Algerian Women Wary as President Renews Dialogue With Islamists

THE word ``dialogue'' usually carries dimensions of hope for populations torn by civil strife, but the rule does not hold for Algeria's women.

With Algerian President Lamine Zeroual promising renewed dialogue this week with at least some of the radical Islamists trying to bring down the country's beleaguered government, many women fear they could become the sacrificial lambs in an eventual political settlement between the two antagonists.

And despite the dangers they face in a climate where at least one young woman was killed simply for not wearing the Islamic veil, growing numbers of these women are publicly refusing to retreat quietly into an existence of silence and shrinking rights.

``Women here are beginning to organize, despite the dangers that might entail, because they see the freedoms they fought for threatened and disappearing,'' says Houda Bouchaib, a journalist with the Algiers daily El Watan. ``They realize they have to react now, or it may be too late.''

Despite terrorist violence that has taken on a daily nature over the past 18 months, the country was shocked by the murder Feb. 28 of high school student Katia Bengagna returning home from school in her Algiers suburb, reportedly because she was outside without a veil. Local reports said Katia's companion was spared because her head was covered.

Since February, posters have appeared on walls throughout Algeria warning women against the ``consequences'' of ``Western'' dress. And in neighborhoods and cities where the Islamists are strong, the veil has suddenly become ubiquitous where before it was worn by a growing minority. Even Ms. Bouchaib says she now wears a veil to visit her parents in their neighborhood, ``even though I know I shouldn't, out of principle.''

In response to the growing oppression - and with ``Neither exile nor submission'' as their motto - women have held public demonstrations recently and are organizing groups to counter a spreading assumption that women will either have to submit to a fundamental vision of their role in society, or leave the country. The movement is attractive to the sizable fraction of Algerian women who were urbanized, educated, and increasingly employed outside the home during the country's relative prosperity of the 1970s and `80s.

Hundreds of women held a traffic-stopping rally in central Algiers earlier this month to commemorate the International Day of Women, and since then different women's associations have multiplied their public meetings. A primary concern is to dissuade the government from accepting a ``deal'' with the currently outlawed Islamists that offers them a role in governing Algerian society in exchange for peace.

Algeria has been wracked by civil violence approaching civil war since the government canceled the country's first multiparty legislative elections in January 1992. The Islamists' main party, the Islamic Salvation Front, finished first in the vote's initial round and was set to win a wide majority in the parliament when military-backed powers openly took control of the government and banned the FIS.

Since then, more than 3,500 Algerians have died in the violence. Most of the victims have been police or military personnel killed by underground members of radical Islamic groups, or the radicals (and suspected radicals) themselves. But high-profile murders of intellectuals, journalists, and local officials continue, with the indiscriminate killing of teachers and other civilians - such as Katia - worsening.

President Zeroual has continued to speak of ``dialogue'' to end the strife since he took office Jan. 31. Discussions between the government and ``all'' elements of the opposition, as long as they renounce violence, are to start tomorrow.

But signs are growing that other sectors of Algerian society have decided that the ``dialogue'' and the image that policy has given the government have taken the country down the wrong path.

Observers have long claimed that certain Army officers disapproved any opening to the Islamists, but contention within the Army has apparently grown.

``There is a very strong faction within the Army holding that this direction has led nowhere, except to allow the terrorists to gain ground by intimidating the population,'' says Omar Belhouchet, El Watan's editor. ``They see the Islamic radicals as a force that is fighting for nothing less than full power, so their only answer is more repression.''

Another problem for those favoring dialogue is that the FIS has no control over the armed and overtly violent groups, such as the Armed Islamic Group, that have sprung up since the FIS was banned and which claim much of the worst violence.

For Mr. Belhouchet, Algeria runs the further risk now of seeing a public schism in its Army, which has always been the strongest expression of the country's unity. A failure to keep the Army united behind one policy ``would risk taking the country toward total war,'' he says.

Zeroual and other supporters of a national dialogue including all the country's political elements have believed that some compromises would be better than the violence and deterioration Algeria is experiencing. But as the picture of what those compromises might include becomes clearer, more Algerians appear ready to say ``no.''

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