The mother of all battles

Until women emerge from the shadows, the conflicts of the Islamic world will not be resolved, argues

I watched Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday at a screening at Bafta, the heart of the British film and media establishment. From the opening frame to the end credits, I was totally absorbed by the energy and the passion of the film. At one point I thought I was watching a documentary - but then remembered that I was sitting next to the wife of James Nesbitt, the lead actor.

Bloody Sunday, written and directed by Greengrass for Granada Television, depicts the events of 30 January 1972, in which 14 people were shot dead by the British army and many more severely wounded during a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland. For three decades since, fierce debate and controversy have surrounded this tragic event. Did some of the marchers have weapons? Were the British paratroopers provoked into firing? Did the military open fire on civilians? Were they looking to pick up "troublemakers"? The film-makers pored over thousands of testimonies, newspaper reports and trial records of the time, and talked to many witnesses, in their attempt to answer some of these questions. In the debate that followed the film's release, Greengrass said he wanted the film to help create a sense of reconciliation about "this terrible and traumatic day". Not everyone agreed. Yet I believed his film was telling a truth, like many other films before it about Northern Ireland. For many of us, films have in fact often been our only source of information about what has been going on there.

Watching Bloody Sunday, I was reminded of my personal discovery of the vast richness of cinema from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Among the most memorable films I saw in the early Eighties were Humberto Solas's Cantata de Chile (1976), about the massacre of striking nitrate workers, and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966), about the Algerian revolution. Both films stirred a deep passion in me about the power of film to tell the truth.

It was The Battle of Algiers, though, that was to leave the deepest mark on me. When I first saw the film in London in 1982, I did not realise that, ten years later, I would be in Algeria making a film of my own. I recall being struck by the film's fleeting presence of women who delivered messages, carried weapons hidden under their burqas and used the veil to cross the French checkpoints all around the city. In one scene, three women change their identity - cutting their hair, throwing off the hijab and walking out wearing miniskirts and short hair. I often wondered what happened to them.

The Battle of Algiers, we were told, is based on facts. It tells the truth of what happened in the Algerian revolution, one of the longest, bloodiest and hardest battles for freedom ever fought. The war of independence from the French began in 1954 and lasted until 1962, resulting in the deaths of an estimated million Muslim Algerians and the expulsion of the same number of European settlers.

But as I was to learn, the film is not a full account; the central role played by women in the independence struggle is missing. The militant commitment of the women of Algeria is probably one of the most remarkable elements of the war, and even more significant today than ever before. So, ten years after seeing Pontecorvo's film, and inspired by one of Victoria Brittain's articles in the Guardian, I went to Algeria to find these women.

I arrived not speaking a word of French or Arabic, but I found the women who had appeared in Pontecorvo's film - Djamila Bouhired, Djamila Bouazza, Baya Hocine and Aicha Bouazzar, along with many others. My passion for telling their story was shared by Djamila Amrane (then teaching at a university), who had played an active part in the fight for national freedom. She thought it was profoundly unjust that the history of those seven years has omitted one half of the Algerian population. Her book about Algerian women in the war became my film Algeria: women at war.

In June 1992, 30 years after independence, Algerian women were still fighting. The daughters of the revolution were refusing to wear purdah, refusing to stop going to restaurants and concerts or even being seen in public. Families were divided between supporting the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and liberal Islam, between Arabic-speaking and francophone, between the city and the country. The army controlled the streets of Algeria and, for the first time, women welcomed their public presence; they were guarding their freedom against the growing power of the FIS.

My guide and companion, Djamila Amrane, organised meetings over mint tea and cakes at the homes of many women who had fought in the revolution. They recalled their time in the war vividly, grateful that someone was listening to their truths about what happened during those savage years.

Until the war, Algerian women had been excluded from political life. They had no political rights - not even the right to vote. Their rights were denied by both the colonial power and the opposition parties. The majority of Algerian women were illiterate and forbidden to work outside the home. Within the domestic realm, they maintained an identity strongly resistant to outside influences. Occupying a position in the home as both queen and prisoner, as well as guardian of tradition, women became indispensable to family survival. (According to a Kabyle proverb, "man is the light of the external world, woman the light of the internal world".) The home became a place of safety, a refuge where the man, constantly undermined by colonialism, could regain his pride and identity. It became the focus of all hope for the future.

When the war broke out, women emerged from the shelter of their homes to play a crucial role in the struggle. While many women fulfilled non-combatant roles, it was the urban guerrillas (fidayate) and the maquisards, who fought in the countryside, whose courage moved me to make my film, to tell the truth.

One evening, I was taken to a gathering of women in the home of one of Djamila's friends. I was to meet both the fidayate and the maquisards. Among the women in the room were Baya Hocine, Djohor Akrour, Djamila Bouazza - and the six famous women who had been sentenced to death. I asked what they thought about how they were portrayed in Pontecorvo's film, and they all laughed and began telling me their truths about what had happened. They talked easily, recalling the moments, the actions, the places and the people. As one stopped, another would pick up the story of the hardship, torture and death of many women, the endless marching by night, and the cold and hunger. Many had left the cities and gone to fight in the countryside. They saw rural poverty and witnessed the killing of their comrades. They became cooks and nurses, and set up makeshift hospitals. Many of the fighters nursed by these women are still alive to tell their own tales.

I listened, by then oblivious to the fact that they were talking in Arabic and French. I could not understand - yet I was understanding everything. Then there was a sudden hush and the room became silent. It was dark outside, but the room seemed to fill with light. I looked up and saw that a beautiful, elegant, tall woman had entered the room. My companion whispered in my ear: "This is Djamila Bouhired." Everyone shifted to make room for her in the circle (a natural formation when women get together to tell stories). As she talked, I just kept looking at her, not believing that this was the same woman who had been arrested along with five others and was the first woman to be sentenced to death. She was arrested in 1957 for planting a bomb, and a worldwide campaign for her freedom was launched by her French lawyer and her supporters. She was pardoned, but remained in prison until the end of the war in 1962. "The day I was sentenced to death was the most beautiful day of my life," she told me, "because I was about to die for the most beautiful cause on earth."

After Algeria's independence, Djamila Bouhired married her lawyer, MaItre Verges, and had two children. When I met her, she was still living in Algeria, running her own small business. Just a few weeks before, she had led the demonstrations against the Family Code, a pro-Islamic law passed in 1984 by the National Liberation Front (FLN). This law had abolished virtually all rights for women, putting them entirely under the control of their fathers and husbands.

My film Algeria: women at war and the publication that accompanied its broadcast on Channel 4 in 1992 pay tribute to the women who fought in the revolution, their daughters, also fighting for their freedom, and their granddaughters. In my film, veteran fighters such as Aicha Bouazzar, Baya Hocine and Fatima Hakim talk - some for the first time - about their role in the revolution. Their daughters - Houria Bouhired, Khalida Messaoudi and Fadila Chittour - discuss the status of women after 30 years of single-party rule, the rise of Islam and increasing political violence.

The major question facing Algeria since 1992 has been how it can find its own path between modern democracy and Islamic statehood. Algeria's women have had the most to lose in this conflict - but they could also hold the key to its resolution. Soon after my film was made, Algeria descended into civil war between the Islamic Salvation Front, the army and the National Liberation Front. Many of the women I had filmed fled the country and are now living in exile. Others have been killed. Yet their spirit of freedom and justice lives on through their granddaughters.

In the aftermath of 11 September, I was struck by how the media again brought us only one truth - this time, that of the men of the Middle East and the west. No one paused to ask for the input of the mothers of the men who had flown the planes into the twin towers - nor for that of their wives, sisters or grandmothers, who could no doubt tell us other truths. I firmly believe that it is women who hold the key to solving the conflicts which beset Islamic countries. Until the women emerge from the shadows, the Islamic world will remain in confusion and disorder.

No single truth deserves a monopoly in any society. That way lie fundamentalism, imperialism and fascism. Truth is what we aspire to in different ways, in life, work and relationships. It's a journey, not a destination. Passion is about finding your own truth to pursue. Mine has been to find the values that connect us as humans across the divides of culture, religion, caste, class and race. There are many truths, just as there are many faiths and many voices.

The role of film (and the media more broadly) is to respond to these different voices. My work is to present the truth from places that are not recognised.

Parminder Vir is a film producer and a director of the Film Council

Reproduced by kind permission of the RSA Journal. c RSA Journal, 2002. See www.theRSA.org