The recruitment of females into Arab armies, even in noncombat roles, is uncommon, largely because the matter remains socially and politically controversial. While Algeria is the only country that has promoted women to the higher ranks of the military, from the time of the War of Independence (1954–1962), gender integration in the armed forces has been a long fight.
More recently, the authorities sought to take meaningful steps toward women’s recruitment and equality. In 2006, a presidential order made the status of women in the military legally equivalent to that of their male counterparts. The Algerian military has since established a formal policy to advance equal rights and opportunities, and efforts have been made to implement it.
In 2009, Fatima Zohra Ardjoune, the director general of the Ain Na‘ja military hospital, was promoted to the rank of general, becoming the first female to achieve this in the People’s National Army (PNA). Since then, three other women have followed. Among them is Fatma Boudouani, the first female to be promoted to the rank of major general in 2017. However, despite such gains, women have been neither fully incorporated into the PNA, nor rejected. Rather, their integration appears to be incomplete.
It is during the War of Independence that attitudes toward women in the military were formed. Even if the image propagated at the time was that of the female combatant fighting for liberty, represented by brave women such as Djamila Bouhired, Zohra Drif, and Hassiba Ben Bouali, they were more the exception than the rule. In fact, of the women participating in the war, around 82 percent were responsible for collecting funds, medicines, or weapons, or performing secretarial or nursing functions. Only 3 percent of mujahedeen, or combatants, were women, while only 2 percent of all females took part in the conflict.
At independence, and following the transformation of the wartime National Liberation Army into the regular PNA, the marginalization of women continued, as no recruitment policy was put in place on their behalf. Women could work in the military as civilians in administrative positions, but it was not until 1978 that a turning point occurred. At the time, then-president Houari Boumédiène promulgated a decree allowing women to join the PNA as officers and non-commissioned officers. The door to the “men’s house” was finally open to women.
It was an essential first step, yet it proved short lived as female recruitment ceased in 1986. Recruiting and training women, building facilities, developing human capital, and covering the expenses associated with women’s integration and maternity leave represented a substantial financial burden for the institution, leading to suspension of the policy. Eventually, most women left the PNA to start a family or work in the private sector.
In 2001, female recruitment resumed and women performed an increasing number of roles. The presidential order of 2006 was followed by additional steps to ensure female equality in recruitment, training, promotion, rights, and duties. Practical measures, among them maternity leave, were taken to implement this new status and facilitate female participation in the PNA.
As a result, since that time females have been admitted to all branches of the armed forces. That includes the prestigious School of Cadets of the Nation in Oran, where they accounted for 18 percent of all recruits in 2013. Women have also been admitted into the Academy of Military Administration and the Naval Academy, which admitted female officers for the first time in 2013. Out of the 92 officers of the Naval Academy’s graduating class that year, 29 were females, representing 31.5 percent of the total.
Women were also accepted by the Superior Gendarmerie School of Issers, in the wilaya of Boumerdès. In 2002–2003, there was only eighteen females at the school. However, since then “more than a thousand women have benefited from the training provided at the school of Issers,” according to Colonel Ryah Rabah, the commander of the institution. Women can enroll in all sections of the Gendarmerie, except for the Group of Intervention and Reserve. According to Rabah, women are excluded from such units “because of the very harsh living conditions.” Yet this protective paternalism is an obstruction to career advancement and to females’ access to the most prestigious military positions, for which experience in combat or intervention units is essential.
Algerian women are more present in the army than before—with 30 times more women enrolled today than in 1978. However, a traditional gender-based division of labor persists. Women are mostly present in the PNA’s information and communications department—including 17 percent of women from the military and 51 percent of civilian females employed by the military. Large numbers of women also work for the health department, while many women occupy educational roles, as instructors, researchers, or scientists. At the same time, the appointment of women to major decisionmaking positions in the military is negligible. As such, they are hardly in a place allowing them to take part in the decisions that will affect the lives and careers of fellow female colleagues.
Women are also excluded from infantry, armored, and field-artillery branches. As such, they are prohibited from engaging in combat and hence cannot command military operations. Consequently, above the rank of commanders, their access to the same ranks as men are blocked. This shows that the PNA’s equality policy is not implemented in the way it should be.
The PNA should continue to encourage the enrollment of women, while expanding women’s functions and avoiding assigning them solely to stereotypical positions regarded as being traditionally reserved for females. Women should have access to combat units, as they have a crucial role to play in counterterrorism operations, allowing them to contribute to Algeria’s protection. Also, by restricting women’s access to such units, the PNA is limiting the pool of potentially competent commanders, reducing the overall effectiveness of units.
Women can contribute to critical and creative thinking within the military, optimizing the use of intelligence and enhancing decisionmaking. Above all, by better integrating women into the armed forces, Algeria can advance a different military culture in the country. In helping reshape civil-military relations, women can reduce the gap between the military and society.