April 1, 2018

Lest We Forget – Heroines Who Changed History

Simone De Beauvoir and Gisele Halimi were indefatigable. They wrote to every responsible official in the judiciary, military and government – up to General de Gaulle. Lest we forget.

By Victoria Brittain / 03.08.2016

Seventy years ago on June 3 1960 Simone de Beauvoir wrote an article in Le Monde about routine torture practice in Algeria which had the French government seize that issue of the paper and destroy all copies. They were too late – her words were out and were key to changing the country’s history. One sentence was this:

“When the government of a country allows crimes to be committed in its name, every citizen thereby becomes a member of a collectively criminal nation.”

Three years before de Beauvoir wrote her article, a brilliant university student named Zohra Drif was condemned to death for her role as a soldier in the Algerian nationalist movement, the FLN. Her autobiography from that period newly published in English, Inside the Battle of Algiers, is a remarkable testimony of the extremely courageous role women played inside the armed wing of the Algerian nationalist movement. Zohra Drif was one of the iconic group which took the war for independence into the French quarters of Algiers with bombs placed in cafes and restaurants. They paid with death, torture, years in French jails, and the military destruction of much of the historic Casbah, for the end of France’s settlement colony.

Released by the Evian agreement of 1962 which brought Algeria independence, Zohra Drif went on to a distinguished legal and political career in independent Algeria before writing this book, published in French three years ago. It is an intimate portrait of a society steeped in the culture of resistance after 100 years under French control by the use of force.

Zohra was a girl from a conservative provincial family who was one of the handful of “natives” to be admitted to the best of French schools and then university and who, with a friend secretly sought out the FLN in Algiers and made “the choice, like other sisters, to be volunteers for death – not for surrender.” She ends her book with the thought that has tormented her for these long years, “the fear that the living, especially our youth, might forget the sacrifices made by our people – that they might forget the price paid for Algeria to be free and independent, and therefore forget how it must always be defended.”

” I was tortured.”

De Beauvoir was writing about the work of Gisele Halimi, the woman lawyer for Djamila Boupacha, a 22 year old Algerian who had been tortured by the French military with electrodes, cigarette burns, kicks hard enough to displace a rib, and rape using a bottle. Halimi was trying to ensure that Djamila’s trial in connection with a bomb placed in the University restaurant in Algiers by the FLN would be held not in colonial Algeria, but in France.

Djamila’s “confession” was made after months in a torture centre. In her first brief court appearance in Algiers she bravely shouted, “I was tortured” as she was taken from the court. Her words risked her return to the torture centre. The French authorities in Algiers then went to quite extraordinary lengths to hamper Halimi’s legal work for Djamila’s defence and to hold a summary trial with no evidence against her except the confession.

“A verdict of ‘guilty’ is inevitable,” De Beauvoir wrote of the system in the last years of colonial Algeria when 30,000 Algerians were in prisons in France and Algeria. A million Algerians died in the independence war from 1954.

De Beauvoir’s electric words of collective accusation of France as a criminal nation unleashed a storm of public outrage. Predictably the establishment was outraged against her. But greater outrage came from French citizens of every class and political opinion, and people from around the world, against France’s systematic use of torture in Algeria, and against the official cover-up she denounced. Gisele Halimi, De Beauvoir wrote, gave “a detailed exposure of a lying propaganda machine – a machine operated so efficiently that during the past seven years only a few faint glimmers of truth have contrived to slip past it.” *

Gisèle Halimi

Simone De Beauvoir and Gisele Halimi were indefatigable. They wrote to every responsible official in the judiciary, military and government – up to General de Gaulle. They personally visited every one of these powerful men who would, reluctantly, receive them. Eloquent letters backing them came from France’s cream of humanity – writers, academics, doctors, the widow of French mathematics professor Maurice Audin tortured and murdered by the army in Algeria, and, from General de Bollardiere a staunch supporter of General de Gaulle and a former paratroop commander in Algeria who resigned from the Army to protest against the torture.

But most moving were the thousands of letters from unknown people who said they had never before been moved to a political act.

Simone de Beauvoir, 1967. Wikicommons/Moshe Milner.

A challenge to indifference

De Beauvoir had thrown out a clever public challenge to indifference, writing that:

“The most scandalous aspect of any scandal is that one gets used to it.”

This is one of her phrases I often think about in relation to the war on terror in general and to Guantanamo in particular. People have got used to the utter lawlessness of the detail of US government actions in Guantanamo: the fact of torture; the fact so many of the men held for years were innocent ; the fact that they were given disorienting drugs; the fact that 41 people are still there, some of whom have been found officially to pose no threat; the fact that dozens of those released have been sent to countries far from their families, where they know noone, don’t speak the language and become desperately hopeless; the fact that in June 2006 the young Saudi Yasser Al-Zahrani and two other prisoners died in the secret CIA block at Guantanamo, according to soldiers on watch duty that night. They were officially reported to have died by simultaneous suicides in their respective cells.**

And de Beauvoir’s collective accusation of France as a criminal nation then, surely echoes for us today in relation to the war crimes and destruction of entire countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, by the US and allies such as Britain and Saudi Arabia.

The bravery of Djamila Boupacha, Gisele Halimi and Simone De Beauvoir all those years ago was one key to the mass outrage which brought the end of French military torture in Algeria, and the end of that colony. However, it did not bring justice. The Evian agreement set free thousands of FLN prisoners, including Djamila. But, under the terms of the amnesty her torturers also gained immunity. Gisele Halimi wrote “the wounds are still unhealed. But we shall go on as we began, well aware that Djamila’s case is not an exceptional one, but that knowing too, that each fresh example may convince a few sceptics and rally some who have hitherto been indifferent.”

Today much of the rallying against the injustices of Guantanamo, western wars of choice, and so many other glaring destructive injustices we face is in the virtual world of social media where each one is easily drowned out by the next. The books and examples of Zohra Drif, Gisele Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir are the antidote to the fear of forgetting how women’s heroism and sacrifice did then transform their political world. It can again.

* Djamila Boupacha by Simone de Beauvoir and Gisele Halimi, Andre Deutsch and Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1962

** Murder at Camp Delta, by Joseph Hickman, Simon and Schuster 2015

Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.