The Future Is Feminist by Sara Rahnama offers a closer look at a pivotal moment in Algerian history when Algerians looked to feminism as a path out of the stifling realities of French colonial rule. Algerian people focused outward to developments in the Middle East, looking critically at their own society and with new eyes to Islamic tradition. In doing so, they reordered the world on their own terms—pushing back against French colonial claims about Islam’s inherent misogyny.
Rahnama describes how Algerians took inspiration from Middle Eastern developments in women’s rights. Empowered by the Muslim reform movement sweeping the region, they read Islamic knowledge with new eyes, even calling Muhammad “the first Arab feminist.” They compared the blossoming women’s rights movements across the Middle East and this history of Islam’s feminist potential to the stifled position of Algerian women, who suffered from limited access to education and respectable work. Local dynamics also shaped these discussions, including the recent entry of thousands of Algerian women into the workforce as domestic workers in European settler homes.
While Algerian people disagreed about whether Algeria’s future should be colonial or independent, they agreed that women’s advancement would offer a path forward for Muslim society toward a more prosperous future. Through its use of Arabic-language sources alongside French ones, The Future Is Feminist moves beyond Algeria’s colonial relationship to France to illuminate its relationship to the Middle East.
Dr. Sara Rahnama is an Assistant Professor of History at Morgan State University and the author of The Future is Feminist: Women and Social Change in Interwar Algeria (Cornell University Press). The Future is Feminist examines how commentators saw women’s advancement as key to a prosperous and modern future for Algeria. At Morgan State, she directs the Program for the Study of the Middle East & North Africa, the first Middle East Studies program at an HBCU. Her writing has appeared in both academic and popular spaces, including Gender & History and The Washington Post. She was formerly a fellow at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center.
Dr. Elizabeth F. Thompson is a historian of social movements and liberal constitutionalism in the Middle East, with a focus on how race and gender relations have been conditioned by foreign intervention and international law. She recently published her third book: How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020). It explores how and why Arabs gathered in Damascus after World War I to establish a democratic regime, in contrast to the prevalence of authoritarian-nationalist regimes established elsewhere in the lands of the defeated Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. The book also considers the long-term, negative consequences of the destruction of the Arab democracy, authorized by the Paris Peace Conference and enforced by the new League of Nations.