ALGIERS (Reuters) - The sight of women working as bus and taxi drivers, petrol pump attendants or police officers in Algeria’s larger towns can surprise newcomers by suggesting women are emancipated in Algeria. They are not, feminists say.
Such cases remain exceptions in a male-dominated Muslim society in which, despite official appearances, women are often treated like slaves and violently abused by husbands, fathers and brothers.
“Don’t be fooled by a minority of westernized women,” said Saliha Larab from Algerian women’s organization RAFD. “Algeria remains a very conservative society that considers women as second-class citizens.”
Algerian women who fought for independence -- like Hassiba Ben Bouali and Jamila Bouhired -- are still held up as heroines in the north African country.
Equality of the sexes is enshrined in Algeria’s constitution and women hold senior positions in central and regional government, the courts, security services and embassies.
The government says sexual harassment has been criminalized and provisions added to legislation to bolster women’s rights.
But up to a dozen women and children can sometimes be seen sleeping rough on the streets in downtown Algiers at night, many fleeing spousal abuse or rejected by husbands in family disputes.
According to police figures, 7,400 women in the north African country of 33 million were victims of violence in 2005, up from 5,845 in 2004.
“The figures don’t say much. The big problem is most victims don’t complain,” said Larab. “They stay silent, fear reprisals by society. A woman does not have the right to complain.”
At a centre for women in distress in Algiers, Lamia, 35, said she had endured five years of beatings from her husband in front of her young children before he threw her onto the streets.
She fled her village to escape a barrage of persecution and insults from her husband and neighbors. Destitute, she appealed to her own family but they rejected and abandoned her.
Lamia received no support and for a while lost custody of her children. When they were returned to her she found they had been sexually abused by one of her husband’s relatives.
“I made a complaint but all I got in return was another beating from my husband, who is a police officer.”
Now in the shelter, Lamia’s daughter is back in primary school after a long break in her education.
A non-governmental organization gave her legal assistance to claim rights such as child maintenance payments from her husband and official custody of the children.
Although reproductive health has improved dramatically and the birth rate declined, the rate of illiteracy among Algerian women is still twice as high as for men, at 37 percent, and only 13 per cent of women are in the paid workforce, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
With nearly a quarter of Algerians living below the national poverty line and 70 percent of adults under 30 without a job, frustration and insecurity are widespread -- and women are most often the victims.
Amnesty International said in a report in 2005 that allegations of rape and other sexual violence were often not investigated and those responsible were not brought to justice.
A 2005 amendment to the family code improved the position of women by banning men from divorcing their wives for no reason, giving women access to financial support from former husbands and a right to a home if they gain custody of their children.
But President Abdelaziz Bouteflika rejected a recommendation by a government-appointed reform commission to abolish a rule forcing women to get permission from a male family member or so-called tutor to marry.
Analysts say Bouteflika’s decision not to drop the clause from an amendment to the 1984 family code showed Islamic parties still carry influence after a long-running militant uprising that has claimed the lives of up to 200,000.
Wives and daughters who make their grievances public often risk a violent revenge by incensed male relatives.
Fatiha, 53, filed for divorce after beatings from her husband -- who disapproved of her career plans -- left her in hospital for three months with severe trauma and fractures.
“All I wanted was to become a singer,” Fatiha said.
The repeated violence caused psychiatric disorders in her children and one of her daughters attempted suicide, she said.
Exhausted and unable to endure such humiliating violence any longer, Fatiha sought refuge with her aged father while waiting for her divorce, leaving the children with her husband.
When her father died and she was left without a protector, her husband came with one of her sons to kill her, knowing that she was alone in the house.
She escaped death thanks to a neighbor who warned her of their plan, and found refuge at the Darna women’s centre in Algiers.
Now divorced, Fatiha has the freedom to develop her talents as a poet and singer.
With support from the women’s centre she has written a collection of poems, and made a CD expressing her pain in song.
Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer