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PERSPECTIVE ON HUMAN RIGHTS : Wearing the Veil, Under Penalty of Death : In their quest to root out 'Western corruption,' Islamic fundamentalists declare open season on Algerian women.

April 01, 1994|FATIMA B. | Fatima B. is the pseudonym for a 22-year-old Algerian woman. This article was translated by the French Committee for Intellectuals for Freedom House, a human-rights group based in New York.

TLEMCEN, Algeria — The most radical faction of the Islamic fundamentalist movement announced in February that any woman seen in public without the hijab (veil) prescribed by Muslim orthodoxy could and should be killed.

This was no empty threat. It was carried out Feb. 28, when a 17-year-old girl was murdered on her way to high school by a group of young men. On Wednesday, two more young women were killed at a bus station.

Since then, all the young women in the factory where I work as a junior manager are wearing the veil. I doubt three of them have the remotest interest in following the precepts of Islam in a strict sense, if at all. We respect the religion of our parents and of many of our contemporaries. But we were taught that religion is a private matter that cannot be imposed by decree.

Now, practicing what we were taught can get us killed. None of us wants to wear the veil. But fear is stronger than our convictions or our will to be free. Fear is all around us. Our parents, our brothers, are unanimous: Wear the veil and stay alive. This will pass.

I am no intellectual, but I believe other people were told, elsewhere in other times, that the evil and the fear around them would pass. As far as I know, it did not pass. It got worse. I believe it will get worse here unless someone hears us.

Today the Islamists, as the Islamic fundamentalists are called, want to impose the veil on us. Tomorrow they will keep us from working or even going to school. They say that we should not vote or take part in public affairs. The veil between us and our country beyond the thick walls of our homes is to be total. And we all can guess that the slightest visit with a boyfriend can get us killed.

The best of Islam is founded in human dignity and tolerance and respect for others. But it is not the best of Islam that is coming to the fore now in Algeria. The war against women that is taking place here is not founded in Islamic precepts, but in the terrorist mentality that took over Iran years ago.

Scarcely a day goes by when a teacher, a journalist, a labor leader, a lawyer is not murdered, not to mention ordinary working people who show signs of free thinking. They are considered Westernized, corrupt beyond salvation, good only for extermination. Algeria's greatest playwright and actor, Abdelkader Alloula, was gunned down at home. Because our country's medical facilities, under the strain of civil strife and economic disorder, are no longer equipped to treat severe head wounds, Alloula was flown to a hospital in France, where he died a few days later. Most of the terrorists' victims, of course, cannot even hope for a desperate attempt at rescue.

Algerian women are alone. The secular, democratic parties will not come out to back us. Even the National Liberation Front--the former ruling party which since the fiasco of the 1992 elections has taken a back seat to a series of military committees, and which the terrorists have sworn to eliminate and therefore has nothing to lose--will not support us. Yet it was they who promised Algerian women they would be free after the war against the French.

France, the country closest to our country's destiny, has waited nervously, hesitating between a serious policy of helping Algeria repress the terrorists and one of seeking a deal with the eventual winner in what will soon be a full-scale Lebanese-style civil war. Our neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia, have done nothing, terrified by the prospect of the most powerful country in the region turning into another Iran and exporting its terrorist jihad --and millions of refugees.

And the United States has done nothing. Yet America is deeply implicated in our fate. And it is threatened, too. In the neighborhood where I live, they say that the United States armed and trained the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist factions in the Afghanistan war in the 1980s. If that is true, America provided a continuing training program for the Algerian extremists. The military leaders of the terrorist jihad in my country, young men in their 20s and 30s who are as fearless as they are ruthless, are called Afghans.

I have to believe that you Americans do not understand us or the full importance of our problem. Those whom you supported or still support in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia are full of scorn for you. They believe that American women are filthy whores. I do not believe this and neither do my friends. We do not want to be like you, but we want to live in a country where we can be like you if that is what we please, or be ourselves, or even wear a veil if we want to. But the Islamist terrorists, after they have turned Algeria into another Iran, will not give us any choices at all.

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