NICE, France—One of the Arab world’s most badass women, immortalized in the classic 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, just resurfaced, age 83, in the mass protests sweeping Algeria.
Djamila Bouhired, a guerrilla fighter and bombiste in the bloody Algerian war for independence from France (1954-62), and a national heroine despite being marginalized by a post-colonial patriarchy, turns out to have staying power.
“I’m happy to be here,” the elegantly dressed Bouhired told reporters as she joined thousands of protesters in the nation’s capital last week.
Call it karma.
Bouhired is marching with demonstrators young enough to be her great-grandchildren while the ailing dictatorial president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is 82, hasn’t been seen much since he suffered a stroke in 2013. He’s now reportedly hospitalized in Switzerland and can barely walk or talk, but is set to run for a fifth term in April.
His administration is being run mainly by his brother and cronies in Bouteflika’s absence, while in the background in Algeria there is always assumed to be a cabal of éminences grises, mostly from the senior ranks of the military, referred to on the street as le pouvoir, or the powers that be.
Bouteflika issued a statement Sunday promising to run just “one last time” and organize an early election to ensure a successor, but that just caused more anger.
Thousands of Algeria’s students, joined by teachers, lawyers, intellectuals, journalists and even businessmen like the billionaire Issad Rebrab, have marched in Algiers and throughout the country to call out Bouteflika and what they see as his corrupt, repressive and stagnant policies. And there was Bouhired front and center last week, applauded by worshipful protesters in demonstrations that have at times turned ugly.
“People want to overthrow the regime,” some chanted, using the slogan from the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. But there is also a certain caution. Algeria went through one brutal war to overthrow the French at last in the 1960s, and another one against jihadists in the 1990s.
Nobody wants to see that kind of violence again. The core demand now is that Bouteflika renounce his candidacy, but there are several other contenders if the elections take place.
Riot police fired teargas Monday at protesters yelling “Bouteflika, Get Out!” in Algiers, according to Algerian TV footage. More demonstrations are scheduled for Friday.
“People are no longer afraid,” the Paris-based Algerian writer Kamel Daoud told Algerian media. By offering a candidate who was “almost dead” the establishment was showing their contempt for Algeria’s young people, 30 percent of whom are unemployed, Daoud said.
Algeria is an oil-rich country with revenues estimated at about a trillion dollars in the past 20 years. But at least $300 million of that money is unaccounted for.
Bouhired’s robust presence on the streets of Algiers may not be surprising for a woman who was so steely at age 21 that she planted bombs in Algiers cafés and survived being arrested, shot at, tortured, sentenced to die under the blade of the guillotine, and imprisoned in France.
"It's always heartening to see her courage and fierce independence still celebrated, especially in this day and age," Bouhired's granddaughter, Fatima Vergès-Habboub, told The Daily Beast. "Her years have certainly done nothing to dampen her revolutionary spirit. Western society so often forgets that strong Arab/Muslim women have existed and continue to exist unapologetically."
Often called the “Arab Joan of Arc,” Bouhired’s rebelliousness started young and can only be understood when you realize France occupied Algeria for 130 years. The French treated the natives like second-class citizens, or worse, insisting among other things that they accept Paris as their capital and French as their identity.
Bouhired wasn’t having it. As a kid, she famously refused to intone "France is our mother" in her French-run school and yelled "Algeria is our mother!" instead.
Bouhired recalled in a 1971 interview that as a schoolgirl in Algeria her teachers "taught us with the assumption that we were French. Paris was the capital, the mother of us all. The French parliament was our parliament, Vincent Auriol was our president, the French flag was our flag. Algeria? At that time it didn't exist. It was French Algeria. And we carried around our French identity every day in school. It wasn't easy to get rid of that identity; we'd had it all of our lives."
Bouhired was one of three key female revolutionaries, the famous mujahidas, in the National Liberation Front (FLN), who dreamed of a progressive agenda for women in postwar, independent Algeria.
Their hopes were dashed by a government that eventually adopted a quasi-Islamist Family Code in 1984, relegating women to a decidedly inferior status. The code defines women as minors under the law and existing only so far as they are daughters, mothers or wives.
The FLN has ruled the country since winning independence from France in 1962 but Bouteflika, who’s been president since 1999, has done little to improve life for Algeria’s women, despite how instrumental many were during the war helping overthrow the hated French.
Despite her age, the recent street protests must have been child’s play for Bouhired who began her career as a militant when she was just 20 at the start of the revolution in 1954. She worked closely with FLN commander Yacef Saadi (who played himself in the movie) and was the first to volunteer to plant bombs on roads used by the French military.
Bouhired and two other young Algerian women, Zohra Drif and Samia Lakhdari, hid in the Casbah in Algiers with Saadi and other FLN revolutionaries plotting to overthrow what was then called “French Algeria.” The city was filled with the so-called pieds noirs, European settlers bent on keeping the status quo and aided by the heavily armed French military, including paratroopers.
In a famous scene in The Battle of Algiers, Bouhired, Drif and Lakhdari are shown cutting and tinting their hair and donning sundresses to make themselves look as European as possible. They were able to slip past army checkpoints at the Casbah to plant bombs in two Algiers cafés and at the airport.
In April 1957, Bouhired was arrested by the French military and FLN leader Saadi reportedly shot her as she was being taken away to prevent her from spilling secrets. Bouhired later said she was raped and tortured during her detention in which her interrogators tried, in vain she said, to extract information about Saadi. As a result she was sentenced to death by the guillotine.
“I know you will sentence me to death but do not forget that by killing me you will not only assassinate freedom in your country but you will not prevent Algeria from becoming free and independent,” Bouhired told her captors at the time.
But because her imprisonment drew so much local and international media attention, the French colonial regime backed down and sentenced her to life imprisonment instead.
“They had their Marianne,” Zohra Drif wrote in her 2017 memoir, Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter, referring to the personification of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. “We had our Djamila.”
Bouhired eventually was released in 1962 thanks to her half-Vietnamese French lawyer, Jacques Vergès, whom she promptly married and who was as controversial as she was.
Vergès, who died in 2013, was known as the “Devil’s Advocate” because he defended war criminals like the Nazi Klaus Barbie, international terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. He also offered to represent Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
Years later Vergès would remember his first encounter with Bouhired in the Algiers courtroom where she was on trial for murder. A photograph that went out to the press around the world showed her sitting there perfectly composed: her long hair cascading down her back, her fine, almost adolescent features relaxed, her eyes dark and pensive.
Biographers would debate whether Vergès fell in love with her or with the revolution, but that was perhaps beside the point. “During the trial,” he said, “it was obvious that the revolution, present in the court, had the face of Djamila.” She was, he said, its “incarnation.”
Today, at 83, she may play that role again.