The real battleground over the status and rights of women has been the family code, a set of legal provisions regulating marriage and the family. Debated between those who wanted family life organized along Western secularist lines and those who favored a family structure conforming to Islamic principles and ethics, the code was proposed, discussed, and shelved at least three times over a period of two decades before being adopted into law in 1984. In one instance, in 1981, the code's provisions provoked vehement opposition from female members of the National People's Assembly and street demonstrations by women in Algiers, both almost unprecedented events in Algeria.
Although some of the 1984 code's provisions are more liberal than those of the 1981 version, the code essentially reflects the influence of Islamic conservatives. The family unit is "the basic unit of society"; the head of the family is the husband, to whom the wife owes obedience. According to the sharia, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim; polygyny is permitted under certain conditions (although it is rarely practiced); and women do not inherit property equally with men. A woman cannot be married without her consent, and she may sue for divorce in specified circumstances, including desertion and nonsupport. Custody of children under age seven in divorce cases passes to the wife but reverts to the husband when the children are older. Divorce rates have risen steadily since independence, but divorce remains much easier for men than for women.
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