We Must First Conquer Their Women, Or; The Birth of a Research

by rooswijnants


Franz Fanon, in his celebrated essay ‘Algeria Unveiled’ (1959), writes that, in paraphrasing (in an ironic, exaggerated yet painstakingly true fashion) the French military strategy:

 “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them begin the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight” (Fanon 1959: 164).

This ‘military strategy’ that Fanon is referring to, is the strategy that was often used during the Algerian war of Independence, a bloody, brutal war against the long French colonization of Algeria. This war lasted from 1954 to 1962 resulting in the independence of Algeria (‘granted’ to Algeria by Charles de Gaulle). Enthusiastic and knowledge thirsty as I was, I devoured Fanon’s text. I was intrigued by Fanon’s stance and his preoccupation with the role of women in the war, and the central role that the veil played in this struggle for independence. Yet what struck me was the lack of ‘agency’ ascribed to these ‘veiled women’: Fanon talked about these women as if their bodies were passive and therefore easy to mobilize. In Fanon’s ‘Algeria Unveiled’, the ‘veiled women’ are either representative for nationalistic values and/or test-dummies in military strategies. As Rita Faulkner (1996) rightly, and probably more concise and eloquent than I can ever put it,

“he [Fanon] also makes use of the ancient metaphor equating land with women and women with land which can be found in texts ranging from the Koran (Surah II, verse 223: “Your women are a tilth for you [to cultivate] so go to your tilth as ye will”), to ancient Western, to modern Arabic literature. (Faulkner 1996: 847)

Their body is always representing and embodying something else than its actual, agential presence; it’s either the bearer of the national flag, the sexual being that needs to be colonized, or the test dummy of male war strategies. Fanon, whether consciously or unconsciously, deprives these ‘unveiled warriors’ from their agency by writing from a political, nationalistic and perhaps masculanist perspective. It is because of this reason, because of this lack in (post- and de-)colonial literature, that I want to explore the notion of feminine agency and body politics during processes of decolonization and struggles for independence.

In other words; Fanon seems to present a rather masculanist perspective on these veiled women, these women warriors, and I propose that a feminist perspective is therefore highly needed. And it is for this reason that this blog, and consequently this research, emerged.

For the following 7 weeks, I will post articles, columns, films, movie clips (and maybe, if I feel truly inspired, music) regarding issues of agency, embodiment and the veil from a feminist (postcolonial and poststructuralist) perspective. In doing so, I hope to establish a theoretical framework through which we can (re)consider levels of agency and bodily presence in relation to the veiled female warriors. Obviously, a research is not a research without discussion, peer review and critique. Therefore, my dear reader, I hereby invite you to join me in this exhilarating and exciting research. Feel free to comment all your thoughts, doubts, tips and critiques.

Now, how to best end this first post than with a film clip that shows in a brief 8 minutes the very foundation of my research? Feast your eyes on these two short clips from The Battle of Algiers [Italian: La battaglia di Algeri]. Dir: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966, a documentary-like drama, depicting ‘these women warriors’. The Battle of Algiers was a movie commissioned by the Algerian government, and was meant to show the world the Algerian war of independence from both the French as the Algerian.

 (Part A)

 (Part B)