Given current U.S. military interventions in the Arab and Muslim worlds, there are important lessons to be gained by delving into questions of women and gender in the French Empire in North Africa. First and foremost, pervasive, monolithic, and very negative portrayals of Arab or Muslim women as inherently oppressed, powerless, voiceless—as lacking any agency—are immediately challenged by the region’s recent history. In addition, the wide variations in women’s responses to imperialism—from militant action, to peaceful resistance, to obtaining a modern, French education in order to oppose the colonial order—demonstrates clearly that North African women were not passive bystanders. Moreover, students begin to perceive at the same time that invoking a monolithic, unchanging “Islam” for explaining women’s lives and social status fails to explain much, if anything. It also becomes clear how much politics, violence, and militarism in various guises dramatically influence women and gender relations not only in colonial states but also in postcolonial states. All of these lessons and insights drawn from the North African case study have wide, nearly universal applicability to other empires, whether modern European empires, or the American Empire. Finally, by choosing to narrate individual women’s life stories, and employing this strategy as the principal frame for the module, I hope to show the immense power of biography to take us into the past, where we question received wisdom or unexamined assumptions—invariably about ourselves and the social universe we inhabit.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did different manifestations of French colonialism impact the lives of the North African women whose voices are heard in, or through, the fourteen documents found in this module? How and why did women’s daily experiences of French imperialism differ in each of the three North African countries?
  • How did imperial politics and policies and colonial representations of North African women intersect?
  • How do the stories of these individual women contradict the images and stereotypes of Arab or Muslim women found in current American media?