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samedi 27 septembre 2014

Change in Algeria through women's eyes

Anyone who is interested in Algeria or in women's issues in Arab World should take a look at this site. It's a collaboration between El Watan and TV5Monde and is well done. The women who are featured are a diverse group and situated throughout the country. It's important, in order to get a better picture of the stakes in Algeria, to hear perspectives from different age groups and social classes.

There were several of the portraits that were particularly enjoyable:  Maissa Bey in Sidi bel Abbes and  Abla Moulay in Tamanrasset. Having lived through many decades and witnessed the changes in Algeria themselves, their recollections were food for thought.

Abla Moulay is a farmer and lives a life that is almost like a glimmer of the past. She reflects on how work has changed in her lifetime and how although she carries on with her business, it is unlikely that young people will continue the tradition. And Maissa Bey, a writer, explains how attitudes changed when women began working in factories.

Their perspective on how society has changed in the face of economic pressures ties in with a theme I studied during the spring semester. I was lucky enough to take an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class with Brian Spooner at the University of Pennsylvania. The main point was that culture increases in complexity with increased interaction (which is usually tied to increase in population).

Thus it is not at all surprising that culture in Algeria (and the rest of North Africa) should have changed a great deal in the second half of the 20th Century, as populations have increased around the globe.

Famed anthropologist  Germaine Tillion addressed some of these issues as they relate to gender in her work My Cousin, My Husband, where she investigates Mediterranean endogamy. One's personal feelings aside, she demonstrates that the system made sense in a society that placed great emphasis on land holdings and extended families lived in close proximity. When looking at the past (or at other cultures) we often forget the context, but she points out that in the past, when a woman married a cousin, he was most likely someone with whom she had grown up and whose mother she knew well. With the movement of populations, this set of circumstances no longer existed and when marriages attempted to consolidate land holdings, women were then more vulnerable to abuse from their in-laws.

Remaining within the anthropological framework, in the very fine book Asking and Listening by Paul Bohannan and Dirk van der Elst, makes the point that anthropologists do better work when they study two societies other than their own in comparison, because being part of a society makes it harder to evaluate.

I am not a fan of focusing on outward religious indicators like headcoverings or beards. It's overly simplistic and collapses complex phenomena. However, Maissa Bey's description of the pressure the female factory workers felt to wear headscarves is instructive. The key point here is that it was an adaptation to changing circumstances. As the pace of change has been accelerating, more adaptations may be needed and societies are not always well-equipped to handle them.

There are many changes taking place today all over the world, including in the US. However, it is hard to perceive them while they are happening to us. To better understand, I think it is useful to look at change in a historical perspective.

Before I go any further, I want to make a point. Saying that one society is more complex than another is not a value judgment. It also does not mean that the individuals that make up the society have more or less worth than members of another society.

Since complexity is defined in part by greater interaction, often through population growth, the growth of urban areas plays a key role. In this light, examining the Industrial Revolution may help us to understand how change effects culture and society.

As people flocked to cities, the numbers not only strained infrastructure but existing social patterns as well. While greater wealth was not evenly distributed, the growth of the middle class meant that a large group of people found themselves outside both peasant and elite structures. The rise of Victorian morality can be seen as a response to this vacuum.

In the same way, the pressure to conform to conservative social mores that Maissa Bey describes can be seen as a response to a new category of working women, whose presence was destabilizing to the established order. This is where Abla Moulay's portrait is interesting. In some ways, she represents a holdover from a different time. While she works, her work is within the framework of an established category, agriculture. 

But when examining women's work in the market economy, we often forget that before the Industrial Revolution, working for wages was very rare. Thus, gendered attitudes toward it are not reflective of some age old mentality, but are themselves and adaptation to a new situation.

The takeaway is that adaptation is something that happens, and it is not necessarily part of a plan or an agenda. Additionally, since change can be threatening, the adaptations to them often anchor themselves within a familiar framework, like religion. Understanding the (re)appearance of outward religious signs in North Africa (and elsewhere in the region) as part of a process of adaptation to increased cultural complexity is a useful step to making the phenomenon less "othered."