Between the harem and the battlefield: Domestic Space in the Work of Assia Djebar

The notion of the borderline is as essential to definitions of national identity as it is to the definition of subjectivity.  In both cases the issue is one of containment and possession; a territory is staked out and named in the hope that it can be identified and controlled.  A borderline could be read, then, as a fascinating but somewhat neurotic delusion that is both completely arbitrary and ideologically necessary, for any culture, any society not only marks out borderlines for its own containment, but also invests ideologically in them, as if that mapping could not possibly be redrawn.  In this analysis I am going to consider what is at stake in such an act of cultural mapping with particular reference to the role of women in Algeria and the domestic spaces they inhabit through the work of the writer, Assia Djebar. Djebar’s work is particularly interesting in that, despite receiving her education in France, she attempts always to be a faithful chronicler of her native society, producing polyphonic texts that represent a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and dialects.

In the novel I’ll be dealing with, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in their apartment), Djebar is writing of a community traumatized by the Algerian War of Independence and seeking to reconstitute itself in an authentic postcolonial way.[1]  A fundamental problem for this society is the role that women should be allowed to play and whether they should continue to be confined, primarily within the house, and secondarily within the veil.  This act of confinement, of mapping out the space within which women may exist, is all about investing arbitrary borderlines with excessive cultural significance, both in terms of national and gender identity.  What I aim to do is to begin to conceive of domestic space as a space that is ideologically saturated, that can be understood as providing a kind of cultural unconscious, and to explore the investments made by men and women, literature and society within such rigid borderline policing.

Francophone literature (the literature of the Maghreb is a significant example) is a literature that concerns itself fundamentally with cultural spaces. For Algeria the process of decolonialization has provoked the search for a cultural and national identity that can speak with a unique voice while nevertheless incorporating a variety of different languages and dialects to form a multicultural space that is still a unity.  Algerian literature charts not only the dying light of colonial oppression by France but also the struggle for the ideological colonization of the now unformulated and unregulated spaces left behind.  How to maintain a national past while moving forward into the future is the conundrum Algerian Francophone writers depict, as is indeed the case in Assia Djebar’s work.

Assia Djebar was born in Algeria in 1936 but educated in France.  She published her first novel, La Soif (1957), at the age of twenty-one, changing her name, birth date, and appearance in the hope of keeping the novel secret from her family (who found out nonetheless).  She has since published widely – novels, critical essays, stories, poems, plays and translations – while maintaining her job as a university lecturer.  As an outspoken feminist commentator, Djebar sees the problems of reconstructing Algeria crystallizing around the role of women in society.  At the time Djebar was writing Femmes d’Alger Algeria adhered strictly to Islamic custom and women were confined to their domestic spaces, allowed out only once a week, often at night, to visit the baths.  If a woman did go out onto the streets, she did so heavily veiled with only one eye left uncovered.  This is because a woman’s gaze is powerfully and potently sexual in Islamic culture and must be regulated.  The Prophet Mohammed called her gaze “the zîna of the eye”, literally translated as “illicit sexual intercourse” (Erickson, 1996, 306).  During the War of Independence, French authorities encouraged women to go without veils in the hope of undermining Islamic tradition.  The consequence was that many of those women who unveiled joined the Algerian forces and became resistance fighters – not what France intended, not what traditionalists in Algeria wanted either.  The impact of these women sleeping rough, fighting, being injured and being killed alongside the men cannot be underestimated in a society where women were usually not allowed out of doors.  But once the war was over, the battle of the sexes continued with Islamic authorities insisting that women return to what Djebar calls being “buried alive,” incarceration within their own domestic space.

We can begin to see various patterns of enclosure and invasion, oppression and freedom structuring the ideological imagination of Algeria as it confronts this crisis in its national history.  We can understand that there are powerful and absolute binary oppositions at work on the issues of borderlines.  The war over the borderlines imposed  by colonial France is repeated in the cultural struggle over the restrictive boundaries of domestic space.  In other words, the military and political struggle between France and Algeria is in some sense echoed and reiterated in the struggle between male and female universes in postcolonial Algeria.  Djebar is an idiosyncratic stylist, but her texts nevertheless provide a representative chronicle of women’s battle to inscribe themselves in space, and a space that is paradigmatic of postcolonial life where past and present, tradition and innovation, and a multiplicity of voices and discourses can comfortably cohabit.  Her writing maps out the search for a socio-sexual-historical space for women in postrevolutionary times, and the battlefield this time is domestic space itself and the renegotiation of its boundaries (see Erickson, 1996, 304).  What Djebar’s perspective reveals to us is that domestic space literally embodies the cultural and historical issues that generally pass unnoticed in Western society.  Domestic space in Algeria is precisely where culture and history meet, where the historical fallout of war and revolution engages in a battle with cultural tradition and the religious and ideological significance of women.

There is an emblematic moment in Djebar’s text Femmes d’Alger where Djebar analyzes two strikingly different representations of the harem.  In accordance with her ideological aims, Djebar includes many different tones of voice and register within her works, and in “Regard interdit, son coupé” she includes a scholarly appreciation of paintings of Delacroix and Picasso, both of whom produced compositions entitled “Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement”.[2]  The eye and the gaze formed potent symbols within Djebar’s culture.  It is precisely to deny women their gaze – because of its sexual power – that they were kept confined.  Djebar marks her distance from her own culture by this academic appreciation of the visual arts, and in an act of virtual transgression analyzes the perception of the male gaze as it enters the forbidden territory of the harem.  Delacroix, Djebar tells us, visited Algeria in 1832 and was allowed a forbidden glance into the harem, a gaze permitted by the recent occupation of Algeria by France, and a sexually significant penetration of the male gaze into the cloistered female world.  Yet such transgressions did at least allow for representations of this hidden domain to occur.

Delacroix was sensually overwhelmed by his visit and produced a painting that embodied the spirit of the Orient for his age and inspired countless other artists. In France at this time women were socially integrated, although patriarchal ideology would continue to define to some degree the spaces they could inhabit.  To see an enclosed society of women embodying both eroticism and pudeur, their sexual services reserved for one man, must have seemed the fulfillment of a masculine ideal.  In Delacroix’s painting three women and their watchful servant are bathed in the aquatic light of shuttered windows, their clothes  rich and colorful, their expressions dreamy and distant, with the servant an attentive jailer.  Djebar argues that the significance of the painting rests in the relationship the women have to their bodies and their luxurious prison.  Once again, then, we return to the motif of space and enclosure.  “Ces femmes, est-ce parce qu’elles rêvent qu’elles ne nous regardent pas, ou parce que, enfermées sans recours, elles ne peuvent même plus nous entrevoir? Rien ne se devine de l’âme de ces dolents assises, comme noyées dans ce  qui les entoure.  Elles demeurent absentes à elles-mêmes, à leur corps, à leur sensualité, à leur bonheur” (Djebar 1980, 150).  (These women, is it because they are dreaming that they do not look at us, or because, confined without hope, they are no longer able to perceive us?  Nothing can be guessed of the souls of these women suffering so languidly, as if drowning in their element.  They remain separated from themselves, from their bodies, from their sensuality, from their happiness.)

Djebar suggests, then, that the prospect of a lengthy and hopeless incarceration robs women of their relationship to their bodies, that in many ways they cease to perceive the space around them, either fleshy or concrete.  When women are understood solely as objects of the male gaze, when their bodies are so regulated and culturally controlled – and Djebar points to the presence of the servant here as an ambiguous embodiment of the law – they are robbed of their subjectivity, of their identity, and, ironically, of the very sensuality for which they are imprisoned.  Delacroix, as a free Frenchman, would have invested the harem scene with a coy lesbian eroticism.  But such a notion of sexuality between women is undermined by Djebar, who insists that without freedom, there can be no female sexuality at all.

By contrast, Picasso’s reinterpretation of this painting gives Djebar what faint hope she has for the reconstitution of female space.  Most notably, in Picasso’s paintings the servant has gone.  The spying eye has left the frame of representation and instead there is: “Libération glorieuse de l’espace, réveil des corps dans la danse, la dépense, le mouvement gratuit. […] Car il n’y a plus de harem, la porte en est grande ouverte et la lumière y entre ruisselante: il n’y a même plus de servante espionne, simplement une autre femme, espiègle et dansante” (1980, 162). (Glorious liberation of space where the bodies are revived in the dance, in the release of movement.  For there is no longer a harem, the door is wide open and the light streams in.  Even the spying servant is no more; there is simply another woman, mischevious and dancing.)  In Picasso’s vision the static objectified stance of the women has been replaced by a real sensuality represented by the dance.  Women still inhabit an enclosed space, but the boundaries are not policed by male interdiction.  Picasso’s women are naked, and Djebar draws a linguistic link between this visual representation and the Islamic woman’s use of the word dénudée (stripped bare) for the act of unveiling: “Comme s’il faisait de cette dénudation non pas seulement le signe d’une émancipation, mais plutôt celui d’une renaissance de ces femmes à leur corps” (1980, 163).  (As if [Picasso] understood this nakedness, not just as a sign of emancipation, but rather as a renaissance – a rebirth, a reunion of women to their bodies.)  Perception, then, is all.  Where Delacroix perceived a heavily erotic glimpse of exotic female sensuality, Djebar perceives a sterile, and selfalienated female universe.  The way we understand and interpret space – domestic space here – is then wholly determined by our cultural – and our gendered – imagination.[3]

Delacroix as a free Frenchman perceived illicit sexuality, Djebar as a free woman steeped in Islamic tradition, sees hopeless imprisonment.  But Picasso’s vision allows us to take this argument further.  Undoubtedly the way we interpret space is culturally determined, but equally, the way we imagine space is the way we organize it outside of ourselves.  As with our mental structures, so with our physical ones: the way we conceive in ideological terms is also the way we conceive in concrete and material ones, so that the patterns of our mind find themselves reimposed on our public and private spaces.  Islamic cultural ideology depends on a rigid separation of male and female universes that is translated into their living spaces, but Picasso – for Djebar – reinterprets those cloistered women and thus reconceives of their space in quite radically different terms.  Picasso’s vision represents an ideal for Djebar, but she points out that two years later, women were carrying bombs in the Algerian war: “elles ont sorti ces bombes comme si elles sortaient leurs propres seins, et ces grenades ont éclatés contre elles, tout contre” (1980, 163).  (They produced their bombs as if they were revealing their breasts.  But these grenades exploded in their faces, right in their faces.)  Freedom for Algerian women then creates its own impossible dialectic between sexuality and aggression, and so the question remains: can women find a significant space between the harem and the battlefield?

This discussion of imaginary space leads me to the question of literature and the specific manner in which Djebar herself is attempting to reconceive female space.  Having drawn a parallel between the organization of mental space and the organization of physical space, I want to suggest that language provides a space of interaction for mental and physical, real and fantastic.  Now, Islamic tradition also regulates women’s speech.  Women, when they speak, may only speak in whispers; only the elderly have a right to speech at all, and young women may only listen.  And more significantly still, I think, when a woman speaks, she may only refer to herself anonymously.  It is forbidden for a woman to use the first person pronoun, to speak using “I.”  Therefore, I would suggest that a woman like Assia Djebar, born Algerian but brought up in the French education system, writes across a paradox.  To tell the story of the native women of Algeria she effectively expatriates herself in a foreign tongue and, by doing so, her cultural imagination perceives language and its structures differently.  Rather than thinking language through the body, as feminist theory has tended to do, the anonymity of women’s relation to discourse leads Djebar to think of language in terms of space and structure.  This is most interestingly the case in Djebar’s work when she says in an interview with Clarisse Zimra: “I found myself thinking about the quartet in architectural metaphors” (Zimra, 1993, 184-85).  She refers here to the quartet of works set in Algeria of which Femmes d’Alger is the first, but her meaning verges on the ambiguous.  If we reinsert her remark into a discussion on space and its representation the reference to architecture becomes utterly relevant.  We can understand that the structure of a piece of literature, in its conception and organization, is akin to the structure or the construction of space.  Indeed, the polyphony within her texts, whereby Djebar mingles voices of peasant women with educated women and merges the rhythms of dialect to the cadences of classical French, forms a truly postcolonial space in which multiple, fragmented voices are unified by the narrative voice of Djebar herself.  But while this may sound triumphal and conclusive, Djebar herself is aware of the irony of approaching Algerian women’s experience through the language of the oppressor.  Like Picasso, her vision of women’s space remains purely aesthetic.  But, as I suggested earlier, perhaps the mental reconception of space is the first step and the postcolonial mind may eventually seek to rebuild with new significance the spaces it inhabits.


Djebar, Assia. 1980. Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement. Paris: Des Femmes.
Erickson, John. 1996. “Women’s Space and Enabling Dialogue in Assia Djebar’s
L’Amour, la fantasie.” In Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, ed. Mary Green et al., 304-20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pile, Steve. 1998. “Freud, Dreams and Imaginative Geographies.” In Freud 2000, ed.
Anthony Elliot, 204-34. Cambridge: Polity.

Zimra, Clarisse. 1992. Afterword to Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, trans.
Marjolijn de Jager, 159-211. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

[1] Quotations from this work will appear referenced to the original text, followed by my translation in brackets.
[2] Delacroix painted his first representation in 1834, then offered a second, slightly altered version for the Salon of 1849. Between December 1954 and February 1955 Picasso painted a series of 15 canvasses and two lithographs all bearing this title.
[3] For an interesting discussion on postcolonial literature and dream space, see Pile 1998.

2 thoughts on “Between the harem and the battlefield: Domestic Space in the Work of Assia Djebar

  1. Brilliant and full of ideas to purse. I wish I had read this when I was reading the book. What you say fits well with other women I have been reading who are seeking to reshape their place within Islam and their societies. Are you contract with some of them who are writing about feminism and their struggle to find an alternative to traditional and colonial misogyny?
    Also have you or anyone explored ideas like this in the anglo/american definitions of the dichotomy of public and private space? I will look for the Pine article.

  2. Pingback: When Arab Women Artists “Revisit The Harem” | Arab Hyphen

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