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date: 24 November 2017

North Africa and France: Imperialism, Colonialism, and Women, 1830–1962

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.