Nadia Ait Zai – Algeria

Since 1984, Algeria has had an Islamic family code, which considerably disadvantages women. Nadia Ait Zai is a lecturer in family law at Algiers University, a committed campaigner for women’s rights in the Maghreb and founder of the “Centre d’Information et de Documentation sur les Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme” (CIDDEF) in Algiers. In this interview with D+C/E+Z, she elaborates on the work of her initiative and explains the proposals for reforming Algerian Family Law.

She says: “We’re at the bottom of the class in North Africa, … Algeria is now the only country where women need a man’s permission to get married.” (see on

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Sorry, I can not find any photo of Nadia Ait Zai, Algeria (see also my comment ‘Brave women without photos‘).

Nadia Ait Zai is the president of the Women’s and Children’s Information Center of Algeria.

She says also: “Basically, if we really wanted to be modern, polygamy should be outlawed altogether. But when it (the Islamic family code) was reintroduced in 1984, certain conditions were attached. If the first wife objects, she can apply for a divorce. Anyway, polygamy is rarely practised. We know that women today very rarely accept becoming a second or third wife. Whenever they do, the husband is financially so well off that accommodation presents no problem. Having said that, most women choose divorce because they see polygamy as an affront to their dignity. I do not really focus on the issue of polygamy because I know that women are strong enough to say no” … and … “What we need in Algeria, I think, is space for dialogue. Whenever there’s a demonstration, we see evidence of people’s need to express their views. Newspapers are a possible forum but women don’t use them.

At public events, seminars and conferences, women certainly do speak up. But they need to do so more audibly so that politicians hear what they have to say”. (See interview in Magazine for Development and Cooperation).

“During the Algerian war of liberation, women fought alongside men,” said Algerian lawyer and omen’s rights advocate Nadia Ait-Zai, referring to the Algerian struggle that ultimately ended French colonialism, half a century ago. “But after independence they were told to return to the kitchen, to get married and have children. They went from occupying the battlefield during the revolution, to being eliminated from the political field with independence.” (See this Google group).

What happened to Algerians fighting women? (They go back to the kitchen!) – When the “war of national liberation” broke out in 1954, only 4,5% of Algerian women knew how to read and write. Just 3% were employed outside the home and only 16% of Algerian women above 15 were unmarried. There were only 503 Algerian students at Algiers university – of whom 22 were girls. Uneducated and confined to the home, Algerian women had no rights whatsoever. Still, almost 11.000 women joined the struggle. About 2.000 joined the armed organisation of the NLF but very few did actually fight, most worked as nurses or cooks. Some were involved in intelligence, while others worked as couriers, collecting money or carrying bombs. But in no way can they be compared, for example, to the Eritrean women who actively participated in the fighting – some of them becoming commanders of tank battalions. Most of the Algerian women came from the two political parties that existed before the war: Messali Hadj’s “P.P.A” (Party of the Algerian People) and the “P.C.A” (Algerian Communist Party). While the P.P.A. drew the “elite” of Algerian intellectual women, they all tell the same stories of very conservative families – and not less conservative fellow male “moudjahidines” – who could not imagine women playing a political role. (Read more on Chris Kutschera).

Heda, who gives only her first name, comes from the rural village of Tebessa, about 600 kilometers east of the capital. She says her husband divorced her eight-years ago, when he found out she was pregnant. Her family, she says, agreed to take her in, but only if she gave her infant son up for adoption. Heda refused, and found herself homeless. Under Algeria’s 1984 family law, men can divorce their wives without a reason, and have no obligations towards their former wives. Algerian men can have up to four wives, although few actually do. Women must ask permission from a male member of the family before they can marry. Heda was luckier than other abandoned women here. A shelter in Algiers run by a women’s group called S.O.S. Femmes en Detresse (S.O.S Women in Distress), took her in and gave her shelter. She earns money cleaning houses in Algiers. Women’s rights activists in Algeria say she is a symbol of what is wrong with the country’s family law based on Islamic tenets. (read more on this page of ClariNet-CommunicationsCorp).

Algeria’s population is 99 percent Muslim. As in many nations in North Africa and the Middle East, women have broad political and professional rights, yet Sharia-based laws curtail their rights in the home. Especially in rural areas, social pressures discourage women from working outside the home. For example, women constitute more than half of the country’s university student population, and they can pursue many professional careers, own businesses, and sign contracts. Yet only 20 percent of the workforce is female, and reports of employment discrimination are widespread — and rarely investigated. Approximately a quarter of Algerian judges are women, yet the country’s Family Code subjugates women to their husbands. Under the Family Code, enacted in 1984, a woman does not have the rights of an adult; she is effectively a minor, and her husband (or another male relative) acts as her legal guardian. The code also permits men to marry up to four wives, consistent with traditional Islamic practice, though in reality very few Algerian marriages (perhaps 5 percent) are polygamous. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, after winning reelection in 2004, announced a plan to reform the Family Code. He has made good on that promise, but only to a degree: the elimination of some provisions of the code has been approved, but the rules on guardianship and polygamy remain intact. In women’s rights, Algeria now lags behind neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, the latter having passed substantial changes on women’s rights in the family in early 2004. After King Mohammed VI announced Morocco’s reforms, prominent Algerian lawyer and feminist Nadia Ait-Zai noted, “We’re at the bottom of the class in North Africa. Algeria is now the only country where women need a man’s permission to get married.” Ironically, women played an indirect — albeit unintentional and unforeseeable — role that eventually led to today’s laws; they were key players in the Algerian struggle for independence from France. (Able to hide bombs in their clothing and move more freely than men, women were highly effective rebels.) Algeria won independence in 1962, and since then the government has faced many political, and some military, challenges by Islamists. In 1991-92, Islamists were on the verge of a national electoral victory when the military cancelled elections. (Read more on

Perhaps some people in the Occident will find the notion absurd that women might wield official power in a predominantly Muslim country. They are wrong. There are female Arab ministers. In Algeria, for instance, the number of women in high political offices has been increasing recently. However, this example also shows that public office is not the only basis on which to judge equality of the sexes. After all, Algeria is also home to a discriminatory family law that puts men in a much better position … (read the rest about women’s liberation in arabic countriers in Magazine for Development and Cooperation).

Terrorism in Algeria has made women a primary target; this has only served to make the women there more determined to change their status, a process that began with independence in 1960. During preparations for the Fourth UN Conference in Beijing, Algerian women began networking with women from Tunisia and Morocco. Since then, Nadia Ait Zai, a lawyer and a member of the Collectif, at the invitation of the Oxfam Beirut Office, met with her Lebanese counterparts; the women shared experiences and developed strategies for working together. Nadia met with Sukaynah Salameh, the director of the Vocational Training Association centers in refugee camps in Beirut (which she visited); a group of grassroots women organized by the Youth Social League; and a group of disabled women. The meeting at the National Association for the Rights of Disabled Persons focused on family laws, which rule the lives of women. Nadia described efforts by the Collectif to bring about an egalitarian civil law. (See on of NCBI.


Algeria: A Woman’s Place? See on all;

The Missionary Position;

Algeria Watch International;

UNDP, Gender and Citizenship Initiative: Gender Organizations; and there: for Algeria, (for other countries click on respective country);

Algeria, the women speak;

Association for Middle East Women’s Studies;

The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies – Texts, published Studies, Journals;

Human Rights Watch Middle East – North Africa;

Arab women connect;

Global List of Women’s Organisations, Algeria.

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