Meriem Bedjaoui – Words Are the Root of the Language / Pains Are the Predilection of the Man


Meriem Bedjaoui

العربية | Français

« If you want to rule the ignorant, cover your

harmful and pernicious intentions with a religious

envelope. »

Ibn Khaldoun (Prolegomena, 1377)[1]

 I.      Introduction

The theme of this special issue — sexual violence against women in wartime — is not a new phenomenon. In times of war, conflict or terrorism, women have always been the principal victims. Indeed, the sexual violence inflicted upon women is not linked to a particular race, religion, or group; global history has provided so many cases of women who have been subjugated to sexual violence. For instance, history has recorded a series of human tragedies where women’s bodies endured acts of violence, mutilation and rape at the hands of the French Army in Algeria during the Liberation War, and also in Liberia, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, and more recently in Syria. This is not to normalise sexual violence towards women, but to remind us that it is a global, historical phenomenon.

Algerian literature in French, whether the work of male or female writers, has always focused on the living conditions of women in Algeria, who are viewed as targets, victims or simply war trophies. This negative perception of women results from the chauvinistic attitudes of men and iniquitous traditions of segregation which are at the heart of Algerian society, in addition to interpretations of Islamic exegesis (Tafsir of the Qur’an, deemed unfounded by some Muslim schools of thought for its exaggerated and inauthentic narratives). This manipulated view of Islamic principles helps to explain the aforementioned quotation which provides the ultimate argument of the persecutors/violators and their ill deeds in the Land of Islam, still relevant to this day. Indeed, indiscriminate terrorism that plunged Algeria into mourning for over a decade between 1990 and 2002 has paved the way for the proliferation of fictional narratives as well as political and journalistic works. The horror and barbarism that prevailed in that period left no one indifferent, and prominent writers paid the price of denouncing this murderous folly with their lives, including Tahar Djaout, Youcef Sebti, and Said Mekbel, Others, such as Rachid Boudjedra, one of the most outspoken opponents of Islamic fundamentalists, had to flee the country to publish his denouncing works. Yasmina Khadra is another Algerian writer whose avant-garde work has denounced the many contradictions and paradoxes within Algerian society and the Muslim world in general.

This paper is based on the works of Maïssa Bey (real name Samia Benameur) and Assia Djebar (Fatma-Zohra Imaleyene), examining the moral, psychological and physical violence inflicted on women and the subsequent silence which accompanies this violence them. These two novelists have both used pseudonyms to express themselves in an oppressive and often misogynistic country. While Djebar was a well-known and well-established author and a member of the Académie française since 2005, Bey has made her way onto the literary scene as a reaction to the tragedies that have shaken her country. The paper will examine the socio-historical conditions of Algeria’s gendered violence and will analyse the ‘bloody years’ in two collections of short stories, Sous le Jasmin, la nuit (2004)[2] and Oran, langue morte (2001),[3] by Bey and Djebar respectively.

Both collections are devoted to women, or more precisely to their silenced voices.

II.      Gender and Violence in Algeria

In her doctoral thesis completed in 2012, entitled ‘The Writing of Assia Djebar: A Translation of Female Speech’, F.Z. Ferchouli presents an unflattering summary of the status of the Algerian woman, and gives examples of texts which confine her to the role of a minor subject, always at the mercy of a ‘guardian male’.[4] This gives men all the more temptation, as Lucie Pruvost argues, who finds in ‘the patriarchal interpretations of the normative verses of the Qur’an and the Sharia’ evidence which explains their pervasive conduct.[5] A striking example is the ignominy which has been happening before the world’s eyes regarding the ‘Jihad al nikah’ (jihad marriage) of the Tunisian female jihadists; Western countries did not react at all, frightened by terrorist groups in Africa and the Middle East.

In addition to these fallacious arguments that have been unfairly attributed to Islam, a Family Code (Law No. 84-11 of June 9, 1984), to which Algerian people refer as the Code of disgrace, was issued. This code is a real regression.  Moreover, it is in total contradiction with the Algerian constitution (both of 1964 and 1996).

Thus, once again, voices were raised against what seemed to be an injustice against women. These were voices of intellectuals, journalists and writers who reported the forgotten horrors of the ‘Dirty War’ of 1992 and the continuing subjugation of Algerian women. 

Maïssa Bey and Assia Djebar

If Bey has dedicated all her work to the women of her country, who have been confined in a silence imposed on them by society, it is through the collection Sous le Jasmin, la nuit, and particularly the short story ‘Nuit et silence’, that she depicts their unspeakable reality through language. Here, she attempts to find the appropriate words to describe the violent acts of rape committed by those who were identified as terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists. The narrative describes the nightmare of a fifteen-year-old teenage girl who is kidnapped and then raped by an armed group. The author manipulates the intricacies of the verb and the adjective to describe the indescribable, to name the unnamable: “They dance around me an infernal dance, all these names that my dictionary describes as common: carnage, massacre, killing, slaughter, as if to dig deeper into our wounds, come to append the adjectives; dreadful, terrible, horrible, unbearable, inhuman, and many more…. Erasing the words to make the fact disappear will not do” (p. 56). In a climatic and tragic scene, the young girl becomes pregnant and rejects her unborn child: ‘I do not want this being moving within me. I cannot give birth to a being that might look like them….. Let him grow up to hate, to kill or be killed’ (pp. 108-109).

Although she was abused in her very being, the heroine resists.  She confronts the religious fanaticism and the damage it causes her with bravery and boldness.  Throughout this poignant witness narrative, the author meticulously describes (in a ‘Balzacian’ way) the event and, somewhat cynically, gives details about the barbarism that plunged Algeria into mourning and made women eternally responsible for all evils.  Victimized and gagged, Bey breaks the silence (a recurring term in all her writings), creating places and spaces for women’s expression: ‘The night and silence weighed heavily on my eyelids and my aching forehead. I can’t even move. Yet tonight I’m not afraid, I’m not hungry, nor am I cold. I just want to sleep but I cannot. Too much night, too much silence’ (p. 101).

Using multiple female voices and writing a literature of ‘urgency’, Bey is devoted to denouncing the scourges hindering women’s empowerment, as she points out in the following statement: “Then, it took me one day to feel the urge to say, to carry the words as one might carry a torch”.  The torch of freedom has been taken away from the women of her country for so long. Thus, writing will allow the author to exorcise her pains, her fears and her revolts, and those of her fellow Algerian women.  By deliberately choosing to write in an outspoken style and manipulating syntactic forms which challenge the linearity of narration, such as the use of recurring typographical characters, the author subjects her text to the challenges of memory, suggesting that amnesia and silence can only be offset by literature.

Although the collection is composed of eleven short stories, each with different plots, settings, time frames and characters, they all work towards the same objective: laying bare the social ills which undermine Algerian society because of women, the root of all evil. Thus, women are, and will remain, the focal point in the romantic discourse of both Bey and Djebar. Their writing represents an‘infringement’, a ‘sign of the forbidden’, which only becomes possible through the adoption of a pseudonym and the use of this “foster and fostered language” that is French. The problem of the language of the Other, the conqueror, the colonizer, has often been raised by the Algerian authors writing in French. Although Algerian literature has been strongly marked by one hundred and thirty two years of linguistic and cultural imposition, it has accommodated the language of Molière primarily out of necessity. Imposed, yet tamed, the French initially served as a language of struggle and rebellion, (Feraoun, Mammeri, Dib. etc.), in order to recover a stifled identity. The succeeding generations of writers then emerged, using this “foreign” language, this “stepmother” language without any difficulty. They renewed its standards regarding creative aesthetic research and dynamic narrative forms. Nourished and imbued with French culture, the two novelists, Assia Djebar and Maisa Bey, exceed the problem of language inherited from a troubled history to create a unique sort of writing; an unveiling writing, denouncing, saying the unsayable, giving voice to those who have been deprived since the earliest times. Also, for both authors, regardless of the language in which they write, the fundamental issue is to break the silences that freeze Muslim women in general, and the Algerian women in particular, in the eternal status of inferiority, afflicted with all ills of society. In interviews Bay explains her reasons for choosing to write in French; her decision seems to be less associated with a desire to reclaim the colonial language as pragmatism. She explains that:

I have no problem with the French language, because it is part of my personal history. I was born in a territory, which at the time of my birth and during my childhood was considered French. So I naturally learned French, encouraged by my father, a schoolteacher, who was one of the first Algerians to engage in the war of independence. He disappeared; killed by the people whom he was teaching the language. It was him who taught me to read and write in French. And later, I discovered the French literature. I can therefore say, as Boudjedra put it, that “I have not chosen the French language; it was French who chose me.” I do not feel concerned with all controversies on language, because what is important for me now is to say what I want to say (interview Joha, 2008). [6]

Bey’s relationship with language thus differs from that of Djebar who claims to actively use the French language to gain a freedom that is denied to her through Arabic. She describes this complex relationship in L’Amour, la fantasia (1985) as follows:

As if the French language suddenly had eyes, and lent them to me to see into liberty; as if the French language blinded the peeping-toms of my clan and, at this price, I could move freely, run headlong down every street, annex the outdoors for my cloistered companions, for the matriarchs of my family who endured a living death. As it . . . Derision! I know that every language is a dark depository for piled-up corpses, refuse, sewage, but faced with the language of the former conqueror, which offers me its ornaments, its jewels, its flowers, I find they are flowers of death- chrysanthemums on tombs![7]

Bey’s Sous le Jasmin, la nuit can be read alongside Djebar’s collection of short stories, Oran, langue morte (2001) which, like Bey’s novel, centres around the violence of religious fanaticism that scarred Algerian society in the 1990s. Djebar, who died in February 2015, enjoyed a very successful literary and academic career: she was the author of many novels, short stories, poetry collections, plays and film scripts. She was awarded the International Critics Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1979 for La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua (1977) and Best Historical Film at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989 for La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli (1979). Her texts have been translated into twenty-three languages. In her quest to restore women’s voices from silence and oppression, Assia Djebar uses the spoken language by integrating witnesses’ voices, recalling families’ traditions and revisiting sacred texts of Islam and the Prophet, most notably in Loin de Médine (1991). Furthermore, the violence of barbarism, which mainly targeted women, is omnipresent in all seven texts of Oran, langue morte, underscored by the fourth cover of the novel.

Between murderous craziness and fierce resistance, women try to survive the daily bloodshed in Algeria over the last decades.  As the seven texts of this collection unfold, we discover a country shattered by violence to which Assia Djebar gives a voice in a tragic work, where the aesthetic and reality intertwine.

Through the voices of the humiliated, disgraced, beaten, raped or repudiated women, Djebar seeks to bring to mind the tragedies that ravaged Algeria; a country that was a cultural backwater. In the short story ‘Wife into pieces’ within the collection, the title already revealing a great deal about the violent and degrading treatment to which Algeria subjects women, the protagonist is fighting death generated by a “vampire-like” fundamentalism and is forced to endure a devastating ideology. Djebar is known for being the first Algerian novelist to focus on female protagonists in her writing and to bring back the voice of women through her female characters in her novels such as Loin de Médine, L’Amour, la fantasia (1985), Ces voix qui m’assiègent (1999), in addition to the text in focus in this paper, Oran, langue morte. These are texts in which the status of women, from the ancestral silence to the sweeping wave of terrorism, is the central point of the narrative: ‘Thus, where to find the right words to speak out these griefs and bereavements that could not be uttered, these emotions that slip into the very details of everyday life? Where to find the words when violence and history leave the human beings voiceless, imprisoned by their silence?’(p. 43).

Djebar’s originality lies in her ability to weave fictions within multidisciplinary genres, delving into an infinite number of documentary resources and historical landmarks. Throughout her oeuvre she desires to reveal women’s voices in French, the language of the other, as she points out in ‘Writing Took Me Back to the Cries of Women Silently Revolted’. It is in this collection of short stories that she formulated her total commitment to those women: grandmothers, mothers, sisters, neighbours or friends, who were forever marked by the ancestral silence and had to endure the attempts of religious fundamentalism to gag them.  In the afterword to the book, Djebar summarises the anxiety that runs through her writings and the hope that her narrative instils in Algerian women:

A narrative of women of the Algeria dark era and the new women of Algiers today. Fragments of life, conveyed, reported in a back and forth journey of the travelers, the passengers, in a relay, a haven where one can rest and reminisce. These are not the stages of an escape but of a mobility process; They are dialogues exchanged between Algerians from here and there. Suddenly, some aspects of life are highlighted then shattered: Then follow the images of the chase, the escape and the death. Of a glimpse of hope, sometimes, in this long night.

Djebar thus offers the reader a text of transgression and unveiling through the different textual forms constituting the collection (narratives, short stories, tales) and the multiplicity of voices that interweave to underscore the rejection of women. Their marginalization is underscored in the following quotation: ‘I dropped the rough headscarf of my mother (Khalti) and I screamed … It’s me then who revives the scene, who writes it, so that I can finally annihilate it’, said the orphan of Oran (p. 40).

As P. Martini (Loxias 32) says:

Silence is not on the outside part of the narrative discourse, in fact, it is an integral part of it: The pauses in speech, the hesitations in the story, and the typographic elements (the ellipsis or blanks) constitute the discourse and reflect the difficulties and traps of the storytelling’. It is even more complex as silence and speech collide to express and assert the freedom to say. Indeed, much is at stake, because: ‘in the current sweeping turmoil, women are questing for a language: where to put, hide, and foster the power of their rebellion and life in this faltering setting. [8]

Finally, in the continuum of the two writers’ texts, the «issue» of the woman remains, and always will, a persistent problem that haunting the obscurantist and backward minds, that undermine the society.

However, a new fact is worth noting; after years of terror, the government has just passed a law that acknowledges the suffering of the victims of rape during the national tragedy by granting them a compensation which ranges from 16000DA to 35OOODA. This decree (No. 14-26 of 02/02/2014), was issued after more than a decade, unlike the The Amnesty Law which allowed thousands of executioners to live next to their victims. As for the code of “disgrace”, it is still debated within the framework of the legislative bodies.


Batalha, MC (2012) : Mémoire individuelle et mémoire collective dans la fiction de Maissa Bey. Etudes romanes N° 33.

Belarouci L., Ferhat S. (2001) : Les femmes victimes de violences sexuelles en Algérie : autopsie d’un traumatisme, Magazine de l’action humanitaire et du droit international humanitaire.

Belloula N   (2008) : Visa pour la haine. Alger, Editions Alpha.

Benchikh F (1998) : La symbolique de l’acte criminel : approche psychanalytique. Paris, l’Harmattan.

Bessoles Ph (1997) : Le meurtre au féminin : clinique du viol. Collection Témoignage/transmission, Threetete.

Bonn C, Boualit F, (1999) : Paysages littéraires algériens des années 90 : Témoigner d’une tragédie ? Paris, l’Harmattan

Boudaréne M (2001) : Violence terroriste en Algérie et traumatisme psychique. Alger,Stress et trauma 1.

Djebar A. (2001) : Oran, langue morte. Paris, Actes Sud.

(1999) : Ces voix qui m’assiègent. Paris, Albin Michel.

Ferchouli F Zohra (2012) : Statut de la femme algérienne : entre le code de la famille, la Charte d’Alger de 1964 et la constitution de 1996.

Gruber M (2001) : Assia Djebar ou la résistance de l’écriture. Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose.

Gruber M (2005) : Assia Djebar, Nomade entre les murs. Paris, Maisonneuve et la rose.

Guenivet K (2001) : Violences sexuelles : la nouvelle arme de guerre. Paris, Michalon.

Hammadi N (2012) : Femmes violées par les terroristes. La non-reconnaissance amplifie la tragédie. Le Quotidien Liberté.

Hubie S (2003): Littérature intimes : les expressions du moi, de l’autobiographie à l’autofiction. Paris, A. Colin

Maissa Bey

– (1998) : Nouvelles d’Algérie. Paris, Grasset.

– (2008) : Entendez-vous dans la montagne. Paris, Ed de l’Aube.

– (2005) : Surtout, ne te retourne pas.  Alger/Paris,Ed Barzakh/Aube.

– (2006) : Sous le jasmin la nuit. L’aube : La tour d’aigues.

– (2008) : Pierre sang papier ou cendre. L’aube : La tour d’aigues.

Mohammedi Tabti B (2007) : Maissa Bey, L’Ecriture des silences. Blida, Editions du Tell.

Mokhtari R (2002) : La graphie de l’horreur. SL, Chihab.

Nahoum-Grappe V (1997) : Guerre et différence des sexes : les viols systématiques (ex-Yougoslavie 1991-1995), in C. Dauphin et A Farge (dir.), De la violence et des femmes. Paris, Albin Michel.

Pruvost L (2002) : Femmes d’Algérie. Société, famille et citoyenneté. Alger, Casbah Editions.

Samrakandi, H (2009) : Littératures féminines francophones N° 60, Presse Universitaire du Mirail.

Stienne A  (2011) : Viols en temps de guerre, le silence et l’impunité. Le Monde diplomatique.

[1] Reference?

[2] Maïssa Bey, Sous le jasmin, la nuit (La Tour d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube, 2004).

[3] Assia Djebar, Oran, langue morte (Arles: Actes Sud, 2001).

[4] F. Z. Ferchouli, ‘The Writing of Assia Djebar: A Translation of Female Speech’, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Algiers, 2012)- check this reference.

[5] Lucie Pruvost, Femmes d’Algérie: société, famille et citoyenneté (Alger : Casbhah Éditions, 2002), p.

[6] Reference?

[7] Assia Djebar, L’Amour, la fantasia (Paris: J.C. Lattès, 1985), p. 181.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here