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Bouhired, Djamila

By:
Kenneth J. Perkins
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Bouhired, Djamila

Djamila Bouhired (b. 1937) was an Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN; National Liberation Front) militant whose role in the 1957 Battle of Algiers gained her international notoriety as a symbol of resistance to French rule and of the more active role anticipated for women in independent Algeria. Through members of her family involved in the nationalist movement, Djamila Bouhired (Jamīlah Būḥrayd) came to the attention of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander of the Algiers Qasbah. Yacef recruited her and other young Algerian women who could pass as Europeans when dressed in Western garb to plant bombs in cafés and other gathering places frequented by the French. The devastating bombings, which began in September 1956, sparked a concerted effort by the French army to round up FLN activists in Algiers. In April 1957, Bouhired was arrested and savagely tortured by French soldiers, but refused to divulge information about FLN leaders.

At her military trial in July, Bouhired acknowledged belonging to the FLN, but denied participating in the fatal bombing with which she was charged. In a trial marred by irregularities, Jacques Vergès, her French communist attorney, was denied access to essential documents and prohibited from making a final plea in her defense. The most incriminating testimony came from a woman accused of planting bombs with Bouhired; despite the fact that the witness showed clear signs of mental instability Bouhired was found guilty and sentenced to death. Yacef ordered a new round of bombings and threatened to engulf the city in violence if the sentence were carried out, but the French had been systematically uncovering FLN cells in Algiers, and he was captured in August.

Outraged by both the conduct of the trial and the increasingly commonplace resort to torture by the authorities, Vergès and fellow communist Georges Arnaud published a pamphlet entitled Pour Djamila Bouhired. Her case became a cause célèbre as French leftists and many others distressed by the dehumanizing aspects of the Algerian conflict organized rallies on her behalf, as did FLN sympathizers elsewhere in Europe. Bouhired's story was also widely publicized throughout the Arab world, where she was portrayed as a heroine of the revolution and a symbol of Algerian women.

The demonstrations reached a crescendo in March 1958, with the termination of the appeals process. Under considerable international pressure, and with the FLN threatening to reopen its bombing campaign if Bouhired were executed, French president Coty commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. She was transferred to France and remained incarcerated until the war's end.

Thereafter, she married Vergès and ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Algeria's first National Assembly. With her husband and Zohra Drif (another of Yacef's former agents), she edited Révolution africaine until a purge of communists forced them from their positions in 1963. She subsequently divorced Vergès and pursued an entrepreneurial venture in Algiers, but did not return to public life. Bouhired's opportunity to follow a nontraditional lifestyle and choose a career option not generally open to women before the revolution was, however, more closely related to her own personality than to any genuine change in the status of Algerian women, few of whom experienced any significant improvement in their socioeconomic status with independence.

See also ALGERIA.

Bibliography

  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962. Rev. ed. New York, 1987. The best account in English of the Algerian War, with several pages devoted to Bouhired.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth W., and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds.“Jamilah Buhrayd,” In Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. See pp. 251–262. Austin, Tex., 1977. Two interviews with Bouhired conducted by Lebanese journalists in 1971.
  • Lebjaoui, Mohamed. Bataille d’Alger, ou, bataille d’Algérie?Paris, 1972. Struggle for control of Algiers from the perspective of an FLN militant.
  • Moghadam, Valentine M., ed.Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies. Macmillan, 1994.
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