CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 From her birth in Sidi Bel Abbès in colonial Algeria in 1924 to her death in Paris in 2011, Simone Ben Amara-Bouaziz appears to have led several lives, each symbolized by the use of a different patronym or pseudonym. She was born Simone Ben Amara, the fourth daughter of a colonial settler couple. Her privileged childhood and brilliant studies were interrupted by Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws as well as by tuberculosis. In 1946, she became Simone Dony for a year, a journalist on the left-wing daily paper Oran Républicain, for which she wrote a column designed for women, as well as covering local cultural and political events. She was called to the bar of Oran in 1952 and married her colleague Paul Bouaziz in 1953, from then on becoming known as Simone Ben Amara-Bouaziz, a lawyer engaged in defending anti-colonialist activists. The Algerian War of Independence forced her into underground activity and living clandestinely. From 1957 to 1962, exile would take her to Prague where she represented the World Federation of Trade Unions under the name Simone Dupont, while publishing in the Soviet press under the pseudonym of Semha El Ouharania. She reverted to Simone Ben Amara-Bouaziz upon Algerian independence in 1962, and returned to Oran, where she specialized in defending women in matrimonial cases. Having moved to Paris in 1968, she resumed her studies in Arabic and law at the age of 45, and prepared a doctoral thesis on marriage in Algeria, before recommencing her activity as a lawyer and specializing in the defence of wage-earners.

2 This remarkable career was pursued during periods of political ferment: the Popular Front, the Second World War, the Algerian War of Independence, the construction of an independent Algeria, and the years following the events of 1968. For her, these periods opened up possibilities and were marked by life-changing events and tensions about identity which, without necessarily being experienced as such, disrupted her attributions and allegiances to class, gender, and “race.” This explains how a daughter of colonial settlers ended up becoming anti-colonialist and a Marxist; how a young woman raised in a normative feminine tradition became a feminist lawyer; and how a French and Jewish citizen of Algeria chose to consider herself Algerian and, furthermore, a specialist in Muslim law.

3 Her experience of Algeria, which covered the years from 1924 to 1968, will be analysed here using family archives. [1] These family sources are made up of private documents and files linked to her political, professional, and academic activities, providing the means for a fresh approach – combining the private with the political – to several of the individual and collective movements that have distinguished twentieth-century Algeria. While her youth and the years of anticolonial commitment allow us to explore the possibilities for constructing dissonant identities in colonial Algeria, her work as a lawyer and doctoral student offers new perspectives on the history of women in an independent Algeria.

The daughter of Jewish settlers: between colonial integration and racial exclusion.

4 Simone Ben Amara’s family history and early years reveal a tension between class and “race” relationships in colonial Algeria. As large landowners, the Ben Amara family belonged to the colonial aristocracy. Their North-African Jewish forebears had benefited from policies granting French citizenship, and her family found itself in a position of legal superiority by comparison with its colonized Muslim neighbours. But the Ben Amaras were nevertheless Jewish, and accordingly they existed on the margins of the community of French citizens in Algeria, which was itself divided and organized along hierarchical lines, according to racial criteria. [2]

5 Simone Ben Amara’s family had several distinctive features. [3] The first lay in the diversity of its roots, which bear evidence of nineteenth-century Jewish mobility between North Africa and Europe and within these two areas. Simone’s maternal grandmother, Rosa Dreyfus, left Alsace with her parents, following the German annexation of 1871. In 1883, she married the bookseller Hippolyte Alexandre, in France. He had been born in Oran, the son of an “indigenous” Jewish woman whose family had acquired French citizenship through the Crémieux decree of 1870, and a father who had emigrated from the Saar and obtained French nationality in 1877. Having settled in Algeria, the Alexandre couple had five children, among them Paule, who was Simone’s mother, born in 1895. On the paternal side, Simone’s great-grandfather was a North-African Jew of British nationality, residing in Gibraltar. He moved to Algeria in the 1850s, setting up as a shopkeeper, and married an “indigenous” Jewish woman. Their son, Moïse Ben Amara, Simone’s grandfather, married Beida Bendjo, a native of Morocco, in 1886. Having acquired French nationality in 1891, Moïse purchased some vineyards and had a house built in the colonial village of Parmentier, near Sidi Bel Abbès. Their son Charles – Simone’s father, born in 1888 – took over the estate along with his brothers, and in 1930 extended it to the farm of L’Oasis d’Arcole, a property of 230 hectares close to Oran.

6 The Ben Amaras were therefore one of the rare families of Jewish colonial settlers, since owning land was almost unheard of among the Jews of Algeria, either before or after the country was occupied by the French. [4] Reflecting the disruption in power relations caused by French colonization – prior to which the Jews, even wealthy ones, had occupied a subordinate place in the symbolic social order by comparison with Muslims – the servants, employees, and workers attached to the Ben Amara family were mainly Muslim, Moroccan, or Algerian. The family’s correspondence, photographs, and memories provide evidence of these ambiguous relationships between employers and employees. A picture emerges of a certain closeness and conviviality, even of emotional attachments arising from the paternal benevolence of Charles, who encouraged his employees to send their children to school and donated food when there were Muslim feasts. The domination of one group over the other is nevertheless evident. A photograph taken in September 1934 on the Oasis estate shows the family members and servants busy at work together preparing a couscous, which they will share, along with the whole roast sheep provided by the estate owner. But a tree which happens to be at the centre of the frame appears to mark the social and racial order by defining the space and attitudes of all who are present: whereas most of the Ben Amara family are unoccupied and smiling at the camera, the employees turn away from the photographer and/or maintain their bodily postures of servants who are at work. For the Muslim society that surrounded the family, this questioning of the old symbolic and material order was not without its tensions: the guardian of the Ben Amara estate, a Sahrawi (Western Saharan), was sometimes called “Jew’s dog” by the young Muslims of Arcole, especially during periods of tension in Palestine. Moreover, the family contravened the tacit prohibitions of the racial pecking order in French Algerian society – in which Jews, even well-off ones, were at the bottom of the ladder – by employing Europeans living in Algeria who were of Spanish and French origin, some of them as servants. [5]

Fig. 1. Oasis Farm, Arcole, September 1934. Members of the Ben Amara family and their servants preparing a couscous. To the right of the picture, dressed in white, are Simone, her young brother (wearing a pith helmet) and her three elder sisters (Bouaziz-Ben Amara family archives).

7 Between the First and Second World Wars, Simone, her three elder sisters, and her young brother were raised in a privileged family. The children pursued their secondary education in Sidi Bel Abbès and then Oran – where they lived during the school term – and spent their holidays on the farm, where the girls rode horses and their mother received polite Jewish society in her bourgeois home. They also went regularly to France, bringing back clothes that were in fashion and where Simone and her brother pursued their higher education. The parents were French by virtue of their citizenship, by Paule’s Alsatian origins (described by her eldest daughter as particularly “chauvinistic”), by the fulfilment of military duties (Charles had fought in World War I in cavalry units of the African army), and in their musical, literary, and culinary tastes. Although they were not very religious, Judaism still structured their social life: they specialized in kosher wine and their local and international clients were Jews, as were close family friends and their daughters’ suitors, the girls being considered good matches. With their North African roots, the Ben Amara family also participated in “indigenous” social gatherings common to both Muslims and Jews, going to the feast of the Rab at Tlemcen, a Jewish “saint” venerated by Muslims and, in the case of women, to the hammam. A memorial link was also maintained with Muslim Andalusia by Messaouda Fortunée Soussi, the second wife of Charles’s father, who passed on Andalusian songs and stories to the grandchildren.

8 However, there were several factors that clouded Simone’s happy childhood. The first, of a personal order, was her father’s death in 1934, when she was ten years of age. The second was socio-political, and this was the strength of colonial antisemitism. [6] This racism, which undoubtedly played a part in the young woman’s politicization, came to the fore during the period of the Front populaire of 1936, and took the form of verbal and physical violence exerted against the family by Europeans in Algeria. It assumed even greater dimensions under the Vichy regime. [7] The family became subject to its anti-Jewish laws in October 1940 and suffered racial discrimination: the estate was threatened with sequestration by “Aryanization” in 1942; one of Simone’s uncles, a freemason and socialist, was interned; and a brother-in-law who was a lawyer was forbidden to practise. Aged just 17 when, in 1941, the numerus clausus was imposed in schools, Simone escaped exclusion because of her father’s military decorations but, in solidarity with her excluded Jewish friends, she chose to leave her girls’ lycée voluntarily. For the family, the Anglo-American landing of 8 November 1942 was therefore seen as a liberation, following which Allied troops moved into the estate. Despite privations and, as borne out by Simone’s first photograph album, which is full of pictures of beach excursions in the company of girls and boys, these months were times of euphoria, brightened by brief romances with soldiers – at least one of whom wished to marry her [8] – and punctuated by a ball organized by the US army in honour of her family. In 1944, having obtained her baccalauréat, Simone was hesitating between further study and employment: after several months spent at the law faculty of Algiers, she decided to study arts and fashion and in late 1946 was offered a job on the daily newspaper Oran Républicain. [9] But having fallen seriously ill in December 1947, she was forced to go to France.

Fig. 2. Oasis Farm, Arcole, 1944. Ball given by the American army in honour of the Ben Amara family. Sitting, from left to right: Simone (third) and her mother Paule (sixth) (Bouaziz-Ben Amara family archives).

A daughter and her mother. Between normative femininity and gender dissonance

9 Simone Ben Amara’s departure for France was precipitated by the need to seek treatment for her tuberculosis, which was to result in a lobectomy. But it also enabled her to study law outside the University of Algiers, whose atmosphere did not suit her, although until 1949 she hesitated between political science, literature, and art and fashion. [10] The four years from January 1948 until the spring of 1952, which she spent moving between the sanatorium and the University of Grenoble, led to a substantial correspondence between Simone and her mother, Paule. These letters are full of humour and tenderness, evidence above all of the great affection that united the two women, but also of their mutual trust, each of them being a confidante and counsellor for the other. They also give us an idea of the world this young woman inhabited, her relationship to that world and her self-image, as well as the way in which she regarded others and her future.

10 Right from her arrival at the sanatorium near Lyon, Simone took pleasure in painting scathing portraits of the French people of metropolitan France, whom she named “Francaouis”, [11] emphasizing the differences in physical characteristics, climate, architecture, ambience, and food between “this country” and “her own”, all to the detriment of metropolitan France. [12] During the whole of her stay she was tormented by homesickness and the desire to live in Oran, taking care after three years spent in France to justify herself by saying that she had “not become as frankaoui as all that.” [13] The sarcastic portrait that she draws of “this tomb of a country” [14], in reference to mainland France, might well have been shared by her “pieds-noirs” contemporaries. But behind this conventional picture, and as the months passed, there appeared an element that was specific to the experience of Algerian Jews and of Muslims too. In Jewish as in Muslim families, the “good French people” of metropolitan France were often judged more favorably since, unlike the “bad French” of Algeria, they were thought to be unconcerned about “race.” The prestige of French universities, together with the racist atmosphere of Algiers University, persuaded several hundred Muslim and Jewish students to seek exile, after the war, in a France that was seen as “more liberal and welcoming” [15] than French society in Algeria. But for many of these students, exile called into question this myth of a “good France” – which, for Jews, had already been undermined by the very recent experience of Vichy. [16] For Simone Ben Amara, who was a Communist sympathizer, this disappointment was of a political nature and led her regularly to use the term “fascists” to describe the people of metropolitan France. She had only just entered the sanatorium of Hauteville when she wrote:


[…] I don’t discuss politics because everyone here is fascist… Why make the effort. I am the only Jewish person. [17]
[…] they are too anti-Jewish here; really; you can feel their animosity; to think people used to say that the French hardly gave it a thought. [18]

12 Two years later, she referred to her hosts and co-tenants in a Grenoble pension as “nice, but fascist types.” [19]

13 Over and above her reaction in the face of antisemitism, these letters indicate the extent to which Jewishness was an important factor for Simone and her mother. The community identification which characterized social life in Algeria clearly emerges from their correspondence: the patronyms of friends and acquaintances are mostly Jewish, and the only Muslims referred to are servants. In mainland France too, Simone frequents North-African Jews, one of whom invites her to a “Jewish ball” in Grenoble, [20] and she mentions to her mother the Jewishness of people she meets. Most of her brief romances are with Jewish boyfriends and, when referring to her single status, she is careful to state: “as for marrying any old francaoui, that’s completely unthinkable.” [21] However, she does not see this community identification as an impassable barrier. While both she and her sisters were or would later be married to Algerian Jews, she protests when her mother criticizes her only son’s relationship with a non-Jewish metropolitan French woman:


It’s ridiculous to believe that we are still separated by race, especially when religions no longer spread hatred between people. So, Loupette, might you be becoming a bigot? [22]

15 The correspondence between Simone and her mother also shows evidence of a closeness born of gender. The femininity that the young woman displays in her letters oscillates between the normative canons of the time and a form of dissidence that is somewhat encouraged by her mother. The normative element echoes her work as a journalist at the newspaper Oran Républicain in 1947. She had been in charge of the women’s column, which was clearly addressed to middle-class French women in Algeria who had no budgetary constraints and were keen to learn of trends emanating from western countries. She would give them advice on the fashions to follow, as well as on needlecraft, hairstyles, make-up, skin care, cooking, playing hostess and raising their children. She had also been lavish in her praise of a girls’ school designed mainly for Muslims, which combined a classical curriculum – that would succeed in making these schoolgirls abandon their “atavism” – with domestic science teaching, thus turning them into “accomplished women.” In a plea for education for all girls in Algeria, she deplored the fact that in standard state schools,


[…] the same education is given to girls and boys. […] The current curricula produce intellectuals who forget to be women…. or girls who know neither how to be women nor intellectuals. The “métier” [occupation] of a woman has to be learned. Learning to cook or to bring up a kid is as vital as learning to read. [23]

17 Her correspondence indicates that these prescriptive remarks reflect her personal opinions and tastes, which she shared with her mother. In Oran, Simone regularly participated in fashion shows and her letters reveal that she was very attentive to her physical appearance: her weight, hairstyle and clothes were regular topics and she also shared with her mother her desire to have children. But these iterations were also a means of reassuring her mother about her state of health and morale, or to amuse her, as when, after putting on weight, she refers to her “fat peasant face” [24] or jokes about the “pin-up” appearance of her mother or herself. [25]

18 But the closeness due to gender between the two women also played out in less orthodox ways. It was with the blessing of her mother, who jokingly called her “my daughter, ‘the little one’”, [26] that Simone was able to follow a different route from her sisters. To fulfil her mother’s wish to “place” her daughters with good families, the eldest, Helyett, had, to her great despair, been married off at the age of eighteen to a Jewish lawyer whom she did not know. [27] Conversely, Paule agreed that Simone, at the age of twenty-three, should undertake a long period of study in mainland France. In addition to this, and medical advice to the contrary, she encouraged her daughter to work and, furthermore, to practise a profession that she enjoyed: with this in mind, she solicited advice and work placements among her entourage in Algeria. [28] There is no doubt that Paule expressed the wish to see Simone “happy and well married” [29] and attempted on several occasions to suggest a husband. But this pressure appears to have been very relative, and was a subject of frank discussion between the two women:


Why are you always so keen to marry me off? I can assure you that it will happen of its own accord. You mustn’t ruin all my friendships, all my camaraderie, with this business. [30]

20 Her relationships with men recurred regularly in their correspondence. Simone freely mentioned her attractions and flirtations – that “powerful and harmless distraction” [31] – and shared her amorous upsets with her mother. Following one particular break-up, she wrote:


It appears that I will rebuild my life!… certainly not with a man. Two bad experiences have cured me of love for ever…[…] Oh, I hate men. I hate cowards… Anyway, I’m fed up with all these dirty dealings, these hypocrisies, these lies. I play fair. [32]

22 Since these remarks followed a disappointment in love, they cannot be likened to a revolt against gender oppression. But another letter, in which Simone describes life in Grenoble, tells a different tale:


I can no longer bear this atmosphere, these degenerate types, always there undressing you with their eyes. I hate them, I can’t stand them. But note that it’s a passive revolt. Passive in the extreme… I sail high above them all. [33]

24 Elsewhere, she states that she probably needs “a man of another era”, [34] implying that her contemporaries are ill-fitted to her expectations – those of a woman who, according to comments made by her husband Paul Bouaziz, was “very modern, [and] led the life that she wanted with whoever she wanted.” [35] Her humorous answer to Paul Bouaziz’s proposal of marriage in August 1953 is evidence of this: “Acceptance whole-hearted propose terms and conditions. Affection. Simone.” [36]

25 Her free spirit and her “air […] of wanting to smash everything” [37] certainly appears to have troubled her mother, who sometimes begs her not “[to talk] of politics” [38] in social settings. But the young woman has no hesitation in recounting her verbal altercation at the Grenoble law faculty with “some stupid little fascist” [39] – congratulating herself on the fact that he was afraid of her – and, more generally, sharing with her mother demonstrations of a somewhat heterodox femininity.

A clandestine Algerian. Lawyer and activist during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962)

26 The years 1952-1954 marked a turning point in the life of Simone Ben Amara. Having returned to Oran, where she was called to the bar in May 1952, [40] she married her colleague Paul Bouaziz in October 1953, soon after her mother’s death. Despite the doctors’ warnings following her lobectomy, she gave birth to her first child, Irène, in September 1954, in accordance with the methods of painless childbirth recently imported from the USSR by the communist gynaecologist, Jean-Marie Larribère. Two months later, these personal life-events were compounded by political upheavals, when the Algerian insurrection broke out in November.

27 Although a communist sympathiser, Simone Ben Amara had been living for over four years away in mainland France, so had not strictly speaking been politically active in Algeria before the insurrection. In 1947, her brief experience as a journalist on Oran Républicain had put her in touch with socialist and communist circles in the city, but not with nationalists, and none of her articles had mentioned colonial issues. [41] As a member of the French Communist Party (PCF) in Grenoble, she had, however, kept company with politicized Muslim Algerian students at the law faculty, among them Mohammed Bedjaoui and Abdallah Hadj Slimane. Her husband Paul Bouaziz, on the other hand, was an activist in the PCA [Algerian Communist Party] and had ties with nationalists. [42]

Fig. 3. Paris, September 1956. Simone Ben Amara and Paul Bouaziz, a few days before they went underground (Bouaziz-Ben Amara family archives).

28 In 1955-1956, in their various capacities, the couple went over to supporting the fight for independence, first and foremost through their professional activity, as members of a law firm. Although they had previously specialized in housing law, given the shortage of anti-colonialist lawyers called to the bar in Oran, Simone and Paul shared the defence of accused persons who were communists and nationalists with Mohamed Belbegra and Auguste Thuveny. [43] This activity did not escape the attention of the police, who claimed that their clientele was “mainly Muslim-French”, that they dealt “only with terrorist cases”, [44] and that they represented in court “all trials of individuals prosecuted for Violation of State Security, neglecting other cases.” [45] Simone Ben Amara was the only woman out of all the anti-colonialist lawyers who had qualified in Algeria. [46] Her sole presence was sufficient to disrupt gender and “race” relations:


The first nationalists (members of Messali Hadj’s party) who saw my wife arriving to defend them went rather pale, and then they became used to it: a Jewish woman defending a Muslim, when to crown it all she was suspected of being a communist! [47]

30 “He’s finally free, he’s in prison”, she would declare of her clients when they were removed from the hands of their torturers and taken to the prison in Oran where, in the communal visiting rooms, she led discussions that turned into political meetings. [48]

31 The second element in their support for the fight was legal militant activity, which was very difficult given the context of repression. In September 1955, ten months after the dissolution of the main nationalist party, the PCA was outlawed. In November-December, some nationalists, communists, and “liberals” in Oran decided to set up an umbrella organization, called Fraternité algérienne. Its manifesto was signed by 198 people of whom 74 were Muslim, and it demanded a cease-fire, an end to repression, and the opening of negotiations. [49] In May 1956, Simone and Paul were among the 29 people – including two Muslims and 14 women – evicted from their meeting place in the tobacco warehouse of the nationalist Mohamed Benahmed, who was to join the armed struggle. [50] This police intimidation operation put an end to the movement.

32 The third phase was clandestine. During the course of 1955, the PCA organized its underground system, with one part being made up of armed groups. After the party was outlawed, active militants went over to underground operations, and the Central Committee sent Rachid Dalibey and then Boualem Khalfa to take over the running of the Oran PCA’s underground activities. When asked, the Ben Amara-Bouaziz couple agreed to harbour each of these persons successively in their home. Simone and Paul then began, independently of one another, to take part in underground activities themselves, Paul as a liaison officer between the Front de libération nationale (FLN) and the PCA, while Simone, together with other women – who were preferred for these types of activities – was responsible for collecting medical supplies for the resistance movement. [51]

33 These activities came to an end in the summer of 1956. On 7 September, the couple left for a holiday in France, for a break and so that they could try to alert the authorities and public opinion about the issue of torture. They left their daughter Irène, aged two, with Paul’s mother. At the same time, the repression of the Oran PCA began, during which the names of Simone and Paul emerged under torture. On 18 September, they were banned from entering the département of Oran and became subject to arrest warrants by the military tribunals of Oran and Algiers, condemning them in absentia to 20 years forced labour. [52] It then became essential to go underground. From mid-October, the couple were hidden in Paris at the home of the lawyer Nicole Dreyfus and with families of PCF militants. After Simone discovered she was pregnant for the second time and decided against an illegal abortion, the French and Belgian Communist Parties secured their escape to Czechoslovakia in May 1957. Once they had arrived in Prague, they were to remain there for five years under the false identities of Ambroise and Simone Dupont. From there, they were able to recover their daughter after a year of separation, a few weeks before the birth of their son, Pierre.

34 The headquarters of two organizations responsible for offering refuge to the “Dupont” family were in Prague. The first was the external delegation of the PCA, and was the focus of their political activism; it also included other militants who had escaped after a period in the armed struggle, the underground, or prison. The second was the Fédération syndicale mondiale (FSM) [World Federation of Trade Unions], their place of work, where they rubbed shoulders with trade unionists from all over the world, whom they would meet again in Hungary, Morocco, Uzbekistan, and China. The couple were considered by their opposite numbers in the East as experts on the Algerian question, and in fact as Algerians themselves. [53]

35 Simone was therefore made responsible for setting up the Comité syndical international de solidarité avec les travailleurs et le peuple algériens [International Trade Union Committee for Solidarity with Algerian Workers and People] which was officially inaugurated in Cairo in September 1958. In its attempt to unite trade unions of all allegiances in concrete support of Algerian trade unionists and the FLN, this Committee encountered difficulties linked to the competition and divergences between trade unions, but it organized several different forms of action, one of them being a conference in Casablanca in 1962. [54]

36 In Prague too, under the pseudonym “Semha El Ouharania, Algerian journalist”, Simone extolled the fight for Algerian independence in the Soviet press, embracing a communist viewpoint and insisting on the role of the “peasant masses” and the “proletariat.” Her choice of an Arabic first name, used by North-African Jewish women before names were Gallicized and which Simone had used in a letter to her mother in 1948, signalled a wish to accentuate her Algerian roots.

Fig. 4. Prague, November 1961. Algerian communists who had come out of clandestinity, the armed struggle or prison, and taken refuge with the external delegation of the PCA, welcome Henri Alleg, who had recently escaped from prison in Rennes. Seated, from left to right, are Tassadit and Larbi Bouhali, André Courounet, Henri Alleg, and Simone Ben Amara. Standing are Arlette Bourgel, André Beckouche, and Abdelhamid Boudiaf (Bouaziz-Ben Amara family archives).

37 In a 1961 article on the situation of Jews in Algeria, she relayed official pronouncements by the FLN and PCA which, seeking to win Jews over to the fight for independence, insisted that they were indigenous Algerians and stressed the fact that they had had to suffer colonial racism. [55] Proclaiming that she was Algerian, like dozens of other Jews who were campaigning for independence, [56] Simone was therefore symbolically breaking with French nationality, and still more with her heritage as the daughter of colonial settlers. “Events surely prove that one must count on something other than one’s personal fortune, even if it is landowning. What do you expect – it’s once again the fault of those ‘lousy communists’” [57], she had written to her mother in 1948, in a letter that was somewhat prophetic. Ten years later, Simone would, in fact, be sentenced by French military tribunals to undergo sequestration of her share in the farm of Oasis. [58] She would finally accede to the nationalization of the property, declared in abeyance by the independent Algerian state.

38 It was finally in Prague that she began once again to write texts devoted to women, now from a political angle. In the continuation of a letter sent in 1958 to the editors of the journal published by the Women’s International Democratic Federation, she wrote an article in 1961 entitled “La revolution algérienne libère la femme”. [59] In it, she insisted on the dual domination – patriarchal and colonial – suffered by colonized women, and stated that male “despotism” had become reinforced in reaction to “colonialism.” For her, the struggle of “the African woman” had therefore to be a dual one, “for national independence and for her freedom as a woman.” [60] Using evidence from documents written by the FLN and PCA and citing war “heroines”, she insisted on the new socio-economic and political role of Algerian women in the anti-colonialist struggle, which would guarantee them the beginnings of emancipation. [61]

Defending women in independent Algeria

39 By 13 August 1962, a month after independence and six years after they had left Algeria, Simone, Paul, and their children had returned to Oran, where they were temporarily considered as Algerian nationals. [62] Fired up by the “Algerian revolution”, they were determined to play their part in building a socialist Algeria and benefited from the trust placed in them by the new authorities, composed of their former comrades: Paul was appointed to a post at the provisional city hall authority but Simone declined the offer of a post as hospital director. Since their main desire was to resume their activities as lawyers, they re-registered with the Oran bar. [63] While Paul pursued insurance law, Simone specialized in so-called Muslim law, and more specifically in the defence of women in matrimonial cases.

40 These activities are known to us through the academic work which Simone Ben Amara embarked upon after she and her family had left for France in the summer of 1968. Despite the happy years spent in independent Algeria, exile became a necessity for political, professional, and family reasons. The authoritarianism of the regime, accentuated by the 1965 coup d’état, forced many communists and opponents into exile, as did Arab-Muslim exclusivism, manifested in the Nationality Act of 1963 – following which Paul and Simone chose to remain French nationals – and in an Arabization policy which made it difficult for them to exercise their profession. [64] Having resigned from the Oran bar in 1968-1969, the couple settled in Paris while continuing their comings and goings to Oran for several years. [65] After their arrival, Simone, now aged forty-four, ceased practising as a lawyer and succumbed to depression. In the context of the post-1968 student unrest, she regained her footing by studying, and through her meetings with young French and North-African students. In 1970, she enrolled at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales, obtaining her degree in Literary Arabic in 1973, [66] and then enthusiastically immersed herself in law history, ethnology, and the sociology of Algeria and the Muslim world, in order to prepare her doctorate in law at the University of Paris I. [67]

41 Her thesis, provisionally entitled “L’effort législatif et jurisprudentiel algérien en matière de mariage depuis l’indépendance de l’Algérie” [The Algerian legislative and judicial effort with regard to marriage since Algerian independence] remained unfinished, but her family has preserved several texts of presentations, talks, draft outlines, and chapter extracts. The first section was to be devoted to the history of so-called Muslim marriage in Algeria under Arabic-Berber, Ottoman, and then French sovereignty. The second and principal part was based on personal archives together with those of other Algerian lawyers and judges; its aim was to analyse “living law” since independence, that is to say established precedents in cases of marriage, through which she wished to conduct a sociological study of the Algerian family. The third and final section would be devoted to the Family Code, which was still being discussed in the early 1970s. [68] Several factors with which she was confronted as a lawyer between 1962 and 1968 particularly held her attention. First were the difficulties experienced by both colonial and independent authorities in Algeria in making Algerians abide by the administrative formalities of civil status registration. Although she looked kindly upon this popular resistance, Simone stressed, even in court hearings, [69] the legal difficulties it entailed, since it was often impossible for Algerians to provide proof of their marriage, and it was therefore left to the discretion of judges and agents of the state. [70] From then on she became interested in the practices of judges, some of whom returned judgments based on religious texts while others totally ignored them, leading her to argue in favour of a Family Code, which could be introduced to standardize practices. [71] Finally, she was interested in how Algerian legislation and case-law with regard to marriage affected women, as well as in the way Algerian women dealt with the law.

42 As for the status of women, Simone Ben Amara supported the point of view of the so-called progressive sections of the FLN and the regime, which wished to reconcile socialism with references to Islam, as they expressed it in the Tripoli Charter of 1962 and the Algiers Charter of 1964. [72] Setting out to oppose on their own ground the FLN’s “traditionalist” tendencies, which used religious arguments to back up their hostility to women’s emancipation, she claimed that the “true values of early Islam” contained within them ideas of freedom and equality, and that “Islamic legislation” was the “most feminist” in the world, much more favourable to women than French legislation. [73] In a presentation that was very critical of works by the Algerian feminist Fadila M’Rabet, published in 1964 and 1967, she reproached the latter for making patriarchy a phenomenon particular to Islam and to the Algerian “mentality”, that is to say a trans-historical phenomenon with a religious, cultural, and psychological basis. In her eyes, this view fuelled the European racist discourse, which led to cultural fatalism, and therefore political powerlessness. Contrary to this, Simone Ben Amara’s view of patriarchy was that it promoted a relationship of domination which had its source in the socio-economic and political contexts of many societies, whether “Muslim” or not, and against which it was possible to put up a collective fight. Noting the backlash after independence, in that women were reassigned to their “traditional” role after the shake-up of gender relations in the fight for independence, Simone Ben Amara nevertheless presented an optimistic view, which was close to that found in texts by the FLN: in the “revolutionary” context of a socialist Algeria, young people would increasingly become free of patriarchy, and this emancipation had to be accelerated by campaigning for access to employment and political responsibility. While egalitarian, the type of feminism she expressed in her work might be called differentialist: she saw men and women as complementary beings, naturalizing the maternal role of women, refusing to see men as a group of oppressors who had to be fought against, and insisting on the necessity of the family as a stable element of society. [74] In this sense, her feminism was closer to the version embraced by communist organizations and socialist regimes in Europe, whose plan of action was “not based on the subversion of gender relations.” [75]

43 Her viewpoint was based on her work as a lawyer, which is accessible through the case files compiled as part of the preparation for her thesis, providing original material for the study of gender relations in independent Algeria. [76] Having defended hundreds of women from all walks of society, Simone Ben Amara could affirm that “the Algerian woman” was “a very practical woman”, [77] in the sense that she made maximum use of the possibilities offered by Islamic law, legislation, and established precedents in order to defend her interests. She added that judges usually showed favour towards women in situations as diverse as having a violent husband, or suffering from his sexual impotence, his extra-conjugal relationships, his desertion of the matrimonial home, or his demands that his wife should not work. Over and against the interpretation of marriage as a “sale” of the woman by her family, she emphasized the advantage of the Islamic practice of the dowry, which her female clients fought to preserve during divorce cases. The dowry was in fact paid by the husband’s family to the wife – and not to the wife’s family – and she had the benefit of financial independence to manage her assets. As a lawyer, Simone Ben Amara also affirmed that by instigating legal proceedings, women had changed repudiation, that “arbitrary act which was detrimental to women”, into a purely domestic act. Repudiated women did indeed refer their cases to judges to defend their rights and, relying on “Koranic law”, could obtain financial compensation and recognition of the divorce on grounds of the exclusive fault of the husband. [78] Lastly, as a lawyer, Ben Amara was able to affirm that “brothers” and “cousins” were increasingly inclined to stand by the women in their families, particularly during divorce proceedings, and that arranged marriages were tending to become rarer or to be circumvented: spouses would sometimes conspire to enter into a marriage demanded by their families, following which they would grant one another the freedom to run their lives or else divorce by mutual consent. [79] Contrary to the traditional picture of the submissive Muslim woman, her work thus emphasized Algerian women’s agency during the first decade of independence, including in the specialist area of matrimonial law, which was reputed for its conservatism.

44 Simone Ben Amara’s Algerian experience was composed of sometimes radical breaks from the dominant social order and from the community with which she had identified, making her an example of what Jacques Rancière describes as political subjects par excellence: “subjects […] who are not social groups, ethnic communities, diverse minorities – or majorities – but polemical authorities.” These individuals were misfits, as if unsuited to the ordering of the world, who managed through their practices to break away from the dominant “system of social identification” and were the bearers – consciously or not – of new names, new social relationships, new identifications, and “the possibility of a world which makes itself perceptible and questions the evidence for the world as it is.” [80] It was the world as it was, founded on a strict division of the place of each social, racial, and gendered group, that Simone Ben Amara constantly put to the test. Her experience in itself revealed the contrived nature of this world order and thus the possibilities for dismantling its structures and rearranging them.


  • [1]
    My warm thanks to Paul, Irène, and Pierre Bouaziz for allowing me access to these archives and sharing their family memories, and to Héloïse Bertrand for giving me the unpublished account by Paul Bouaziz. Unless stated otherwise, all documents quoted are from the private archives of the Ben Amara-Bouaziz family.
  • [2]
    Valensi 2016.
  • [3]
    The factual information which follows comes from military registers and birth, marriage, and death records preserved in the French Archives nationales d’outre-mer (ANOM) [Overseas national archives]; from a memorial work by Simone Ben Amara’s elder sister (Ben Amara 2000); from the speech given by Dominique de La Garanderie when Simone Ben Amara was awarded the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur on 13 December 2000; from an unpublished account by Paul Bouaziz; and from interviews between the author and Paul Bouaziz carried out in Paris on 12 March 2007 and 25 May 2012.
  • [4]
    In the 1950s, scarcely 1% of economically active Jews living in Algeria were employed in agriculture, compared with 15% of European workers. ANOM, préfecture d’Alger, 81 F 1059: “Les Juifs Algériens”, rapport de la Délégation générale du gouvernement en Algérie, 6 March 1961.
  • [5]
    On the connection between class, gender, and “race” relations in interactions between employers and servants in the (post-)colonial situation, see Brac de La Perrière 1987, Moujoud 2012 and Mekaoui-Chebout 2020.
  • [6]
    On the causes and specific nature of antisemitism in colonial Algeria, see Dermenjian 2018.
  • [7]
    On the Vichy period in Algeria, see Cantier 2002.
  • [8]
    Letter from a British soldier to Simone Ben Amara, 26 October 1946. Her first album contains many photographs of Allied soldiers, sometimes with dedications on the back.
  • [9]
    Having arrived at the newspaper as a trainee writer in December 1946, she was laid off a year later following “budgetary pressures” (letter of Jean Giovannoni, editor-in-chief of Oran Républicain, 28 November 1947).
  • [10]
    Letter from Simone Ben Amara to Paule Alexandre (widow of Charles Ben Amara) in early 1949.
  • [11]
    Derived from Arabic, this term was used by French people in Algeria to give a pejorative slant when describing the French of metropolitan France.
  • [12]
    Letters from Simone to Paule, 1 and 4 February 1948.
  • [13]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 30 March 1951.
  • [14]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 31 May 1948.
  • [15]
    ANOM, Fonds ministériel, 81 F 1032: letter from the Governor-General Edmond Naegelen to the Minister of the Interior, 26 February 1951 (“Subject: Muslim Algerian students in metropolitan France”).
  • [16]
    Le Foll-Luciani 2012.
  • [17]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 11 February 1948.
  • [18]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 21 April 1948 (sic).
  • [19]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 5 February [1950?].
  • [20]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 5 February [1950?].
  • [21]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 2 January 1951.
  • [22]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 27 November 1950.
  • [23]
    Simone Dony, “L’ancienne école des tapis est devenue un établissement modèle”, Oran Républicain, 25 March 1947.
  • [24]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 21 April 1948.
  • [25]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 9 June 1951.
  • [26]
    Letter from Paule to Simone, [1952?].
  • [27]
    Ben Amara 2000: 116-118.
  • [28]
    Letters from Simone to Paule, 10 November 1951, and from Paule to Simone, 15 January 1952.
  • [29]
    Letter from Paule to Simone, [1952?].
  • [30]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 2 January 1951.
  • [31]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 25 February 1952.
  • [32]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 9-10 December 1949.
  • [33]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 9 June 1951.
  • [34]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 2 January 1951.
  • [35]
    Unpublished account by Paul Bouaziz.
  • [36]
    Telegram from Simone Ben Amara to Paul Bouaziz, 4 August 1953. Paul Bouaziz’s telegram, sent on 3 August, was worded: “Seek infinite renewal. Affection. Paul.”
  • [37]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 10 June 1948.
  • [38]
    Letter from Paule to Simone, 1 December 1949.
  • [39]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 9 January 1950.
  • [40]
    Extract from the register of deliberations of the bar association of Oran, 24 May 1952.
  • [41]
    The articles she published in Oran Républicain from December 1946 to May 1947 were compiled into a book by her brother-in-law, Lucien Levy, a publicist at the newspaper. Out of 78 articles, 15 record activities conducted by socialists, communists or the CGT union [Confédération Générale du Travail], two of which refer to the political mobilization of women.
  • [42]
    For the history of the Algerian Communist Party and its role in the War of Independence, see Drew 2014.
  • [43]
    The first, a member of the Mouvement national algérien (MNA) would be murdered by the Front de libération nationale (FLN) [National Liberation Front] in 1956; the second was a member of the FLN and would be murdered by the “ultras” of French Algeria in 1958.
  • [44]
    Dépôt central des archives de la justice militaire (DCAJM), case of the Combattants de la Libération d’Oran, 1956-1957 [Freedom Fighters for Oran, 1956-1957]: Gendarmerie of Oran note, 13 June 1957.
  • [45]
    DCAJM, case of the Réseau des bombes de la Zone autonome d’Alger, 1956-1957 [Bombing network of the autonomous zone of Algiers]: Sûreté urbaine d’Oran note, undated.
  • [46]
    The other anti-colonialist female lawyers – often of Jewish origin – had all qualified in mainland France. For the work of anti-colonialist lawyers during the War of Independence, see Thénault 2012.
  • [47]
    Author’s interview with Paul Bouaziz, 12 March 2007.
  • [48]
    Speech given by Dominique de la Garanderie, cited above.
  • [49]
    ANOM, prefecture d’Oran, 365: Manifesto of “Fraternité algérienne. Mouvement pour la paix” [Algerian Brotherhood. Peace Movement].
  • [50]
    ANOM, prefecture d’Oran, 365: report of the Oran police headquarters, 24 May 1956.
  • [51]
    ANOM, prefecture d’Alger, 81 F 759: Un exemple de l’action clandestine du Parti communiste en Algérie : le réseau oranais [An example of underground action by the Communist Party in Algeria: the Oran network], report of the Direction de la surveillance du territoire (DST), 1956; Le Foll-Luciani 2016.
  • [52]
    DCAJM, cases of the Combattants de la libération d’Oran and the Réseau des bombes de la Zone autonome d’Alger [Bombing network of the autonomous zone of Algiers].
  • [53]
    By way of example, in 1961 Simone Ben Amara annotated a draft statement on Algeria from the FSM secretariat and on 11 July 1962, an official from the Soviet newspaper Gudok wrote to “Simone Dupont” congratulating her “warmly on the occasion of Algeria’s winning of independence.”
  • [54]
    “Note to Comrade Chleboun”, 1961.
  • [55]
    Rough draft of an article on the Jews of Algeria, 1961.
  • [56]
    For the histories of Algerian Jews who were anti-colonialist militants, see Le Foll-Luciani 2015.
  • [57]
    Letter from Simone to Paule, 28 February 1948.
  • [58]
    Courrier de l’Administration de l’enregistrement des domaines et du timbre aux héritiers Ben Amara [Letter from the Department for registration of landed property and stamp duty to the Ben Amara next of kin], Oran, 15 February 1962.
  • [59]
    Semha El Ouharania, “La revolution algérienne libère la femme”, rough draft of article, 1961.
  • [60]
    Draft of a letter to the editors of Femmes du monde entier, 28 March 1958.
  • [61]
    For a contextualization and a discussion of these issues, see Amrane 1991, MacMaster 2009, and Vince 2015.
  • [62]
    A pass for the Bouaziz-Ben Amara family issued by the Prague Mission of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, 21 July 1962.
  • [63]
    Letters from the chairman of the Oran bar association to Paul Bouaziz and Simone Ben Amara, 8 October 1962.
  • [64]
    In addition to this, their son Pierre, who was asthmatic, was undergoing treatment in France and separated from his parents for part of the year. For the exile of anti-colonialists of Jewish or European origin after independence, see Le Foll-Luciani 2014.
  • [65]
    Letters from the chairman of the National Bar Association of Algeria to Paul Bouaziz, 5 November 1968 and 21 March 1970; certificate of the deputy chairman of the Oran bar association, 10 January 1969.
  • [66]
    At the time she enrolled, in 1970, the institution was called Centre universitaire des langues orientales vivantes (CULOV), before being renamed Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO) in 1971. [It was and is informally known as “Langues O”. Tr.]
  • [67]
    The thousands of pages of notes taken while preparing her thesis and during the lectures and seminars she attended are preserved in the family archives.
  • [68]
    “Méthodologie”, around 1971-1972.
  • [69]
    During a divorce case, in June 1966, she argued for the “institution of a normal Civil Status, essential for any independent country” (petition for appeal before the court of Oran, 21 June 1966).
  • [70]
    “Le problème de la forme dans le mariage algérien” [The problem of form in Algerian marriage], paper presented at CULOV, 1970-1971.
  • [71]
    “Rapport présenté par Madame Bouaziz en vue de l’examen pour être admise en deuxième année de doctorat de 3e cycle et de soutenir une thèse” [Report presented by Madame Bouaziz with the objective of being admitted into the second year of the doctorate and to defend a dissertation], 1971, 77 p.; “L’organisation judiciaire de l’Algérie, pendant la présence française et après l’indépendance”, presentation at CULOV, 1970-1971 [The judicial organization of Algeria, during the French presence and after independence, paper presented at CULOV].
  • [72]
    For the disputes over women’s status that featured in Algerian political and legal circles in the early years of independence, see Saï 2012.
  • [73]
    La Femme algérienne et Les Algériennes de Fadila M’Rabet”, presentation at CULOV, May 1971, 69 p.
  • [74]
  • [75]
    Christian & Heiniger 2015: 9. See also Kott & Thébaud 2015.
  • [76]
    They involve findings by colleagues or herself in favour of female clients (and more rarely a male client), letters from clients to the Oran public prosecutor, and judgments returned by the Oran courts between 1963 and 1967.
  • [77]
    La Femme algérienne et Les Algériennes de Fadila M’Rabet”, previously cited, note 73 above.
  • [78]
    Untitled and undated notes. See, for example, a petition by Maître Simone Ben Amara on behalf of her client, Mme A.G., for the purpose of a summons to appear before the Oran court, November 1966.
  • [79]
    La Femme algérienne et Les Algériennes de Fadila M’Rabet”, previously cited, note 73 above.
  • [80]
    Rancière 2009: 60, 178, 9.

Simone Ben Amara was born in colonial Algeria in 1924 and died in Paris in 2011. Her trajectory seems to articulate several lives, during which her gender, class and “race” identities were troubled. The daughter of settlers, she became an anti-colonialist and Marxist activist. A Jew and a French citizen, she chose to identify as an Algerian and to struggle for national independence. Raised in normative femininity, she became a feminist lawyer, specializing in Muslim law in post-colonial Algeria. This article is based on her private archives, which enable us to analyze the construction of dissonant identities in colonial Algeria and provide new perspectives on the history of women in Algeria after independence.

  • Algeria
  • gender
  • race
  • class
  • anti-colonialism
  • women’s rights
  • Bibliography

    • Amrane, Djamila. 1991. Les Femmes algériennes dans la guerre. Paris: Plon.
    • Ben Amara, Helyett. 2000. Il était une fois… Là bas. Algérie, mon pays, comme un feu tu te gaspilles en étincelles. Grenoble: Éditions Alzieu.
    • Brac de La Perrière, Caroline. 1987. Derrière les héros… Les employées musulmanes en service chez les Européens à Alger pendant la guerre d’Algérie. 1954-1962. Paris: L’Harmattan.
    • Cantier, Jacques. 2002. L’Algérie sous le régime de Vichy. Paris: Odile Jacob.
    • OnlineChristian, Michel & Alix Heiniger. 2015. Femmes, genres et communismes (Éditorial). Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire 126: 3-13.
    • Dermenjian, Geneviève. 2018. Antijudaïsme et antisémitisme en Algérie coloniale, 1830-1962. Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence.
    • Drew, Allison. 2014. We Are No Longer In France: communists in colonial Algeria. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    • Kott, Sandrine & Françoise Thébaud. 2015. Le “socialisme réel” à l’épreuve du genre (Éditorial). Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire 41: 7-20. [English online edition: “Real Socialism” and the Challenge of Gender:]
    • Le Foll-Luciani, Pierre-Jean. 2012. Des étudiants juifs algériens dans le mouvement national algérien à Paris (1948-1962). In La Bienvenue et l’adieu. Migrants juifs et musulmans au Maghreb, xve-xxe siècle, vol. 2, Ruptures et recompositions, ed. Frédéric Abécassis, Karima Dirèche & Rita Aouad, 67-93. Paris & Casablanca: Karthala / La Croisée des chemins.
    • —. 2014. La sortie de guerre de militants juifs algériens et la construction d’une algérianité d’État. In Algérie, sortie(s) de guerre, ed. Patrick Harismendy & Vincent Joly, 57-68. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.
    • —. 2015. Les Juifs algériens dans la lutte anticoloniale. Trajectoires dissidentes (1934-1965). Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.
    • Online—. 2016. “J’aurais aimé être une bombe pour exploser”. Les militantes communistes algériennes entre assignations sexuées et subversions des rôles de genre (1944-1962). Le Mouvement social 255: 35-55.
    • [English online edition: “If only I could have been a bomb, I would have exploded”: Algerian women communist militants, between assignation and subversion of gender roles (1944–1962):]
    • MacMaster, Neil. 2009. Burning the Veil: the Algerian war and the “emancipation” of Muslim women, 1954-1962. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
    • Mekaoui-Chebout, Nassima. 2020. Oppressions à l’embauche : chercher un travail comme domestique dans la capitale coloniale à l’aide des petites annonces de L’Écho d’Alger (ca 1914-1945). Histoire, économie & société 3: 67-83.
    • Moujoud, Nasima. 2012. Employées “musulmanes” et employeurs “juifs” maghrébins en migration. La singularité de la relation de services domestiques. In La Bienvenue et l’adieu. Migrants juifs et musulmans au Maghreb, xve-xxe siècle, vol. 2, Ruptures et recompositions, ed. Frédéric Abécassis, Karima Dirèche & Rita Aouad, 229-237. Paris & Casablanca: Karthala / La Croisée des chemins.
    • Rancière, Jacques 2009. Moments politiques. Interventions 1977-2009. Paris: La Fabrique.
    • OnlineS, Fatima Zohra. 2012. Quel statut pour les femmes algériennes dans la “post-colonie” ? In Les Indépendances au Maghreb, ed. Amar Mohand-Amer & Belkacem Benzenine, 141-152. Oran: Centre de recherche en anthropologie sociale et culturelle. 
    • Thénault, Sylvie. 2012. Défendre les nationalistes algériens en lutte pour l’indépendance. La “défense de rupture” en question. Le Mouvement Social 240: 121-135.
    • Valensi, Lucette. 2016. Juifs et musulmans en Algérie, viie-xxe siècle. Paris: Tallandier.
    • Vince, Natalya. 2015. Our Fighting Sisters: nation, memory and gender in Algeria, 1954-2012. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Pierre-Jean Le Foll-Luciani
Pierre-Jean Le Foll-Luciani is an agrégé and holds a doctorate in history. Publications include Le Camp des oliviers. Parcours d’un communiste algérien (2012) and Les juifs algériens dans la lutte anticoloniale. Trajectoires dissidentes (1934-1965) (2015), both with Presses universitaires de Rennes.
Translated by
Rosemary Rodwell
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