Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate.
Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones.
Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore.
However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
In French Algeria during the 1860s, the “sleeping baby” controversy arose. It turned into a legal, judicial, and medical dispute that eventually reached the appellate court in the capital, Algiers. Many North Africans, both Muslims and Jews, traditionally believed that gestation in the womb could be delayed for as long as five years. The benefits to widowed, divorced, or abandoned women and their children are obvious; the sluggish fetus could be declared legitimate, thereby assuring protection and inheritance rights. Colonial jurists and scientific authorities resoundingly proclaimed sleeping babies a legal fiction. And the “primitive” notion of slumbering fetuses in utero provided opponents of Islamic justice and all things Muslim with yet another weapon, and attack they did.
This survey of French colonialism (1830–1962) in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco from the vantage point of women and gender does so within a comparative framework, contrasting the North African regimes with France’s possessions worldwide, as well as with other modern empires. Modern Euro-American colonialism was never uni-directional, radiating out from the Metropole or imperial center, nor did power circulate principally between mother country and colony. Rather, the exercise of power was webbed, bumpy, contradictory, and subject to complex local negotiation and the play of serendipity—the law of unintended consequences. Rival empires such as the British, French, Italian, and Spanish in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) emulated each other’s policies and practices. As important, the binary distinction between “colonial overlords” and “colonized natives” is no longer tenable. Nevertheless, the distinction made between Euro-American settler colonies and other kinds of imperial properties and possessions is a significant one.
The voices of those labeled unsatisfactorily as “the colonized,” particularly women and/or subalterns, have often gone missing—especially for the 19th century—because the documentary corpus is lacking, inaccessible, recondite, or was destroyed during warfare. Therefore, the essay assesses the current state of the field, mainly secondary historical literature on women, gender, and empire, and provides a broad-brush portrait of what the archives—state, colonial, missionary, and otherwise—look like.