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The battle to reform family law: Are there ways to achieve justice for Algerian women?

The battle to reform family law: Are there ways to achieve justice for Algerian women?

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إقرأ باللغة العربية:

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Women's associations in Algeria have been fighting for years to abolish or reform the Family Law enacted 40 years ago, specifically on June 9, 1984, and amended once in 2005. Advocates for women's rights in the country argue that this law perpetuates gender discrimination, being unjust and unfair towards women.

Feminist activists view the current law as a perpetuation of male hegemony and dominance, and a violation of the principles of citizenship, and conflicts with the Algerian Constitution which guarantees the principles of gender equality among citizens. However, supporters of the law argue it reflects the "conservative nature of Algerian society" and insist that amendments are unwarranted due to their claims that it is based in Sharia law, which they consider legitimate and sacred.

The 2005 amendments did not touch upon the traditional family structure, while maintaining equality in marriage age and confirming equal partnership in family management. It also abolished proxy marriages, the duty of obedience to husbands, and the principle of the head of the family, while allowing polygamy under certain conditions and granting women the right to divorce because of polygamy, and to also divorce in exchange of a compensatory financial sum the woman must pay the husband for Khulʿ (divorce initiated by the wife).


Abolition or reform? An ongoing debate

Unlike Morocco, where feminist organizations and civil society groups are actively campaigning to reform the Family Code, no substantial reforms are currently being debated for Algeria's Family Law. Discussions remain confined to social media platforms and television programs, although some organizations, like CIDDEF – the Center for Information and Documentation on the Rights of Children and Women, advocated in 2021 to amend Article 66 of the Family Law. This article stipulates that custody can be revoked from a divorced mother if she remarries a non-relative.

Four decades and Algeria's Family Law remains "unjust and unfair to women," with no actual political will to change this due to adherence to perceptions of "the provisions of Islamic Sharia and jurists' interpretations," along with concerns over "conservative societal standards"

Feminists in Algeria are divided between those advocating for the complete abolition of the law in favor of a civil law replacement, and those calling for reforms. Lawyer Aouicha Bekhti is among those supporting a repeal, arguing to Raseef22 that "the 2005 amendments were superficial and did not address deep-seated issues. Equality will only be achieved by abolishing this law and enacting a new civil law."

Meanwhile, feminist activist Amel Hadjadj sees no real difference between calls for abolition and amendment, stating, "Personally, I don't see a large rift between the two demands, because if we carry out reforms and it transitions to equal civil laws and this would move us away from the concept of Family Law altogether." Hadjaj adds to Raseef22, "This law has created more problems than solutions by enforcing authoritarian social roles for men and women."

From her perspective, legal expert Aisha Zammit points out that "the Algerian Family Code, like any statutory law, has several shortcomings. Legal professionals, activists, and women's organizations continuously strive to improve it to keep pace with societal development while preserving the source of its legislation." She adds, "There are several provisions that are misunderstood and misapplied by the judiciary." She also reminds us that "the foundation of the law is Sharia, which has various schools of thought. There are issues that have differing opinions, and the legislator does not adopt the contentious views."


What needs to change?

Despite the lack of serious attempts to reform the law since 2005, many continue to highlight the existing gaps and loopholes in the Family Code at every opportunity. For instance, the Algerian feminist newspaper published a statement on the 40th anniversary of the law's passing, listing the necessary changes to achieve equality and explaining why the fight against the Family Code continues.

"The Family Code leads to inequality in inheritance, exacerbating women's economic instability in a society where they are a minority in the labor market. Article 66 allows for the removal of child custody from divorced mothers if they remarry, exposing them to blackmail and forcing them to remain in unstable or violent situations. The law permits polygamy, undermining women's dignity and perpetuating violence against them. It also requires women to have a guardian for civil marriage, despite recognizing their responsibilities in infractions, taxes, voting, and divorce. The law recognizes only the father's guardianship in the event of parental marriage, excluding mothers and negatively affecting children's understanding of gender equality. It also contains loopholes that allow for the marriage of minors and disregard the rights of single mothers and their children," the statement reads.

"The successive governments in Algeria use religion and tradition to legitimize their authority, making the preservation of the Family Code a means of supporting conservative and religious factions. This inevitably means that any attempt to reform family law faces significant resistance from religious and conservative groups and requires a social consensus that is difficult to achieve at present."


Government neglect: What are the obstacles to reform?

According to lawyer Bekhti, the Algerian authorities ignore the repeated and persistent demands for changing the Family Code. "From 1984 through 2005 to this day, the authorities ignore our demands," she says, attributing this to the lack of genuine will to achieve equality.

Social and legal experts attribute the slow pace of changes in the law governing the Algerian family to several reasons, most notably the absence of political will. "We haven't seen substantial amendments over the years because the political will aligned with modernizing trends is entirely absent," Bekhti asserts.

The persistence of the Family Code is due to historical, cultural, political, and social factors, according to sociology specialist and researcher Khadija Bousaid. She identifies it as "the colonial legacy, as the Family Code was influenced by French colonial laws and Islamic traditions after independence in 1962." Algeria sought to establish a national identity that combined these influences, leading to the codification of family laws largely based on Islamic Sharia and the legislators’ interpretations of it, she explains.

Bousaid suggests that one of the main obstacles to changing the law is that "Algeria is a predominantly Muslim country where Islamic Sharia plays a significant role in legislation. The law is considered a means of preserving what they see as Islamic values and the traditional social order. Algerian society is highly conservative regarding gender roles and family structures, and the law reflects these attitudes, especially concerning marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance."

The Algerian Feminist Journal (JFA) calls for a founding conference that allows feminist associations, along with Algerian women from all backgrounds, legislators, and civil society of all orientations to participate together in issuing new civil laws that respect the constitutional and international principle of equality, as well as the dignity of women, to move forward towards a more just and equal society.

Bousaid emphasizes that the "successive governments in Algeria use religion and tradition to legitimize their authority, making the preservation of the Family Code a means of supporting conservative and religious factions. This inevitably means that any attempt to reform family law faces significant resistance from religious and conservative groups and requires a social consensus that is difficult to achieve at present."

In addition, maintaining family stability and traditional structures amid economic and social challenges is a priority to avoid social unrest. To develop the Family Code, there must be political reforms, social mindset evolution, and continuous efforts from reform movements," the Algerian researcher concludes.


Are there solutions?

On June 9 each year, associations, organizations, and bodies concerned with women and human rights in Algeria present numerous proposals and solutions to address the gaps in the Family Code.

For example, the Algerian Feminist Journal (JFA) calls for a founding conference that allows feminist associations, along with Algerian women from all backgrounds, legislators, and civil society of all orientations to participate together in issuing new civil laws that respect the constitutional and international principle of equality, as well as the dignity of women, to move forward towards a more just and equal society. This would ensure better protection of women's rights and support their full participation in the social, economic, and political life of the country for a better future for all.

Conversely, the Family Law Lab (Droit de la famille), a research entity affiliated with the University of Algiers, proposes the necessity of specialized family courts and supporting family judges with experts in Sharia, sociology, and psychology to contribute to reconciliation efforts and reduce family disputes, in addition to specialized training for judges.




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