Lalla Fatma N’Soumer: Misunderstood Symbol of modern Algerian Feminism
Lalla N’Soumer, the mother of modern Algerian feminism, still lives in the songs and depiction of mothers and grand-mothers, mainly Berbers, and secularist women elite.
By Abdennour Toumi
The Algerian legislative election on Thursday was marked by a high-scored sentiment of abstention and reluctance, what many see as evidence of broken government promises on the socioeconomic policies and a political system tainted by corruption and marginalization.
An electoral déjà vu play. For the youth, who see that there is no chance for change, the same figures, the same political party leaders parade in the regime’s palace.
Political leaders and Imams spent weeks before the poll trying to warm up the cynical voters to go en masse and vote, using the national slogan, “let your voice be heard,” posted on all the city’s billboards.
On Thursday, a sunny day, I went driving through the gorgeous mountain chain of the Blideen Atlas, 55 km south of Algiers, a region of beautiful forests and vivid scenery. We stopped at an intersection sign which read, Lalla N’Soumer Shrine.
So, a sudden surprise, the source for a story about this iconic woman on an important election day.
The noun Lalla in Arabic is an honorific title for woman, like Sidi is for man. This courageous and inspiring woman, Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, proved to be an able and determined force in the struggle of her people and her militancy in leading them to victories against the French was the stuff of legend.
Lalla Fatma N’Soumer became synonymous with the Berber/Algerian Resistance movement against the French invasion. She was born in 1830, the same year the French landed in Algiers, in the village of Aïn al-Hammam ex-Michelet in the Djurdjura mountains (Kabylie). Her father was the head of the Quranic school of the village belonging to Tha’alibia zaouia. She felt at home in the al-Assaouia and Tablat areas and her aunt, Lalla Khadidja, was the wife of a notable religious man in the region.
It was here the foundation of her education was based. Gifted from an early age, she would become know for her wisdom, piety, and intelligence.
According to the guide at the al’Assaouia Museum,Lalla Fatma N’Soumer refused to accept the marriage arrangement made by her father with her cousin, she run away on her wedding night because of the cousin’s indifference to the Resistance, preferring to continue her education.
At the age of 16 she joined the Resistance under the leadership of Si Mohammed al-Hachemi al-Medjadji known as Bou-Baghla. In him she found a kindred spirit which united them in the struggle to gain freedom for their people. Her courage and determination led both men and women in the movement to victories against the French.
Tragically Sheikh Bou-Baghla was killed in 1854, and the resistance was without a leader until the following year command of the Kabylie tribes was given over to Lalla Fatma N’Soumer assisted by her brothers.
Ensuing engagements with the French army eventually forced the retreat of the Resistance from the two Metidja plain enclaves Sidi-Moussa and Larba’a where they were cornered in the mountains of the Blideen Atlas west to Cheria’a mountain. Finally, outnumbered by the French Army, the Resistance was overwhelmed in 1857, and many, including Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, were forced into hiding in Yagourthen.
Although she was the last to surrender, stories on how her capture came about are based on speculation, but she was found, arrested and taken prisoner by the French. She died in 1863 from the rigors of imprisonment.
In 1994, Lalla N’Soumer’s ashes were moved from the al-Assaouia’s mont (Médéa) and reburied in al-Alia, the national heroes’ cemetery in Algiers.
Today the “daughters” of Lalla Fatma N’Soumer are the secular feminist organizations and Islamist women political leaders who are using her rich cultural and political capital to explain to the latest generation of young girls and boys who are totally ignorant of this charismatic woman.
I asked a university and a high school student about Lalla N’Soumer — the answer was shocking to the point of heart-stopping — clearly neither student knew this heroine’s biography. As the high school student put it, “ahh, I remember this woman, she is in the history manuals program!”
Thus a young generation is desperately waiting for change and looking for a strong woman leader to find the answers, like the eternal leader of the PT (Worker Party) Ms Louisa Hanoun and the leader of an opportunist Islamist Party (Proclamation and Equity) Ms. Na’aima Salhi.
These women, newly-elected on Thursday, hopefully will follow the example of Lalla Fatma N’Soumer and with courage and determination join with the other congresswomen, also newly-elected to the National Assembly, to search for much-needed answers.
Lalla N’Soumer, the mother of modern Algerian feminism, still lives in the songs and depiction of mothers and grand-mothers, mainly Berbers, and secularist women elite. Whereas a majority of the young generation still wait for their mothers to make their beds at night and heat their breakfasts in the morning. To this generation being a feminist rhymes with “assist” and “not to resist.”
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