Fear of forgetting – 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.

lead 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.

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. Some rights reserved.

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. 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 beenindifferent.” 

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

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