“Children of the New World” by Assia Djebar
The book Children of the New World by Djebar is an insightful source of information regarding the social position of women in Algeria. Importantly, the impact of female activism on the setting in the country has been unrecognized and underappreciated.1 The book exhibits the efforts and sacrifices made by females on the way to decolonization. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the points of intersection between tradition and revolutionary modernity found in the reading and analyze other important aspects raised in the text.
The book was written and published during the Algerian-French conflict. To be more precise, the author started writing and finalized the text during the last years of the war. Therefore, it has reflected the events realistically and persuasively. Overall, when the French colonized the Algerian people, they established a certain regime across the entire territory.2 In particular, they ensured a gendered framework.3 European men and women were regarded as superior to the Algerian people while Algerian women were intentionally oppressed. Also, the colonists have encouraged a nationalist discourse in the country. According to it, women had to fulfill their domestic roles solely, which implied that the discourse was gendered.
Tradition and Modernity
Notably, the points of intersection between tradition and revolutionary modernity can be observed at different levels of the writing. For instance, Assia Djebar was an Algerian writer who felt a strong connection with her country. Nevertheless, the novel was written in French, which denoted that the author wanted to exhibit herself as a person appreciating the heritage of both cultures.
Apart from that, the confluence of tradition and modernity is present at the level of narration. In particular, the reader can notice that traditional women who are veiled exhibit themselves as strong-willed and brave. At the same time, females who are initially independent in the story prove to be constrained and secluded. For example, the compilation of tradition and modernity is manifested in Cherifa strongly. She is 29, and she is married as many other traditional Algerian women are.4 The character is confined to her home and feels insecure without her husband. Cherifa is conservative and cannot leave her home without her spouse. Nevertheless, the woman who wears a veil and cherishes traditional values is eager to join the independence movement. She is willing to help and support her compatriots. Therefore, she recognizes and embraces her desire to follow the revolutionary action and encourages others to do the same.
Further on, tradition and modernity meet in the complicated status of women in society. They have different degrees of agency in the novel. In the book, women no longer belong to the binarism categories that have existed in traditional society. The rejection of social conventions is vividly shown in Touma’s character. She is a young female who is eager to become a prostitute to provide for herself.5 Importantly, she furnishes her services to European men and French officials in particular. Also, she gradually becomes their informant. Therefore, the woman is not afraid to have sexual contact with her direct enemy and becomes a traitor in the eyes of her compatriots. One of the critical points that should be noted about this character is that Touma decides to lead such a lifestyle because it positively affected her feeling of self-worth. Thus, the interaction between tradition and modernity can be observed in the sexuality of women in the novel, and it is possible to assume that it has caused some form of internal conflict in them.
In the book, issues of colonization are depicted in the constant struggle of women. In the country, a significant gender gap was present, and women and men were neither regarded nor treated equally. Algerian females sought agency within their families.6 The colonial power did not allow them to become independent in society, and women were politically and socially oppressed.7 The fragmented narrative structure of the book exhibited the way colonization had affected women by explaining the different destinies they had.
In that matter, it is also crucial to discuss the fight for independence. Interestingly, it had a different character for men and women. In general, the country was struggling for gaining independence from the French colonists. Also, they fought against the existing oppression. Nonetheless, indigenous males were striving for freedom from the French oppression while females wanted to get rid of the discriminating structures.8 Apart from the fight for freedom against colonialism, they also wanted to liquidate the indigenous patriarchy ingrained into society. Evidence of this struggle can be observed in such instances when women decided to leave their homes without their husbands. For example, Cherifa pushed herself to come to public space, which empowered her greatly.9 This way, the city (Blida) became a metaphor that indicated the absence of equality. Therefore, Algerian women fought for their freedom by challenging the beliefs of men who considered that females had no right to come to the public alone.
Other pivotal topics that can be noticed in the novel are patriarchy and gender. The social order established by the colonists implied that masculine power should dominate. Also, a particular accent was placed on the role of family and the place of women in it. Females had to perform their traditional duties and obey their husbands. It also meant the intense oppression of women and various limitations for them. Interestingly, some of the characters in the book confronted their husbands. Four women in the story did not agree with their spouses, but their opinions were disregarded. Notably, in the book, to ensure their strong positions, men often resort to physical violence. For example, Hakim abuses Amna “with a blow right to her engorged chest, [which] causes her to topple onto the mattress”.10 Therefore, patriarchy has often been embodied by physical force.
Female emancipation is also one of the significant issues raised in the reading. According to Fanon, the practice of unveiling the Algerian women took place in the country.11 It was targeted at emancipating them from the discriminating culture ingrained into social structures. Nevertheless, the colonial administration did not comprehend the meaning of the veil fully. This attempt was aimed at controlling females; however, the veil itself did not imply the presence of power. The empowerment of women required providing them with political, economic, and social rights. The abandonment of the veil did not make women emancipated since they were wearing it for their reasons but not as a symbol of the patriarchal views. In its turn, the revolutionary experience did transform the Algerian women.
Despite the complexity of the setting and the limitations experienced by women, it can be assumed that many of them did strengthen their national identity. The anti-colonial resistance has allowed them to identify themselves with their culture and the country. It has been achieved through the practice of self-sacrifice that many of the female characters have employed. Even though the role of Algerian women in the movement remained unrecognized, their representations of themselves have transformed and evolved.12 The activism of females implied that a shift in gender roles had appeared and women had been able to build on their feeling of self-worth. In its turn, this comprehension had enabled them to comprehend their place and role in the life of Algeria.
Having followed the main characters in their difficult paths, I was able to reject my biased views of Muslim women as being subjugated to men. The novel has resonated with me greatly because it has challenged me emotionally while making me informed about the aspects of the social world. Also, the fragmentary narrative had kept me in suspense so that I was unable to stop reading until the book was finished.
The reading is relevant for the contemporary audience because many women across the world are seeking their freedoms just as the characters in the novel do. It has encouraged me to research the experience of other countries to learn about their human rights issues. At present, many social groups still face human rights abuses (including racial, gender, and institutional discrimination), and the book by Djebar can become a source of inspiration for them.
Thus, it can be concluded that the novel by Assia Djebar is remarkable. It articulates the issue of gender and cultural discrimination by making the reader accept and comprehend the experience of Algerian women. Also, it brings to the forefront the role of women in decolonizing the country.
Deb, Basuli. Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Terror in Literature and Culture. Routledge, 2014.
Djebar, Assia. Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian Nation. Translated by Marjolijn de Jager, Feminist Press, 2005.
Fanon, Frantz. “Algeria Unveiled.” The New Left Reader, edited by Carl Oglesby, Grove Press, 1969, pp. 161-185.
Gunaratne, Anjuli I., and Jill M. Jarvis. “Introduction: Inheriting Assia Djebar.” PMLA, vol. 131, no. 1, 2016, pp. 116-124.
Hiddleston, Jane. Understanding Postcolonialism. Routledge, 2014.
Loytomaki, Stiina. Law and the Politics of Memory: Confronting the Past. Routledge, 2014.
Mehta, Brinda J. Dissident Writings of Arab Women: Voices against Violence. Routledge, 2014.
Smith, Susan E. Women in Mission: From the New Testament to Today. Orbis Books, 2015.
- See Smith 11.
- See Loytomaki 110.
- See Deb 160.
- See Djebar 9.
- See Djebar 69.
- See Gunaratne and Jarvis 121.
- See Mehta 49.
- See Hiddleston 98.
- See Djebar 94.
- See Djebar 176.
- See Fanon 166-169.
- See Fanon 185.