In North Africa, Muslim and Jewish women’s quotidian religiosity was expressed in popular observances and festivals preserved chiefly, but not exclusively, in oral traditions. The most visible embodiment of these beliefs and practices were saints’ shrine where women (and men) honored especially pious individuals, who could be either male or female, living or dead. Lalla Zaynab (1850?-1904) was an Algerian woman born some 20 years after the French invasion in an oasis on the Sahara’s northern rim. She was revered in her lifetime as a living saint, spiritual patron, and mystic by the Muslim faithful in the community. Due to her reputation in Algeria, a number of Europeans visited her as well, invariably remarking upon the fact that she held both “spiritual and temporal power” and had attained a remarkable level of erudition as a scholar, yet was humble in manner and appearance.

Zaynab enjoyed an elevated socio-spiritual position due to a number of factors: she succeeded her father as a religious leader; her family claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad; and she had achieved advanced learning in the Islamic sciences. Moreover, she was, in a sense, “elected” to sainthood by her disciples, who venerated her as an exceptionally virtuous, pious woman blessed with miracle-working powers.

Late in her life, Lalla Zaynab fashioned another source of empowerment for herself. In a bitter dispute over her father’s succession after his death in 1897, she successfully defied French colonial authorities in the Sahara. While Zaynab’s father had designated her as his heir and successor to religious leadership, colonial authorities did not want a Muslim woman holding spiritual and social power. Therefore, they selected a male successor—Zaynab’s cousin—to assume local religious leadership. However, Zaynab refused to yield. By the late 19th century, French officials had developed a whole range of mechanisms for dealing with rebellious Algerian men but, when confronted by a woman, they proved powerless.

In the letters translated below and written in 1897 to the French general in charge of the region, Zaynab appeals to French justice in an adroit maneuver to force colonial officials to abide by the laws that they claim to uphold. She also reminds French officials that her recently deceased father was a Muslim leader who attempted peacefully to come to terms with French colonialism in Algeria.

Zaynab resisted through peaceful means and won; she remained as head of her father’s religious center until her death in 1904. Afterwards, Zaynab’s tomb-shrine was visited by Muslims pilgrims, male and female, from across Algeria and North Africa, where she is still reverently remembered in oral traditions today.

Source: Clancy-Smith, Julia. “The House of Zainab: Female Authority and Saintly Succession in Colonial Algeria.” In Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries In Sex and Gender. Edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Documents from the Archives d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, Algeria, 2U22, 1897.


[From First Letter]

No sooner had my beloved father expired on June 2 of this year [1897] then, the next day during the funeral, my cousin appeared at the religious center; he has been waiting for this moment in order take over and to seize the inheritance of my father. Thus he came to my residence with this in mind, accompanied by male and female followers. He used force to enter into my home and seized the keys to all the rooms. I stood firm against this violation of my home.

[From Second Letter]

You [i.e., the French general] know how much my recently deceased father, Shaykh Sidi Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, cared for France and was devoted to the public good ... his conduct and his works were always in perfect harmony with the ideas of the French government. All that he possessed—land, goods, and flocks—were willed to me in numerous inheritance documents which I now have in my possession. He did this so that no one else, neither man nor woman, could claim this property after his death. Upon my father’s death, I took his place [as religious leader] and, in accordance with custom, I distributed alms to the poor, the miserable, the unfortunate, and to [penniless] students as well as to travelers and my father’s religious disciples.... I have come to ask you in the name of my father and the services that he rendered to put a stop to the injustices and theft of which I am a victim; I appeal to your fairness and impartiality.