Nafissa Sid Cara – an ambiguous pioneer for Muslim women

All but forgotten, Sid Cara played a pioneering role in French and Algerian politics and left behind a troubled legacy.
Nafissa Sid Cara talks with children in Algeria in the 1960s. Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Nafissa Sid Cara talks with children in Algeria in the 1960s. Credit: AFP via Getty Images
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The current French system dates back to 1958. If you look at a picture of the very first government of the Fifth Republic, you will see two long rows of men in suits. Almost invisible, in the back row, is a tiny white hat, indicating the only woman with a ministerial position: Nafissa Sid Cara. Sid Cara’s appointment as secretary of state was a historic moment. Never before had a woman not born in Europe, a Muslim woman, an Algerian woman, sat in the highest halls of power. She is a forgotten figure at the heart of one of the defining conflicts of the twentieth century – the Algerian War.

Nafissa Sid Cara was born in 1910 in the east of Algeria. Her birthplace was then known as Saint-Arnaud, named after a French general known for his appetite for violence during the conquest of Algeria. Like many other towns, it was renamed after Algerian independence and is now El Eulma. Sid Cara’s father was a teacher, one of a few Algerian men who obtained a formal French education, and he dedicated his life to passing this on. Several of his seven children would go on to excel in the French educational system; Nafissa’s older brother Chérif, for instance, trained as a doctor.

Nafissa, like her father, became a teacher. This was extremely unusual at the time: she was the first Muslim to graduate from the womens’ teachers’ college in Constantine. French Algeria was a highly divided society, where most of the resources were in the hands of a small minority of European settlers who made up about ten per cent of the population. For Algerian Muslims, 90 per cent of the population, access to education was rare, especially for women. In the 1930s, when Sid Cara started teaching French at a high school in Algiers, only about two per cent of adult Algerian men were literate in French. For women, the figures were negligible. In later years, Sid Cara would complain she was routinely dismissed in her work. Opportunities for promotion to headmistress passed on to other, less qualified, European women: in their eyes, ‘Je n’étais pas encore française à part entière’ (‘I was not yet fully French’).

Despite this exceptional trajectory, for most of her career Sid Cara was a discrete character in public life. As movements demanding independence for Algeria grew in the turbulent years after the Second World War, she was nowhere to be seen. Her brother Chérif was more prominent. When Algerian men were granted limited voting rights in 1946, he was elected to the French parliament, first as a senator, and then as a deputy. Against the increasingly prominent nationalist movement, Chérif Sid Cara was one of the most vocal supporters of continued French rule in Algeria.

By 1954, a group of men calling themselves the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) decided that the cause of independence could no longer be stalled, and they launched an insurrection against France. This was the beginning of the Algerian War, a war that would escalate steadily over the next few years. As the French government enforced mass conscription to pacify Algeria through a huge military presence, tensions grew within different factions in France. As the government was unsure whether to negotiate with the FLN or pursue the war at all costs, this led to an open political crisis by 1958.

This crisis ended the French Fourth Republic, and it is in this context that Nafissa Sid Cara began her political career. In May 1958, her brother Chérif took part in a putsch during which the French army took control of Algiers. From there, military leaders called for the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle, and threatened to invade metropolitan France. Within a few weeks, the French government collapsed and De Gaulle would finally get the presidential constitution he had long wanted. Those who supported him wanted to end the war by making Algeria more fully French than ever.

In particular, this tactic involved focusing on women as models of assimilation. Supporters of French Algeria thought they could justify France’s continuing presence by emancipating Algerian women, against what they perceived as the backwards and fanatical FLN. General’s wives launched a series of ‘feminine solidarity movements’ in which they took it upon themselves to ‘liberate’ their Muslim sisters. Most dramatically, this took the form of mass unveiling ceremonies, in which women were encouraged or coerced to remove their white haïk veil and burn it on a bonfire.

Nafissa Sid Cara became involved in these solidarity movements in the spring of 1958. From then on, her rise was rapid. That same year, Muslim women gained the right to vote in French elections for the first time – French women had been able to vote since 1944. In the autumn, she was elected MP to the French parliament representing Algiers, along with two other Algerian women, Rebiha Khebtani and Kheïra Bouabsa. Rather than take up her seat, she was immediately appointed to the cabinet in the very first government under Prime Minister Michel Debré, himself a passionate supporter of a French Algeria.

Sid Cara would embody the fresh, new face of a renewed French Algeria. In charge of ‘Muslim social affairs,’ she would prepare reforms to change the status of Algerian families, and especially Algerian women, in order to ensure their continued presence within the French Republic. The nomination of a Muslim woman attracted a great deal of attention and she became something of a celebrity. Media coverage, predictably, focused on her appearance. When she attended a parliamentary debate alongside the prime minister, Le Monde noted the ‘elegance of her white hat.’ She was photographed at her desk under the tasteful gold and white decor of the Matignon Palace; coming in and out of cabinet meetings; cutting ribbons to open social centres on trips to Algeria while surrounded by men in uniform. The French government had finally found its secret weapon to counterattack the women fighting for the FLN, such as Djamila Bouhired, who had become increasingly famous worldwide.

But Sid Cara was seen rather than heard. In private, she complained of being kept out of important government positions and being used largely as a symbolic figurehead. The appearance of having a Muslim woman in government was much more important than giving her any actual power. The major reform she was meant to spearhead was a change in marriage laws for Muslims. In French Algeria, Muslims would get married and divorced according to principles of Islamic law. This allowed talāq,or repudiation, in which women could simply be dismissed by their husbands. The French government wanted to change these dispositions while maintaining the impression that these reforms were in line with Islamic law, as was the case in other neighbouring Muslim countries such as Tunisia, independent since 1956. Yet Nafissa Sid Cara was barely consulted in the creation of the 1959 ordinance that was supposed to be her flagship project. She wanted the reform to go much further in order to prevent girls from being married without their consent. As described by historian Elise Franklin, in a call to the prime minister she complained: ‘Is it because I’m a woman, and a Muslim woman… that everyone is acting with such indifference [toward me]?’

In the world of high politics, Sid Cara was isolated. Only a few women had obtained positions in French cabinets, and out of over 500 parliamentary representatives for metropolitan France, there were only six women. In newsreels at the time, she seems most comfortable at events where she was surrounded by children, which may have taken her back to the comfortable professional territory of her schoolteacher days. Over the next few years, as de Gaulle shifted to a policy of negotiating with the FLN to end the long and costly Algerian War, Sid Cara was increasingly sidelined. Though kept informed of developments at the United Nations and sent on trips to Japan to defend the government’s Algerian policy, she was largely kept in the dark. In 1962, when de Gaulle announced the conclusion of negotiations at Evian that would lead to the independence of Algeria, she begged him to consider the fate of Algerians who had chosen France. He did not listen.

In 1962, Sid Cara was sacked, and her parliamentary seat ceased to exist. She received a few heartfelt letters from embarrassed former colleagues in government. Away from politics and media, she faded into obscurity. She stayed in France and worked in social affairs, dedicating herself to the Algerians who had chosen France, known as the harkis. When she died in 2002, barely anyone remembered her.

That same year, another Muslim woman was elected into a French government – nearly forty years after Sid Cara – but nobody made the connection between Tokia Saïfi and her predecessor. A small alleyway in Paris is named after Sid Cara, but that aside, her life story remains obscure and inconvenient. For Algerians, her existence is an unwelcome reminder that some of them fervently chose the side of the French. For the French, their brief but intense experiment in Algerian representation now seems like an embarrassing last-ditch attempt to save colonialism from collapsing.

Nafissa Sid Cara’s life was marked by an early and brief attempt to change the fabric of French politics to make room for Muslim women. In her old age, she carefully collected the evidence of her brief moment in the spotlight: photographs; and letters from prominent men. Her time in government occurred well before ideas such as multiculturalism or diversity became mainstream. Neither progressive nor reactionary, Sid Cara, in the eyes of both France and Algeria, left behind a troubled legacy that was best forgotten. Her extremely rapid ascent and then ejection from government can be read as a cautionary tale for a certain kind of modern politics, where it is more important to appear to give women power than to listen to them.

Arthur Asseraf

Dr Arthur Asseraf is a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Pembroke College. His book Electric News in Colonial Algeria , published by Oxford University Press is out now and was the winner of the Middle East Studies Book Prize by the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society.

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