travel down to the edge of the desert, he visits Laghouat which has been occupied after a terrible siege. He describes one sinister detail: as he is leaving the oasis which six months after the massacre is still filled with its stench, Fromentin picks up out of the dust the severed hand of an anonymous Algerian woman, he throws it down again in his path.
Later, I seize on this living hand, hand of mutilation and of memory, and I attempt to bring it the qalam.
I wait amid the scattered sheaf of sounds, I wait, foreseeing the inevitable moment when the mare’s hoof will strike down any woman who dares to stand up freely, will trample all life that comes out into the sunlight to dance! Yes, in spite of the tumult of my people all around, I already hear, even before it arises and pierces the harsh sky, I hear the death cry in the Fantasia.
(Djebra, 226 – 227)
The prevailing images of the novel are kidnaps and rapes that sexualize the representation of Algeria, which turns out to be the female body. The history of Algeria’s colonization and independence was written on the female body. Thus, women’s real role has to be recognized and acknowledged. Djebar asks from the Algerian nation to comprehend the anxieties of women and their oppression, to restore them as full citizens and to acknowledge their voices and their existence.

The importance of female ancestry

Female ancestry, both familial and cultural, helps women to construct a sense of identity.

The writer provides a recovery of a submerged history through women’s testimonial voices.

Concealed matriarchy.

The historic dynamism of the veil

According to Fanon, the wear of the veil among Algerian women is inextricably linked to the course of colonization in Algeria:
In the beginning, the veil was a mechanism of resistance, but its value for the social group
remained very strong. The veil was worn because tradition demanded a rigid separation of the
sexes, but also because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria. In a second phase, the mutation occurred in connection with the Revolution and under special circumstances. The veil was abandoned in the course of revolutionary action. What had been used to block the psychological or political offensives of the occupier became a means, an instrument. The veil helped the Algerian woman to meet the new problems created by the struggle.
(Fanon, 63)

Wearing the veil had not always been compulsory for all Algerian women. Moreover, it had not been a religious action but a cultural behavior. Since however clothing tradition is the most visible feature of culture, French colonizers depicted it to be one of the major characteristics of Muslim culture. In addition, colonizers realized that behind the evident patriarchal structures of Algerian society, a strong tradition of matriarchy was endured and valued. Therefore, colonizers aimed at colonizing Algerian women as a means to colonize Algeria and adopted a pretentious concern for the emancipation of Algerian women from their men and tried to convince them to unveil themselves.
In the colonialist program, it was the woman who was given the historic mission of shaking up the Algerian man. Converting the woman, winning her over to the foreign values, wretching her free from her status, was at the same time achieving a real power over the man and attaining a practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture.
(Fanon, 39)
The colonizers assumed that every unveiled Algerian woman would support their project of colonization and modernization, their project of penetration actually. Therefore, Algerian society built mechanisms of resistance in order to defend itself. This implied that the custom of the veiling of women was strengthened, so as for the Algerian to society to remain homogeneous and resistant. Tradition is important for nationalism, because the change of habits and customs entails a change of the structure of society and thus, the conqueror’s triumph. Later on however the unveiling of Algerian women is encouraged by Algerians, since their European image facilitates their movement and therefore, their contribution to the struggle for national liberation. Once the colonizers became aware of this, it made no change if women had a European appearance – they were equally suspects. Yet, this time the wearing of the veil helped them to contribute to the struggle, since they could carry weapons under the veil. Therefore, the wearing of the veil became again the dressing code for Algerian women. The problem is that after the independence of Algeria the veil remained a dressing code for Algerian women, who returned in the domestic sphere and were silenced and forgotten again.

Education as the means for women to break free from the physical imprisonment of the veil

The repression and oppression of women in Muslim culture are not comprehended as innate to the Muslim faith but rather as a social distortion of power. In Djebar’s case, the wearing of the veil could not be imposed to her because of her access to academia:

Djebar suggestss that a woman can break free from society’s constraints, no matter her physical imprisonment, through her access to education. Thus, she states:
So wrap the nubile girl in veils. Make her invisible. Make her more unseeing than the sightless, destroy in her every memory of the world without. And what if she has learned to write? The jailer who guards a body that has no words – and written words can travel – may sleep in peace: it will suffice to brick up the windows, padlock the sole entrance door, and erect a blank wall rising up to heaven.
And what if the maiden does write? Her voice, albeit silenced, will circulate. A scrap of paper. A crumpled cloth. A servant-girl’s hand in the dark. A child, let into the secret. The jailer must keep watch day and night. The written word will take flight from the patio, will be tossed from a terrace. The blue of heaven is suddenly limitless. The precautions have all been in vein.
(Djebar, 3)

In the case of her mother, education is a means for recognition and expression of love. Despite the “rule whereby a husband and wife must never be referred by name” (Djebar, 35), after she learned French, she begun referring to her husband as ‘my husband’ and finally begun addressing him with his name, establishing therefore a real ‘couple relationship’. In this way, she claimed her husband’s recognition and respect and she gained them. He wrote her a letter addressing to her.


Djebar, Assia. Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. USA: Heinemann. 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. Algeria Unveiled. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
1965, p.p. 35 – 67.



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