Women and North African Literatures
North Africa is a part of Africa which has been somewhat neglected in scholarship on African literary and cultural production. This is as a result of this region’s own conflicted relationship with its “Africanness.” This chapter focuses on female Maghrebian writers and how they use literature to dissect and discuss gender and gender relations in this region of North Africa. By exploring the contributions made by different female writers, this chapter attempts to show how literature has made it possible to rethink the roles and status of women. In its analysis of the sociocultural framing of gender and gender relations in North Africa, this chapter focuses principally on the deployment of sexuality by women to challenge patriarchy. Such focusing on sexuality does not in any way elide the vast contributions made by women in the fields of politics and economics in this region of Africa. The chapter also examines the manner in which literary narratives have inevitably allowed for a thinking of the public space and how women are represented or represent themselves within this space which was previously the preserve of men. Through an analysis of texts by writers such as Assia Djebar, Yamina Mechakra, and Nina Bouraoui, this chapter argues that more than just examining the objectification and commodification of women in North African literature, it is also worthwhile to consider the agency that women also possess.
KeywordsNorth Africa Gender Literature Maghreb Marginalization Sexuality Women
This chapter focuses on the French-speaking countries of North Africa which are commonly referred to as the Maghreb. The Maghreb is made up of three countries, namely, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. For the purposes of this chapter, I use the term “Maghreb” fully aware that this region is in no way a homogenous block. The use of the term does not essentialize the Maghreb or Maghrebian women. On the contrary, the chapter attempts to draw on the shared experiences and cultures that women in this regional block have had. The chapter is fully aware, for example, that in Tunisia, where there is no affirmation of the preponderance of Islam, there is a certain progressive air regarding the enjoyment of personal freedoms, especially by women. By contrast, in Morocco and Algeria, where nationalism is dominated by Islamic radicalism, there has been a strongly closed and intolerant atmosphere. Despois in his study dating from 1964, that is, 2 years after the beginning of the attainment of independence by Maghrebian countries, provides an important analysis of the role of Islam in postcolonial Maghreb because for him Islam has naturally had an influence on individuals and their social relations (1964: 151). Secondly, as pointed out by Étienne (1983: 716), following the attainment of independence and the demands of globalization, traditionalist and Islamist discourses began to dominate all other discourses because they emphasized the safeguarding of traditional ways of being against a new form of colonialism. Religion then became the warhorse of this traditionalist discourse, and Islamic praxis thus began to occupy all aspects of public and private life. This attempt to preserve the “dignity” of the Arab-Muslim people in the Maghreb has gradually been transformed into a radical Islamism.
The Maghreb, and indeed the whole of North Africa, remains largely marginalized within African literary considerations. Ncube explains that such marginalization emanates, “to some extent, from the Maghreb’s own conflicted relationship with its African-ness” (2018a: 624). Ncube further posits that “too ‘white to neatly integrate with ‘black’ sub-Saharan Africa, and at the same time not ‘white’ enough to fit into the global north, and ‘too African’ to belong to the Middle East, the Maghreb finds itself in a precarious position of liminality” (2018a: 624). The Maghreb finds itself in a liminal space of marginalization by both sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. In spite of such marginalization, Ncube points out again that there is need to accept that the Maghreb is not a homogenous block. Au contraire, it is a multifaceted grouping of countries that have different histories and cultures. The use of the term “Maghreb” is not in any way gesturing toward reductionism. The term is used fully aware of the fact the countries of the Maghreb are complex and unique in their own rights. The chapter also however accepts that owing to physical and linguistic geography and the colonial experience, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia do share some common shared experiences.
Women were generally sidelined from receiving formal European education as this might have deviated them from their primal domestic roles as wives and mothers. Such marginalization is certainly also palpable in the literary sphere where the significant contributions made by female writers in the Maghreb have rarely been highlighted. The contributions made by female writers have not, and should not be, limited to issues affecting women. Women’s writing has been instrumental in articulating the quotidian struggles of ordinary citizens of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Two factors contributed to the dominance of male francophone African writers. Throughout Africa, the colonial educational system made greater efforts to educate boys than girls on the assumption that schools should prepare an educated male elite to serve the colonial administration. In addition, traditional African societies viewed European education, particularly higher education, as superfluous training for girls, who would become dutiful wives and attentive mothers. (1990:133)
This chapter does not propose an exhaustive analysis of the rich literary production by women in the Maghreb. This of course would not be feasible within the space of a single chapter. The focus of this chapter is on how female writers from the Maghreb have been able to use literature to grapple with diverse social-, political-, and gender-related issues. Of particular concern in this chapter is the manner in which literary narratives have allowed women in the Maghreb to expose and challenge patriarchal perceptions that construct women as the subordinate “other,” whose relevance is limited solely to the private space of the home. This is examined against the frame that movements for the empowerment of women in this region of Africa and the Arab world have shown that “the ‘private domain had to be opened up, submitted to analysis, put into question and politicised” (Naciri 2003: 26). Such a reconceptualization of the limits of the private and public spheres will require that we focus also on how literature has contributed to the socioeconomic and political empowerment of women in the Maghreb.
Contextualizing Gender and Gender Relations in the Maghreb
The question of gender within the Arab-Muslim societies is one that is often shrouded in controversy. It is worth pointing out from the very outset that this controversy emanated largely from the orientalist gaze, informed largely by globalization and postcolonial elements. Jasmin Zine explains that “we have seen how the images of Muslim women have been represented in the Western male imaginary as sensual, harem girls as well as debased, voiceless and universally oppressed victims, forming a complex nexus of desire and disavowal” (2016: 35). It is important, in considering gender and gender relations in North Africa, to be wary of the often restrictive orientalist narratives that frame gender relations in a monolithic binary that pits abusive, violent, and oppressive men against docile, passive, and taciturn women. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, gender has certainly become a central concern in geopolitical confrontations between the West and the Middle East.
What Hashim posits above is the complexity, and indeed difficulty, of judging non-Western experiences and realities through Western lenses and prisms of analysis. So while the veil might appear to a Westerner as an impediment to Arab-Muslim women fully expressing their individuality, this might not in fact be the case.
…there are many problems with the representation of veiling in Western, and early feminist, literature, which has helped to perpetuate an image of Muslim women as victims, and denied the diversity of meaning and practice associated with this tradition… (2010: 10)
In addition, the polemic on how Islam affects perceptions of gender stems, in part, on the fact that Islam was preceded by patriarchy. Asma Barlas explains in this regard that “the Qur’an was revealed in/to an existing patriarchy and has been interpreted by adherents of patriarchies ever since (2002: xi). This controversy, as argued by Farhad Kazemi, is further exacerbated by “two related gender issues” (2000: 453). Kazemi explains in this regard that “one is attributed and based on beliefs and values, the other relates to legal doctrine” (2000: 453). Kazemi further elucidates that: “the combination of these two factors – patriarchal attitudes and legal strictures- places women in a highly disadvantageous position in the social order” (2000: 453). It is worth pointing out that the full Islamic criminal code (sharia) is rarely applied in its entirety in many Islamic countries. Moreover, the application of these codes as well as cultural practices is seldom ever uniform in the Arab world or even within individual countries.
Whether due to the effects of the application of sharia or cultural practices, gender equality remains quite elusive in Arab-Muslim countries, as is certainly the case with other patriarchal societies. Nemat Shafik explains that the geocultural regions of North Africa and the Middle East display: “the largest gender gap of any region in the world, despite the considerable evidence that gender equality is associated with higher economic growth and improved human development” (2001: 14). Several reasons can be used to explain this continued state of inequality between genders. To begin with, the idea that Islam frames Allah (God) as a man places symbolic significance on the rule of men, i.e., patriarchy. Barlas offers a definition of patriarchy as the rule of men and fashions it within a material and figurative continuum located “between a patriarchalised view of God as Father/male, and a theory of father-right, extending to the husband’s claim to rule over his wife and children” (2002: 12). Such gendered consideration of God has been instrumental in creating a gender binary in which the man is viewed superior to the woman. Rabéa Naciri points out that as a result, “women in the Maghreb and the Arab world at large are usually represented as inferior, submissive and dependent, living in a male-dominated patriarchal society” (2003: 20).
As for Rahma Bourquia (1996: 19), the Arab or Berber woman in the Maghreb was viewed for a long time as nothing more than “un uterus sacré” (a sacred uterus). For the Moroccan sexologist Soumaya Naamane-Gessous:
L’étude de la sexualité dans les sociétés arabo-musulmanes révèle que la déréalisation du statut féminin a fini pratiquement, et à quelques exceptions près, par enfermer la femme dans un double rôle : d’objet de jouissance et de générique. Dans un cas comme dans l’autre, nous avons affaire à une femme-objet. La sexualité des femmes est donc dévalorisée pour qu’elle ne serve qu’à accomplir la jouissance des hommes et la procréation. (1979: 261)
(The study of sexuality in Arab-Muslim societies reveals that the derealization of female status has practically ended, and with a few exceptions, in locking women into a double role: object of enjoyment and generics. In one case as in the other, we are dealing with a woman-object. The sexuality of women is therefore devalued so that it serves only to achieve the enjoyment of men and procreation).
This situation has nonetheless changed over the years. Maghrebian women have been able to progressively declare their freedom. Hachlouf (1991: 346) attests that this had further complicated the feminine condition in the Maghreb, as is the case in other Arab-Muslim regions. According to Hachlouf:
La femme n’est perçue que comme un vagin par l’homme, et ce vagin, il ne sait pas le faire jouir. Plus grave encore, ce vagin ne veut pas jouir. La crudité de cette constatation révèle très exactement le champ dans lequel se situe la sexualité féminine au Maroc. (1996: 19)
The woman is perceived only as a vagina by the man, and this vagina, he does not know how to enjoy it. More serious still, this vagina does not want to find its own pleasure. The crudeness of this observation reveals very precisely the field in which feminine sexuality is located in Morocco
Hachlouf then comes to the conclusion that:
Le rapport entre la femme et la sexualité reflète une relation conflictuelle entre la tradition et la religion, d'une part, qui définissent le statut de la sexualité dans un cadre astreint du mariage légal ‘licite’, et la modernité, d'une autre part, où la liberté sexuelle de la femme est synonyme de son émancipation. (1991: 346)
(The relationship between women and sexuality reflects a conflictual relationship between tradition and religion, on the one hand, which defines the status of sexuality within a constrained framework of legal marriage, and modernity, on the other hand, where the woman's sexual freedom is synonymous with her emancipation).
Even though the Qur’an officially gives rights to women, it appears that its application, including other Islamic jurisprudence texts, serves but to further marginalize women and render them subservient to the will of men. Serge Ménager also comes to the conclusion that:
La sexualité est donc comme le voile, un phénomène sociologique qui caractérise la crise d'une société maghrébine en transition où l'irruption de la femme met en danger tout un système de valeurs; toute une religion qui dans ce cadre reconnaît implicitement la suprématie de l'homme par l'autorisation de la polygynie et l'interdiction de la polyandrie. (1991: 347)
(Sexuality is thus like the veil, a sociological phenomenon that characterizes the crisis of a Maghreb society in transition where the emergence of women endangers a whole system of values; a whole religion which in this context implicitly recognizes the supremacy of man by the authorization of polygyny and the prohibition of polyandry).
What Ménager suggests here is that in Arab-Muslim societies, there are some things which are never spoken about. However, not speaking about them does not mean that they do not exist. One of the notions that he refers to is female sexual pleasure. Female sexual pleasure is never spoken about, and this gives the impression that either it does not exist or it is so insignificant that it does not deserve to be considered or spoken about.
L’homosexualité, on n’en parle jamais, le plaisir des femmes, on n’en parle jamais non plus et le non-dit est comme un abri. C’est ce qui permet à ces choses d’exister. (2007: 207)
(Homosexuality is never spoken about, women’s pleasure is not spoken about either and the unsayable is like a shadow. It is what allows such things to exist).
This introductory section has attempted to contextualize the roles that women occupy in Arab-Muslim societies of the Maghreb. Of particular interest has been the focus on the politico-religious and cultural practices that operationalize themselves in such a way that women continue to be oppressed under patriarchal social machinations.
Writing as a Form of Speaking Back to Patriarchy
Djebar’s literary oeuvre certainly decentered the patriarchal discourses that conflated the national and the personal. By focusing on the female body, its eroticism, its pleasures, and its sexuality, Djebar shifted the attention from the national/collective to the individual/personal. In so doing, she opened up the way to other female writers from the Maghreb to give “these violated bodies back their voices, those very voices that were muffled by colonialist torture only to be stifled by national liberation later” (Marx-Scouras, 1993:174). Writing thus offered an opportunity and space to write back to the power matrices of colonialism and patriarchy that have stifled and suppressed not just the female voice but more importantly the female body with all its inscribed affectivities, “herstories,” and experiences. Marilyn Booth elucidates that writing by women in the Arab world continues to not just be a transgressive act but one that is inherently dangerous:
Algerian revolutionaries found Djebar’s exclusive preoccupation with sexual problems indecent at a time when Algeria was subject to a merciless war. How could Djebar dare write about the discovery of sexuality, of feminine desire, in the midst of bombings and tortures? If the sexual overtones of La soif were problematic, was it solely because of the apparent self-indulgence, and lack of revolutionary consciousness of the author? (1993:172)
What Booth implies above is that writing is not a domain that is traditionally meant for women. When women do venture into writing, they are expected to write in a manner that doesn’t trouble or ruffle the status quo. Unlike their male counterparts, women are expected to ensure that their writing is “respectable,” and this points to the fact that there are topics which they cannot represent in their literary works for fear that they will challenge the prevailing state of affairs.
[W]omen have often chosen pseudonyms to protect themselves from attack engendered both by their gender identity and by the topics they chose to articulate. […] There remain strong pressures on women in most Arab societies to write circumspectly, respectably and respectfully, if indeed they must write. (2009: 209)
The writings of many female Maghrebian writers do not however neatly and respectably represent female and feminine subjectivities. Anne-Marie Miraglia argues that Maghrebian female writers find creative force in dealing with topics which they are not supposed to broach to begin with. Assia Djebar, as previously alluded, is synonymous with women’s writing in Francophone North Africa. Her literary works have systematically portrayed the manner in which the struggle for women’s liberation has operated parallel to the question for national liberation from colonial dominion. According to Phyllis Taoua, “in Djebar’s work, relative degrees of freedom are attained along the way. Her imaginative engagement with the liberation of Algerian women as an integral part of a national liberation that is meaningful and inclusive reflects a feminist standpoint that extended the parameters of debate” (2012: np). In spite of such parallels, women in Algeria and indeed the other countries of the Maghreb have had to contend with a double form of oppression: patriarchal and colonial. Notwithstanding the similarities in the parallel between the feminine and national struggles, it has to be pointed out that the violence that the female body was subjected to was far greater in its dehumanization and scale.
This scene holds important symbolic value on how the female body is disciplined, in the Foucauldian sense of the term, and treated. In this scene, the narrator is expected to feign pleasure which is incarnated in the refined scream during deflowering. From the very first night of married life, the narrator is expected to satisfy the sexual desires of the husband. The refined scream thus becomes nothing more than a performative process that a woman is compelled to execute. This performative process does not necessarily imply that the woman is herself satisfied in the sexual act. Even if she is not satisfied, the woman has to feign the cry, possibly so as not to deflate the male ego.
Et j’en viens précautionneusement au cri de la défloration, les parages de l’enfance évoqués dans ce symbole, plus de vingt ans après, le cri semble fuser de la veille : signe ni de douleur, ni d’éblouissement… Vol de la voix désossée, présence d’yeux graves qui s’ouvrent dans un vide tournoyant et prennent le temps de comprendre. […] Le cri affiné, allégé en libération hâtive, puis abruptement cassé. Long, infini premier cri du corps vivant. (1985: 152)
(And I cautiously come to the cry of the deflowering, childhood surroundings evoked in the journey of symbols, more than two years later, the cry seems to fuse from the day before: a sign of neither pain nor pleasure… Flight of the boneless voice, presence of stern eyes that open in a swirling void and takes the time to understand […]. The refined scream, lightened in early release, then abruptly broken. Long, infinite first cry of a living body).
It is however worth pointing out that women in Maghrebian literature are not simply pawns that are used and deployed by men. Female writers, and their literary protagonists, are certainly able to find agency amidst and in spite of their oppression, commodification, and objectification within patriarchal societies. Nina Bouraoui finds agency, for example, in composing autofictions of nonnormative gender and sexual identity. By creating literary works that are largely based on her own lived experiences, Bouraoui blurs the lines between “reality” and “fiction” and between “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” Autofiction thus becomes a materialization of the identity politics that Bouraoui grapples with in her work. This politics highlights the fluidity of identities and questions the perspectives which focus on the dualistic consideration of genders and sexualities.
Ecrire en la langue étrangère, hors de l’oralité des deux langues de ma région natale […] écrire m’a ramenée aux cris des femmes sourdement révoltées de mon enfance, à ma seule origine. (1985:285)
(Writing in a foreign language, beyond the orality of the two languages of my native region […] writing brought me back to the cries of the deafly revolted women of my childhood, to my only origin).
For Djebar, writing made it possible to move away from the domain of the orality which was deemed appropriate for women. The space of writing, previously the preserve of men, was the space of power, both symbolic and real.
Rethinking Femininity and Female Sexuality
As we have previously pointed out, gender in the Arab world is constructed around the binary of masculine/feminine. When gender and sexual identities stray from this binary, they are deemed to be incorrect and unnatural. This section focuses on the literary work of Franco-Algerian writer Nina Bouraoui which challenges the gender binary through its broaching of female homosexuality. Ncube (2018b: 110) explains that if female sexuality and female sexuality pleasure are hardly spoken about openly, then Bouraoui’s novels are transgressive of this pact of/to silence relating to feminine sexuality. In openly representing female homosexuality, she questions the very definitions of what femininity is and the notion that femininity should be perpetually dependent on masculinity. This section examines how Nina Bouraoui represents in her novels female homosexuality and how this representation challenges patriarchy in that the female body is framed as an entity that is or can be independent of a male body. Nina Bouraoui’s literary work defies the logic that the female body is only coherent in its relationship and dependence to the male body. When nonnormative gender and sexual identities are discussed on/in North Africa, female nonnormative identities are often marginalized. Focus is placed on the representation of masculine nonnormativity as portrayed in writers such as the Algerians Rachid O., Abdellah Taïa, and Hicham Tahir, the Franco-Tunisian Eyet-Chékib Djaziri, or the Franco-Algerian Ilmann Bel. This inordinate focus on male queerness seems to suggest that female queerness does not warrant as much academic or scholarly engagement. Jarrod Hayes affirms that this speaks to a “mise entre parenthèses (as well as sequestering) of female sexuality” (2000: 84). I contend that this has seen a further side-lining of female bodies and their sexualities. It is not only necessary but also long overdue to recast focus on queer feminine bodies in the Maghreb.
Bouraoui explains in an interview with Dominique Simonnet (2004: np) that for her, it is difficult to separate writing from the emotions she feels especially at the moment of enunciation: “L’écriture, c’est mon vrai pays, le seul dans lequel je vis vraiment, la seule terre que je maîtrise. L’amour et l’écriture ont la même origine charnelle, ils viennent du même brasier” (Writing is my true country, the only one in which I really feel alive, the only land that I master. Love and writing have the same carnal origin, they come from the same fire). She further elucidates in this same interview that writing has for her always been a form of militancy:
Je suis une militante à ma manière : j’écris. Ecrire, c’est un acte de résistance. A l’intérieur de moi, il se mène un vrai combat dans l’écriture : c’est une guerre ! (2004: np)
(I am an activist in my own way: I write. To write is an act of resistance. Inside me, there is a real fight in and through writing: it's a war!).
Nina Bouraoui’s novels make it possible to vision and revision the female body and female sexuality in the Maghreb. Such revisioning is particularly against the frame of the female body being subjected to control by patriarchal machinations and the orientalizing gaze that orders the Arab-Muslim female body. Her novels present and question the diverse forms of marginalization that the female body has to contend with. For Nina, the protagonist in her novels, she is aware of her liminal position from a young age given that, as a mixed race child, she was never entirely Algerian or French. Her nonnormative desires and sexuality further marginalize her. As such, she has to perpetually fight with herself as she tries to make sense and legitimize her existence, her body, her eroticism, and her sexuality. The protagonist-narrator pertinently explains in the opening scene of the novel Mes mauvaises pensées in which she is with a psychologist to whom she is talking about the bad thoughts that ravage her:
Je viens vous voir parce que j’ai des mauvaises pensées. Mon âme se dévore, je suis assiégée. Je porte quelqu’un à l’intérieur de ma tête, quelqu’un qui n’est plus moi ou qui serait un moi que j’aurais longtemps tenu, longtemps étouffé. (2004: 1)
(I come to see you because I have bad thoughts. My soul is devouring itself, I am besieged. I carry someone inside my head, someone who is no longer me or who would be a self that I would have long held, long smothered).
The protagonist attests in this scene the internalization of homophobic views that consider her whole existence and being to be deviant as it does not fall within the framework of the cultural imagination of what bodies should be and should do. What is particularly fascinating is that the narrator is unable to name her sexual orientation. Instead, she camouflages her sexuality behind words such as “bad thoughts” or “bad deeds.” The use of these non-specific terms, throughout the novel, highlights the narrator’s internalization of shame that she associates with her sexuality. Such non-specificity shows how female homosexuality, in the Maghreb, is not only neglected but is also considered a nonentity to the point that it cannot be named. Ncube contends that there is in fact a “marginalisation, muting, and omission of the Maghreb from discourses that attempt to articulate non-conforming gender and sexual identities in Africa” (Ncube 2018a: 624). In spite of such an observation, Ncube fails, within the scope of this previous work, to account for and speak to the further marginalization of female queerness within Maghrebian queer studies. Salina Amari expounds that instead of simply considering the difficulty of being lesbian in the Maghreb, it is worth examining the difficulty of being a woman, Maghrebian, and lesbian at the same time:
Mais aujourd’hui encore, on peut constater qu’aucune lesbienne maghrébine ou d’origine maghrébine (déclarée comme telle) n’a pris la parole à visage découvert sur la scène publique au Maghreb ou en France. (2013: 219)
(But even today, we can see that no Maghrebian lesbian or Maghrebian woman (declared as such) has openly spoken on the public stage in the Maghreb or in France).
What she posits here is that it is dauntingly difficult for Maghrebian lesbians to open talk about and talk through their marginalized condition. And this difficulty is not limited to the public sphere in the Maghreb, but it is also for Maghrebian migrants that find themselves in what should be a more liberated and liberating space in France. Writing thus becomes a space through which Nina Bouraoui is able to dissect and discuss the complexities of female queerness. Belgacem Belarbi clarifies how Bouraoui makes use and appropriates writing in order to create an alternative space of staging female queer sexuality and eroticism:
Nina Bouraoui comme actrice de l’autofiction n’est plus quelqu’un d’unifié, de total, mais un être fractionné, déconstruit qui s’interroge pour ne pas s’affirmer, qui ne trouve que son apparence quand il cherche sa voie, elle est une pluralité, elle n’est jamais une et qui se découvre dans l’écriture. (2012: 164)
(Nina Bouraoui as an actress of autofiction is no longer a unified, total body, but rather a fragmented being, deconstructed who asks herself in order not to assert herself, who only finds her appearance when she seeks her own way, it is a plurality, it is never one and it is discovered only through writing).
For Bouraoui, writing thus frames itself as an attempt to reconstruct the past in order to make sense of it especially relating to the construction of her nonnormative sexuality and gender identity. In this manner, writing allows her to discover herself while constructing a somewhat coherent queer self. Nina, the protagonist-narrator of the novel Garçon manqué, affirms in this respect the way she perpetually negotiates the identity contradictions that haunt her: “Tous les matins, je vérifie mon identité. J’ai quatre problèmes. Française ? Algérienne ? Fille ? Garçon ?” (2000: 163) (Every morning, I check my identity. I have four problems. French? Algerian? Girl? Boy?). The protagonist also states in the novel Mes mauvaises pensées: “C’est toujours cette histoire, au fond de moi de venir de deux familles que tout oppose, les français et les algériens. Il y a deux flux en moi, que je ne pourrai jamais diviser, je crois n’être d’aucun camp. Je suis seule avec mon corps” (2005: 52) (It’s always this story, deep inside me of coming from two families that oppose everything, the French and Algerian. There are two streams in me which I will never be able to divide, I think I am not of any side. I am alone with my body). In Nina’s case, there is an inner struggle that revolves around culture, nationality, and gender and sexual identity.
It is also worth pointing out that Bouraoui’s protagonist decenters the gazes and discourses that attempt to fix her gender identity: also expresses the way in which her protagonist-narrator against the eyes that fix her kind: “Brio contre la femme qui dit: Quelle jolie petite fille. Tu t’appelles comment ? Ahmed. Sa surprise. Mon défi. Sa gêne. Ma victoire” (Garçon manqué: 51) (I am Brio to the woman who says: What a pretty little girl. What’s your name? Ahmed. Her surprise. My challenge. Her embarrassment. My victory). Through this refusal for her body to be fixed into a pre-established gender identity, Nina shows that genders are fluid and can never be cast in stone. They are on the contrary in a perpetual state of construction, of becoming, and of negotiation. Nina prefers a fluid and liminal identity of neither being really a girl nor a boy. This is especially expressed through her relationship with her father: “Il m’élève comme un garçon. Sa fierté. La fierté. La grâce d’une fille. L’agilité d’un garçon”(Garçon manqué: 24) (He raises me like a boy. His pride. Pride. The grace of a girl. The agility of a boy). For the father, Nina is a girl by her grace and at the same time a boy by her physique and agility. Nina concludes in this respect that: “je suis tout. Je ne suis rien. Ma peau. Mes yeux. Ma voix. Mon corps s’enferme par deux fois” (Garçon manqué: 20) (I am everything. I am nothing. My skin. My eyes. My voice. My body is locked up twice). Nina Bouraoui explains in this instance that the construction of her gender identity is linked up to a blurring of the traditional boundaries of what bodies should be and should do within the defined limits of cultural and religious imagination.
If one of the functions of creative works such as literature is to give a voice and visibility to marginalized bodies, then Nina Bouraoui’s corpus is exceptional in its representation of queer female bodies of Maghrebian descent. As previously pointed, there exists a quasi-scandalous silence on queer female bodies in the creative imagination of the Maghreb. Bouraoui’s novels show the complexities of being both Franco-Algerian and queer in a French sociocultural milieu. There is undoubtedly daunting difficulty for the protagonist-narrator to assume a queer sexual and gender identity and at the same time negotiate her citizenship: “c’est toujours cette histoire, au fond de moi de venir de deux familles que tout oppose, les français et les algériens. Il y a deux flux en moi, que je ne pourrai jamais diviser, je crois n’être d’aucun camp. Je suis seule avec mon corps” (Mes mauvaises pensées: 52) (It’s always this story, in the depths of my being of coming from two families that everything opposes, the French and the Algerian. There are two streams in me, which I will never be able to divide, I think I am not of any side. I am alone with my body). In the novel Garçon manqué, Yasmina the protagonist-narrator refers to her struggle against the identity imposed on her by her being born a girl:
Seul Amine sait mes jeux, mon imitation. Seul Amine sait, mes envies secrètes, des monstres dans l’enfance. Je prends un autre prénom, Ahmed. Je jette mes robes. Je coupe mes cheveux. Je me fais disparaître. J’intègre le pays des hommes. Je suis effrontée. Je soutiens leur regard. Je vole leurs manières. J’apprends vite. Je casse ma voix. (2000: 15)
(Only Amine knows of my games, my imitation. Only Amine knows, my secret desires, monsters in childhood. I take another name, Ahmed. I throw away my dresses. I cut my hair. I’m disappearing. I assimilate into the land of men. I am brazen. I sustain their gazes. I steal their manners. I learn fast. I break my voice).
Yasmina defies the identity and behavior that is socioculturally expected of her as a girl. It is especially fascinating that she compares this challenging of the status quo to a crime:
Le lieu de crimes. Je passe de Yasmina à Nina. De Nina à Ahmed. D’Ahmed à Brio. C’est un assassinat. C’est un infanticide. C’est un suicide. Je ne sais pas qui je suis. Une et multiple, menteuse et vraie. Forte et fragile. Fille et garçon. Mon corps me trahira un jour. Il sera formé. Il sera féminin. Il sera contre moi. (Garçon manqué: 60)
(The place of crime. I go from Yasmina to Nina. From Nina to Ahmed. From Ahmed to Brio. It’s an assassination. It’s an infanticide. It’s a suicide. I do not know who I am. One and multiple, false and true. Strong and fragile. Girl and boy. My body will betray me one day. It will be trained. It will be feminine. It will be against me).
This criminal act through which Yasmina becomes other questions the conception of gender and sexuality as fixed and stable phenomena. Yasmina shows that these are indeed fluid and perpetually contestable processes. What must be highlighted is the fact that Yasmina is aware of the fact that her body will be subjected to “training” that will compel her body to perform certain corporeal acts and actions that are deemed congruous with her biology. She accepts that her body will betray her one day and that she might find herself performing bodily acts that do not represent her true self.
The importance of Nina Bouraoui’s representation of female queer subjectivity is that it allows for an appreciation of a sexual and gender identity whose existence has been downplayed in the Maghreb and in Maghrebian communities in France. Bouraoui’s novels show that femininity can and should be understood and perceived not in one way but rather in a multiplicity of viewpoints. When Bouraoui’s novelistic corpus is considered, it is clear that it belongs to an artistic wave that tries to create a discursive space in which femininity and feminine sexual expression can be re-imagined. Osire Glacier (2017: 1) attests that it is imperative to question cultural practices that are considered as representing nature. Glacier finds it important to rethink these social practices that regulate how bodies and identities are constructed. Jean Zaganiaris also asserts that what is of prime importance is to question the religious and political dogmas that marginalize nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality:
Les problèmes des approches culturalistes ou islamo-centrées est de laisser de côté les pratiques sociales quotidiennes et de ne se focaliser que sur les normativités religieuses, présentées comme des marqueurs ontologiques de différenciation. Il ne s’agit pas de penser la place du genre et de la sexualité dans les pays arabes où l’islam est religion d’État en faisant une herméneutique des interdits dans les textes sacrés. (2013: 8)
(The problem of culturalist or Islamic-centered approaches is that they leave aside everyday social practices and focus rather only on religious normativities, presented as ontological markers of differentiation. It is not a question of thinking about the place of gender and sexuality in the Arab countries where Islam is a state religion by making a hermeneutic of the forbidden in the sacred texts).
In addition to making female homosexuality visible, Nina Bouraoui’s work is remarkable for its challenging of how femininity is perceived. Her novels show that it is possible to think of femininity beyond the traditional lenses that frame it as inferior to masculinity and also incomplete without recourse to masculinity.
The Sociopolitical Potentiality of Literature in the Empowerment of Women
Literary narratives have the potential to reconfigure the way in which gender, sexuality, and gender relations are considered in North Africa. Abiola Irele posits that: “it is perhaps not too much to say that if African writing has any value at the present moment, any significance, it is essentially as a function of the comprehensive testimony it offers of the turns and patterns of an unfolding drama of existence in which [Africans] have been and continue to be involved” (1981: 1). Indeed, literary narratives are important in capturing and presenting the intricacies of life as it is lived in human societies. Larry Diamond explains pertinently in this regard that:
Fiction may give us special insights into how culture and history intersect with and reshape, or are reshaped by, the lives of people, ordinary and extraordinary. For these reasons, literature may provide a precious and indispensable window into a society, a people and an era. (1989: 435)
In spite of its function of portraying societies, literature has the capacity to effect societal change and change in behaviors and ways of thinking. Wale Adebanwi opines that “(literary)-social thought can indeed become a material force in that the ideas, perspectives, explanations and insights popularised by writers can take hold of society and help in defining the approaches to, and understanding of, the nature of existence” (2014: 411). Literature is thus important for its capacity to offer a self-reflexive moment through which societies are able to contemplate themselves.
With respect to the sociopolitical role of female writers in North Africa, what is important to consider is that their literary works have been significant in “boldly confronting the political sclerosis, cultural rigidities, and patriarchal gender relations found in many of the countries. They are questioning the status quo, forming alliances, calling for democratisation, and insisting on women’s full participation in economic development, the political process and conflict resolution” (Moghadam 2007: 1). Writing has afforded female writers a voice that can be articulated with the public sphere which was previously the preserve of men. The very act of writing thus becomes a transgressive act that allows female authors the space to offer narratives of their experiences. Such narratives that were previously not accorded a space offer alternative and even counter discourses to those presented in male authored texts. Female writers from this region of Africa do not use their literary works as a conduit to change societies. What they do however manage to do is to use their texts as springboard that make it possible to generate new ideas and think through and rethink what happens in the multifaceted societies of the Maghreb.
However, for such counter-hegemonic discourses to be effective, it is imperative to have a literate interlocutor to engage with these narratives. Ncube argues elsewhere that if the populations of the Maghreb are “able to read and write, but have problems in nurturing an ample culture of critical reading, then the potential impact of [the] novels is vastly diminished” (2014: 487). For female writers, engaging with critical readers is even more important as the challenges that they have to contend with are far more than those of their male counterparts. Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi and Valentine M. Moghadam explain that the situation in North Africa and the Middle East is changing as evidenced by the work that has been done in creating egalitarian societies:
The situation in the region is slowly changing. Women activists, who generally come from the educated segments of society, are challenging the status quo; demanding equality in the family and society and calling for women’s economic, political, and social empowerment. […] In addition to facing political pressure for reform, countries are dealing with economic changes that are creating an impetus for women to become more active outside the home. (2006: 6)
Writing, for female authors, becomes an act of exercising their agency and ensuring that their voices are heard and they can effect change in different facets of their lives.
This chapter has shown that cultural and religious norms in the Maghreb previously made it difficult for female writers to find a space of their own within the domain of literary production. When they did manage to enter the literary cosmos, they were expected to write in ways that did not destabilize the functioning of the societies in which they wrote. What this implied is that they had to carefully select the kinds of topics and subjects that they decided to deal with in their literary texts. In spite of these challenges, many Maghrebian women have been able to write brave and daring novels that have gone a long way in representing the feminine condition in this part of Africa.
Although the number of female writers from the Maghreb has been increasing since the 1990s, it certainly remains to be seen if their writings can directly impact the lives of ordinary grass root Maghrebian women. More work still needs to be done to examine the full impact of female writers from the Maghreb. Of particular interest would be the analysis of the literary productions that are not just in French but also in Arabic and Berber. More than just focusing on female writers resident in the Maghreb, it would also be worthwhile to expand the center of interest to also include writers of Maghrebian descent based in the diaspora. This will undoubtedly allow to have a fuller appreciation of not just the literary representation of Maghrebian women but will also make it possible to have an appreciation of the impact of these writers in a better textured and nuanced manner.
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