Excerpt: French Mediterraneans

9780803249936-JacketBlue.inddThe following is an excerpt from French Mediterraneans: Transnational and Imperial Histories (May 2016), edited and with an introduction by Patricia M.E. Lorcin and Todd Shepard.

Chapter 7: From Household to Schoolroom: Women, Transnational Networks, and Education in North Africa and Beyond

By Julia Clancy-Smith

A little Arab girl going to school for the first time, one autumn morning, walking hand in hand with her father. A tall erect figure in a fez and a European suit, carrying a bag of school books. He is a teacher at the French primary school. A little Arab girl in a village in the Algerian Sahel.

—Assia Djebar, Fantasia1

Assia Djebar’s poignant sketch of her first school day hints at the con­tradictions of “colonial education.” Her father, Tahar Imalhayène, a Berber, taught French at the local primary school near Cherchell that she herself attended, which surely explains why she enrolled there. As telling is the father’s attire—a suit combined with the fez. However, Tahar’s own father had joined the spahi corps in 1884, fighting under the French flag in Tonkin, and later served in Paris as a member of the garde d’honneur that welcomed the czar to France sometime in the late nineteenth century. Thus, the road to the classroom, whether as pupil or instructor, was far from linear and full of surprises.

Educational systems in Africa and Asia were forged, for the most part, within the crucible of colonialism, combining resistance to, and accommodation with, various forms of cultural imperialism. By the late nineteenth century, women were viewed as either beacons of, or obsta­cles to, modernity within the household; learning deemed morally and socially appropriate for women was highly charged in the colonies as well as elsewhere. In North Africa the most passionate polemics centered upon whether “native” women should receive formal instruction—and if so, what kind? Implicated in these debates were political projects and social reform movements in the metropole, the empire, and worldwide.

Until recently, histories of education employed top-down approaches that posed two basic queries: How did colonial regimes address the con­tentious matter of indigenous schooling, principally for boys? And how did contests over education shape the nature of colonial rule as well as national liberation struggles and postcolonial states?2 While these are critical, equally fundamental issues arise specifically for girls. Currently, scholars of education in the late Ottoman Empire and colonial Maghreb pose new questions and deploy approaches that are simultaneously institutional and biographical.3 One issue yet to be explicitly raised is, how did household and lineage dynamics converge, either to block or to promote non-kin-based female schooling, which held enormous potential to transform communities?

This essay reconstructs the biographies of three North African women—Fadhma Amrouche (c. 1882–1967), Tawhida Ben Shaykh (1909–2010), and Dorra Bouzid (b. 1933)—who came from different generations, places, and social classes. While they are well known in their own societies, they appear only episodically in conventional his­torical accounts. By situating their trajectories in relation to lineages and households within the larger context of colonialism, we see that access to learning constituted the framing narrative.4 Each woman cre­ated a different authorial relationship with her autobiography: Fadhma Amrouche initially composed an exclusively family memoir; Tawhida Ben Shaykh demurred to write about herself, leaving that to others; and Dorra Bouzid postponed writing her memoir until recently.5 However, a striking similarity exists: the record of their lives is embedded in school­ing chronicles. Indeed, Amrouche’s first chapter is titled “The Road to School.” Thus, I argue that classroom remembrances constituted a legiti­mate space for North African women’s voices to be raised, heard, and committed to writing, and thus a distinct, if unacknowledged, genre.6

There is nothing uniquely female about this. Indeed, a striking feature of autobiography in colonial North Africa and the Middle East is the trope of schooling. In Out of Place, composed shortly before his death in 2003, Edward Said observed: “One of the things I tried to explore implicitly is the hold those very early school experiences had on me, why their hold persists, and why I still find them fascinating and interesting enough to write about for readers fifty years later.”7 In contrast, Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jew born in 1920, expressed starkly unsentimental feelings about the classroom, emphasizing the crushing alienation of French education in La statue de sel (The Pillar of Salt), published in 1953: “How blind I was to what I really am, how naive it was of me to hope to overcome the fundamental rift in me, the contradiction that is the very basis of my life.”8 While literary analyses of memoirs such as these focus principally on the subject of clashing and irreconcilable identities, whatever their guise, life stories as micro-history offer a portal into the operation of households.

The undermining of the older culture of girls’ moral and practical instruction, legitimated by religion as locally received, and centered in the domestic unit, signaled a profound transformation. Anthropo­logically, it represented a shift from a “house-based” society where the lineage oversaw the gendered transmission of learning, largely oral in nature, to a social order that accommodated, however unevenly or reluctantly, new ways of knowing, bodies of knowledge, and spaces of education.9 Enrolling female family members in colonial or “foreign” educational institutions, whether secular or missionary, entailed enor­mous social risks. Inflected by power, class, and generation, modern schooling ensnared lineages in unforeseen circumstances that at times repositioned them not only in local socioscapes but also transnationally.


  1. Assia Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, trans. Dorothy S. Blair (London: Quartet Books, 1985), 3. Djebar (1936–2015), whose real name was Fatima-Zohra Imalhayène, needs little introduction, as she has been an internationally acclaimed writer, novelist, and filmmaker for decades. She was elected to the Academie française in 2005, the first North African to win such recognition and one of this institution’s few female members. The scholarly literature on Djebar and her works is extensive; see Jane Hiddleston, Assia Djebar: Out of Algeria (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006). Djebar passed away in February 2015; see “Assia Djebar décédée: Perte d’une intellectuelle majeure,” El Watan, February 7, 2015, http://www.kabyleuniversel.com/2015/02/07/assia-djebar-decedee-perte-dune-intellectuelle-majeure.
  2. Spencer D. Segalla, The Moroccan Soul: French Education, Colonial Ethnology, and Muslim Resistance, 1912–1956 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009). Indeed, some male nationalists muted women’s voices for political expediency, while giv­ing lip service to women’s emancipation through schooling. See Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
  3. Examples include Rebecca Rogers, “Telling Stories about the Colonies: British and French Women in Algeria in the Nineteenth Century,” Gender and History 21, no. 1 (April 2009): 39–59; and Rebecca Rogers, A Frenchwoman’s Imperial Story: Madame Luce in Nineteenth-Century Algeria (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013); Frances Malino, Teaching Freedom: Jewish Sisters In Muslim Lands (London: Palgrave, 2008); Julia A. Clancy-Smith, Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration, c. 1800–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), chap. 7; Sarah A. Curtis, Civilizing Habits: Women Missionaries and the Revival of the French Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  4. In The Household and the Making of History: A Subversive View of the Western Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), Mary Hartman argues that stud­ies of modernity should center upon the household, which represents a major theoretical advance. See also Marilyn Booth, ed., Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
  5. Hélène Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, (New York: Routledge, 1997); see also Carolyn Duffey, “Berber Dreams, Colonialism, and Couscous: The Competing Autobiographical Narratives of Fadhma Amrouche’s Histoire de ma vie,” Pacific Coast Philology 30, no. 1 (1995): 68–81.
  6. Habib Kazdaghli, ed., Mémoire de femmes: Tunisiennes dans la vie publique, 1920–1960 (Tunis: Édition média com, 1993); Maherzia Amira-Bournaz, C’était Tunis 1920 (Tunis: Cérès, 1993); Maherzia Amira-Bournaz, Maherzia se souvient: Tunis 1930 récit (Tunis: Cérès, 1999); and Effy Tselikas and Lina Hayoun, eds., Les lycées français du soleil: Creusets cosmopolites du Maroc, de l’Algérie et de la Tunisie (Paris: Autrement, 2004). There are numerous remembrances of school days written by Egyptian women, mainly in Arabic but also in French, such as Huda Sha’rawi, Mudhakirrati [My memoirs] (Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1981); and Nabawiya Musa, Tarikhi biqalami [My life story] (Cairo: Women and Memory Forum, 1999). The school memoirs of one of the first Turkish female writers, Halide Edib Adivar, House with Wisteria: Memoirs of Turkey Old and New (New Brunswick nj: Transaction, 2009), are particularly revealing of social networking and female education.
  7. Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (New York: Vintage, 1999), xii.
  8. Albert Memmi, The Pillar of Salt, trans. Edouard Roditi (New York: Criterion Books, 1955), 10. On Memmi, see Joölle Striker, Albert Memmi: Autobiographie et autographie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003); and also Julia Clancy-Smith, “Albert Memmi and The Pillar of Salt,” in African Literature and Its Times, ed. Joyce Moss (Los Angeles: Moss, 2000), 337–46. Schooling has furnished the grist for much of North African literature, for example, Mouloud Feraoun, Le fils du pauvre: Menrad, instituteur Kabyle (Le Puy: Les cahiers du nouvel humanisme, 1950).
  9. Joëlle Bahloul, The Architecture of Memory: A Jewish-Muslim Household in Colonial Algeria, 1937–1962 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 51.

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