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Reformers Face Uphill Battle in Changing Algeria's Family Laws - 2004-06-07

Half a century ago, Algerian women fought alongside men in the country's war of liberation from French colonists. But with independence, many returned to their kitchens, and a country once considered a leader in Arab women's rights, found itself lagging behind its neighbors in North Africa. Changes are under way, and the focal point of reforms is Algeria's archaic family law.

Thirty-three-year-old Heda made the mistake of having a child that her husband did not want. At least this is the version of the story she tells a reporter at a shelter for abused women in downtown Algiers.

Heda, who gives only her first name, comes from the rural village of Tebessa, about 600 kilometers east of the capital.

She says her husband divorced her eight-years ago, when he found out she was pregnant. Her family, she says, agreed to take her in, but only if she gave her infant son up for adoption. Heda refused, and found herself homeless.

Under Algeria's 1984 family law, men can divorce their wives without a reason, and have no obligations towards their former wives.

Algerian men can have up to four wives, although few actually do. Women must ask permission from a male member of the family before they can marry.

Heda was luckier than other abandoned women here. A shelter in Algiers run by a women's group called S.O.S. Femmes en Detresse (S.O.S Women in Distress), took her in and gave her shelter. She earns money cleaning houses in Algiers.

Women's rights activists in Algeria say she is a symbol of what is wrong with the country's family law based on Islamic tenets.

Meriem Belaala is the president of S.O.S. Femmes en Detresse. She wants the family law to be scrapped altogether.

For years, Mrs. Belaala says, men have twisted Islamic principles to suit their purposes and to discriminate against women. It is about time, she says, to put an end to it.

Neighboring Tunisia has long boasted of having the most emancipated women in the Arab world. Morocco, to Algeria's west, recently amended its family law to nearly abolish polygamy, increase legal marriage age for women and to force men to seek divorces in court.

The family law in Algeria may not be keeping up with developments, but women do. They are as likely to be strolling down the streets of Algiers in jeans and T-shirts as in headscarves and long dresses. When the Islamist extremists who waged a terror campaign in the 1990s demanded that women be modestly dressed and stay at home, many Algerian women instead went out to protest.

Nadia Ait-Zai, a lawyer and one of Algeria's leading women's rights activists, is among many who believe the Family Code is out of step with social realities.

Today, Mrs. Ait-Zai says, women hold public office and responsible positions in the private sectors. She says many Algerians also adopt children, although that is forbidden under law. Families often divide their inheritance equally between their sons and daughters, even though the law stipulates that girls should only have half the share of boys.

Mrs. Ait-Zai and other activists argue the law fails to protect women like Heda who are shunned by their husbands and families, and only a lucky few find shelter in places like S.O.S. Femmes en Detresse. More conservative Algerians, like lawmaker Aicha Bausbah, are opposed to changing the Family Code.

Mrs. Bausbah, a member of parliament representing Algeria's moderate Islamist Islaa party, says there are certainly problems with the law. Divorced mothers and their children, for example, should have a right to housing, she says, but the problem is not the Family Code, but the way it is interpreted and applied. Mrs. Bausbah says she believes other controversial tenets, such as a man's right to have several wives, should be kept.

Following his re-election in April, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said he would make the reform of the family code a top priority during his second term in office. Taboos can be overturned, he said, especially when they involve mentalities that do not correspond with modern times.

That has raised hopes among many Algerian women. But skeptics, like Miriam Belaala believe it will take many more months, if not years, to modernize the country's outdated family law.