Algeria. A Grey Area in the Family Code: Femicides Still Go Unpunished

Since the beginning of 2022, some forty women have been murdered in Algeria. The relevant associations demand the criminalisation of these femicides, but while the constitution claims to protect women against all forms of violence, the Family Code and the silence of the victims’ family members still make it too easy to absolve the perpetrators.

Algiers, 8 October 2020. Demonstration against violence against women after the murder of Chaïma, 19, found dead in a deserted petrol station in Thenia, 80 km east of Algiers
Ryad Kramdi/AFP

“He destroyed my future.” While she was waiting for the coach to Tizi Ouzou and Kabylia, at dawn on 26 September 2022, Ryma Anane did not know her life was about to take a tragic turn. Alone in that bus shelter, the 28 year-old French teacher with an angelic gaze was unaware that a man lay in wait for her. Taking advantage of those early morning hours when no one was about, he popped out of thin air, doused her with petrol, set fire to it with his pocket-lighter and vanished. In a state of shock, the young women raced home, trying to fight the flames devouring her body. Despite the pain she had time to tell her family that her attacker was a rejected suitor. He was said to have turned himself in and been goaled.

Hospitalised, the young woman was between life and death. She had burns over 60% of her body, especially on her neck and back. Finally, she was sent to a hospital in Spain. Hundreds of people in Algeria and beyond were moved to tears by shots of the victim, swathed in bandages and lying motionless on a stretcher before being placed in the medical ambulance that would take her to a plane waiting at the Algiers airport. This was the umpteenth attempted femicide in a country where there are dozens every year.

While Ryma Anane’s life was saved – according to her family, the Spanish doctors caring for her are optimistic about her chances of recovery – other women have not been so lucky. On 18 October, in a suburb of Oran, Touatia Matouz had her throat cut by her brother-in-law. According to Fémicides Algérie, a Facebook page and Internet site that keeps count of the murders of women, that young civil servant of 26 was caring for the orphans of her recently deceased sister. For reasons still unknown, the widower decapitated his children’s aunt. She was the 37th victim of a femicide in Algeria since the beginning of this year according to the group, which confines itself to a compilation of press articles. Or so, says Cherifa Kheddar, a militant feminist who has been fighting for many years to obtain the criminalisation of femicides.

The Family Code against the Constitution

In the opinion of most Algerian feminists, these crimes are possible only because the law does not offer women enough protection. In its article 40, the Algerian Constitution does indeed state clearly that “The State protects women against all forms of violence in all places and every circumstance, in public, on the workplace and in private. The law guarantees victims access to shelters, care arrangements and legal assistance.”

However, there is a flagrant contradiction between the Constitution and the Family Code which places a woman under the authority of a man, Fatma Oussedki observes. This eminent sociologist has published countless books on women’s condition in Algeria and has been campaigning for many years in favour of their protection. “Femicide must be recognised as murder,” attorney Nadia Ait Zai demands. And that is not the only contradiction. For while the Constitution establishes a principle of “equality,” the Family Code does not give women the same rights as men. Worse still, as activists remind us, in cases of domestic violence for example, “The man can have the charges dropped if he asks the woman’s forgiveness.” In Fatma Oussedik ’s analysis:

It is just a learning process, a form of mimicry, there is no reflection. They talk about God because we are in a situation where we are supposed to find a solution in religion, it is a quest for the “Divine Word.” Religion becomes a refuge. It is a way of understanding what is happening, a level of explication, but when they tell you: “do not think” you just say OK, it is no help to you, just an empty gesture: a man can even kill in the name of religion.

Since 2015, the Algerian Penal Code punishes violence to women, just as it does, in theory, street harassment and sexual harassment. But we are still at the stage of good intentions. Many women’s rights activists tell us that most of the violence, especially the domestic variety, are never taken to law. Worse yet, according to article 270 of the Algerian penal code, murders committed when an adulterous couple is caught in the act are excusable and the sentence is reduced, may be as short as five years. Besides which, the Family Code has introduced the notion of “forgiveness” which puts an end to any prosecution of domestic violence. But no article of law has yet been devoted to femicides which are still not recognised as such. In 2021, the security services reported the registration of over 8,000 complaints for domestic violence. Without much further detail.

Rejected lovers?

For lack of any research on the subject, it is almost impossible to build up a profile of the men who kill women. A task further complicated by the lack of official statistics, despite the existence of a ministry dedicated to women. An attorney of long experience, founder of the Centre d’études sur les droits de l’enfant et la femme (Ciddef), Nadia Ait-Zai proposes a hypothetical profile of a potential killer : “Often, and according to the descriptions provided by the media, we are dealing with rejected men, as was the case with Ryma Anane.” And it is true that similar cases are regularly reported by the media and the associations. Ghania Ouettar, a handicapped woman in her thirties, residing in the town of Sadrata (souk Ahras in eastern Algeria), was murdered by a man whom she wished to leave, according to the group Féminicides Algérie which explains that the victim died after a beating.

Unrequited “love” is also said to be the motive for the murder, in July 2020, of a young attorney. Yasmine Tarafi’s corpse was found in a car at Bouira (100 km to the east of Algiers). The investigation led to the arrest of three suspects, one of whom was a rejected suitor. Unable to bear seeing her with another man, the main suspect was accused of having conspired with two of his mates to gangbang the young woman before killing her.

This kind of revenge can lead to the unspeakable. That was what happened to Chaima, a 19-year-old who was raped, decapitated and her body burned in October 2020, by a man she used to know, who lived with his mother in a shantytown in Reghaia, in the Eastern suburb of Algiers. Two years earlier she had complained about him to the security services, who arrested d him for attempted rape. He spent over two years in jail. But once he was released, he tried to take up with Chaima again. He took her to an isolated farmhouse, raped her and thrashed her. He doused her body with petrol and set fire to it. He was found three days later in an abandoned filling station some 50 km. to the east of Algiers. The murderer surrendered to the police but this affair, copiously relayed over the social networks, distressed the whole country, foregrounding an age-old crime that has yet to have disappeared.

Besides these especially violent crimes, other, more ‘classical’ forms of femicide continue to be reported in the media. Often, they are problems within a couple which end up in tragedy. And they sometimes occur in public, like that woman stabbed to death by her husband in Tizi Ouzou. The scene took place in October 2021, in a bus station, in front of passers-by and other passengers. That same month, in the same city, a man killed his wife in a beauty parlour following a quarrel. Both these murderers were arrested and given stiff sentences. But this did not put an end to the spiral of femicides.

The fault of the victims’ “mistakes”

As of the middle of November, Féminicides Algérie has counted 37 femicides across the country.

In 2021, there were 62 women killed by a relative or an acquaintance, according to statistics kept by several associations that point to the difficulty of knowing the exact number because of the taboos that prevent families from speaking out. An example is a murder committed in January. Tinhimane Laceb, a journalist with Algerian Public television was murdered by her husband after a series of domestic quarrels, according to friends in whom she had confided. But to everyone’s surprise, the father of that young mother of two little girls asked the media not to speak of “femicide.” For him, it was an accident.

What is behind such a position? Cherifa Khedar, who founded Djazerouna (“our Algeria”) an association dedicated to the prevention of violence to women, this kind of attitude is an effort to avoid “bringing up mistakes a victim may have made.” By “mistake” the activist is referring to episodes of adultery for which certain husbands may blame their waves before doing the deed.

But even “in the event these accusations are founded, there were always solutions other than violence,” Cherifa Khedar objects, regretting that society “often justifies these murders.” “There are often attempts to justify these murders committed by men,” she days indignantly. And refers to an example which made the headlines: a professor of medicine, Mostefa Khati, president of an association that comes to the aid of children victims of a traumatism, justified the murder of Chaima by invoking her family’s responsibility, especially that of her parents. He declared to the press:

Their daughter probably had superficial relationships with people. She let herself be taken in, either via the social networks or direct contacts. Normally, when a girl has had a proper upbringing, she should not become friendly or even simply acquainted with just anybody. She must know who he is and how he behaves, unless he’s a classmate in school or the university. A person’s upbringing should enable her to preserve herself, protect herself, etc. If she has no mechanisms, no reflexes taught her by her family circle, who is going to impart them to that person? It is impossible.

He justified this statement a few days later by referring to “a social reality.” However, on the social networks, as for many citizens, an act of violence perpetrated by a man is necessarily justified by the woman’s “mistake”.

His role as head of the family

For many academics and feminists, these justifications of violence inflicted on women in general and femicides in particular are partly related to “a crisis of masculinity” says Fatma Oussedik. In her view this violence, which at times takes these extreme forms, is due to the “evolution” of the status of women in Algerian society.

By “crisis of masculinity” she is referring to situations in which a man discovers that a woman does not need him to survive – a situation which he is not necessarily willing to accept. In her analysis, the fact that the girls do better in college, that they are taking up more and more space, that women tend increasingly to remain single and stand up to men’ is causing among the latter an identity crisis which drives them to violence. She believes that the financial independence of Algerian women has a subversive value which enables them, for example, to turn a man down, something which he finds unacceptable. A feeling inspired by the Family Code, which derives directly from the sharia which confers on men the role of head of the family or reb, a word which literally means “God.”

“There we are in an especially difficult situation where the dominant ideology tells men they are the reb of the family, an expression taken up by the Family Code,” Fatma Oussedik summarises, adding that she is aware that her own profile may be taken as a model by young Algerian women. “Objectively, women like myself may serve as a reference for the very young ones, but we are a violence for the adult women of today” whom she considers more submissive, more vulnerable to male dominance. “We are free to go about as we please, we are married, have children, we are grandmothers, all of which means this is possible for other women,” she suggests.

In the meantime, the associations defending women’s rights go on keeping and publishing the femicide statistics and trying to help women who are victims of violence/As for Ryma Anane, she is still hospitalised in Madrid; hoping to get well someday, a “stroke of luck” which those who are gone never had.