The central position of women in the life of Imazighen

Amazigh Women

The Kabyles are an ethnic sub-group of the Berber people, today still living in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. They are the oldest known people of Northern Africa. The three most important groups of the Berbers in Algeria are the Chaouias, who live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, the Tuareg, famous the world over as the People of the Desert, and the Kabyles, who are sedentary. I was born in Kabylia and was able to observe how people preserved some of their traditions. This happened in spite of the conversion to Christianity during the Roman Empire and to Islam after the arrival of the Arabs. Examples are: the veneration of saints, belief in the magic and power of the earth, the sun, the moon, springs and the rain. As a young girl I had already learned about the secret code of women, displayed on hand-painted ornamentation on pottery and on the walls of Kabyle houses. It took a long-lasting initiation by old women-potters in the ’80s to actually enable me to decipher the symbols that can only be truly appreciated by women because they relate directly to femininity and maternity.

The last phase of French colonialism in Algeria, lasting from 1830-1962, marked the end of the traditional life of the Kabyle society. After many years of research I have come to the following conclusion; the introduction of written language together with the French educational system was one of the fundamental factors leading to the demise of the traditional lifestyle, a social order which was focused on the woman as mother of the clan. In Kabylia the woman is seen as the “central pillar” of the house. The actual physical pillar in the house receives religious veneration, because the protective house spirit inhabits this structure, and the woman of the house is compared to this spirit, everything rests on her (Genevois, p. 18).

Scientific research into Kabyle history and culture within French ethnology and historiography was based unfortunately on the assessment factors of a western civilisation. For a better understanding it is therefore expedient to describe some of the fundamental traits of traditional Kabyle culture. Without this knowledge one cannot understand the central focus of the position of the Kabyle woman. Main features of traditional Kabyle society

1. The spoken word as carrier of cultural meaning

The Kabyles speak a Berber dialect, a language without script. Since eternity knowledge has been passed on orally from parent to child via everyday practical applications. The values, conventions and customs of the rural clan were passed on in the form of legends and myths only in spoken form (Taqbaylit). It is very interesting to note that the word Taqbaylit means “woman” as well as “Kabyle language”. It is the mothers who teach their children starting with birth to speak this language. Thanks to the mothers the language of communication in the villages is still Kabyle language, in spite of the fact that at first French and since 1962 Arabic has been the language taught at school. Since the Kabyles never formed a nation state, right up to the middle of the 20th century. Their cultural continuation found expression only via their oral tradition. There were no written laws, no government administration, no civil registry office, no civil service, and no land registry. The teachings, knowledge and words of the elders were regarded as holy and as “living books”, and the elders commanded high regard.

2. Ancestral and family veneration

In traditional Kabyle society the distribution of the population in the country was a mosaic of small village-communities. These villages are politically, legally, economically and thus socially free and independent. Each village resembles a small republic, governed by the elders. This particularity is based on the special social relationship all inhabitants share with each other. When one analyses the genealogy of the villagers what becomes apparent is that almost everybody is related in some way or other, forming a kinship-group. How people are related to each other is regulated by Endogamy, which allows for marriages between people of the same village community (Khellil 1979/2). In this way social relationships are based on blood ties and affiliation to the commonly shared land. Furthermore the social life in the villages is based on a model of a harmonious community through mutual aid and support (Tiwizi or Touiza). This model requires a collective responsibility of all members of the family, spreading through the whole village. In every aspect Kabyles experienced their social identity as being part of the group. Their responsibility is focused on the family, resulting in a sense of connectedness, nobody feels isolated, and everybody feels protected by her/his family. This sense of responsibility is apparent among the living but also exists in reference to the ancestors. One talks of ancestral veneration, or a ‘religion of the ancestors.

“There is no clear division between the living and the dead members of a family; the living as much as the dead are all members of the clan, and only the clan is important. Even less distinction is made between the living members of a family.” (Mammeri, pp. 404-405)

This ancestral veneration is not based on religious dogma, but is cultivated in everyday life. It is based on tradition, the bloodline through the mother, and finds expression in all social activities. Even Islam could not find entry into Kabyle society without incorporating ancestral veneration. In its specific version of the Marabout-Cult it is seen as equal to the veneration of the saints. Since the women of traditional Kabyle society have been kept from the Arabic and French written language and schooling, Islam has had little influence on them. The religious dimension in their lives is the experience of everyday life in a ritualised contact with nature. Their lives were filled with an aura of magic, for everything they did formed a unity through ritual.

3. Farming of the land and ritualised practice

Traditional Kabylia is a typical example of a “closed society” based on subsistence economy. Within the village *****ries the community lives off the fruits of their land. Worries about productivity, cost-effectiveness or competition were unknown to them; there were also no ambitions to import “foreign products”. Bartering was the mode of “business” employed by the different clans to exchange products within the village. The village was at one and the same time the place of production, consumption and reproduction, making it self-sufficient. In this agrarian society private property simply did not exist. Their dwellings and the land belonged to the whole family, since the land was inherited as holy entitlement from the ancestors to be passed on to all descendants. In the faith of the Kabyles protective guardians endowed with invisible life inhabit the earth. Agriculture is therefore carried out in accordance with the seasonal cycles so as not to disturb the harvest and the natural development.

Traditionally Kabyles lived in close contact with nature. As an oral culture they did not have clocks or calendars. The relationship of the people to their natural environment was based on a holistic approach to life. The people looked at themselves as an inherent part of the macro cosmos; they were not separated from nature, as in modern perception. Their rhythm of life corresponded to natural cycles and all rituals were an expression of their deep reverence of the order inherent in the natural world. The performance of rituals ordered the course of each action from its preparation to its final accomplishment. According to an ancient traditional birth ritual which was passed from mothers to daughters, the women are moulding a piece of pottery, weaving a cloth or turning a fruit of the earth into a staple food. There is no division of labour, but the wholeness of chronological steps, following one after the other and connected by rituals, which are in turn connected to the cycle of the moon and the sun. In this way the sequence of actions followed when producing a piece of pottery is equated to the cycle of vegetation. The clay for the pottery is regarded as animate. Objects formed from it have to be stood up and one waits for it to “grow”, like the wheat in spring, and afterwards it has to dry out – just like the grain is left to dry in the fields. Only after the harvest is it permitted to bake and decorate the pottery. Should the women violate this order they would, according to their understanding, destroy the fertility of the earth.

During my research I had to realise how the western scientific viewpoint and also the perspective of many ‘enlightened people caused difficulties in understanding the ritualised life-style of Kabyle women. Therefore I developed a new scientific approach, the four-phase approach. It describes a work cycle for the production of a piece of pottery, a staple-food or a garment, consistent with the four seasons of the year. One result, which completely surprised even me, was the fact that all ritualised activities, be it the moulding of a piece of pottery, the preparation of food, or the production of a garment, closely follow the rules of the espousal between a woman and a man. All subsistence life activities were modelled on the act of human copulation. When working with clay, for example, the potteress forms an object according to her own biology and the laws of reproduction. The development of a piece of pottery is carried out along the lines of the magical ritual of copulation. The potteress uses for this purpose a round ball, symbolizing the feminine in the moon, on top of which a coil of clay is placed representing the man. In the act of weaving, the warp threads being crossed over by the weft thread, thus uniting the two, represent the mating of the two souls. She creates a completely new piece of cloth, a living creation, equalling the birth of a human being (Makilam 1996). The ritualised traditional life of a Kabyle woman

I was able to analyse the traditional activities of women with the help of the four-phase model based on the seasons of the year. To depict the change in the body of a woman during the course of her life I employ the same four-phase method, analogue to her material existence. These phases depict a cyclical development corresponding to the four seasons in nature. This simultaneously reveals a cyclical development, for in traditional Kabyle thinking the beginning of human life equals its ending. At the end of the cycle it thus becomes clear how the rituals accompanying the birth process are repeated in the rituals of surrounding death.

1. Childhood

1. 1. Birthing rites: Birth is woman s domain

As in many other cultures, traditional Kabyle society prohibits men being present during childbirth. The Kabyle father withdraws to the village during childbirth. The secrets surrounding the birth process are reserved for woman alone and all birthing rites are carried out by women. They have never been shared with men, for the beginning of a new life in the actual birthing process is something only women can share together.

“The secret of child delivery, i.e. the discovery by the woman that she is creatress of life, is a religious experience, which can not be translated into the vocabulary of male experience.” (Eliade 1972, p. 165)

An older woman of my kinship group was shocked when she heard that fathers-to-be in western society are frequently present during childbirth. Deridingly and sad at the same time she said to me:

“You, who think yourselves to be so liberated in Europe, did it have to come to this, that you have to prove to men that life emanates from you and that you are the mothers of their sons? Giving birth to woman after our own fashion is self-evident. But we are also the mothers of the sons and men.”

According to traditional views children do not belong to their parents, but to the clan or kinship-group. When a census is carried out, it is the houses that are counted, not people. To attribute a child to one man and one woman is based in an individualised social concept. The birth of a child affects the whole village and cannot be separated from other births. For example, the occurrence of several births together in a village within one month is regarded a bad omen. It is said; the moon connected them. When a child s growth is stunted and it cries continuously and is generally in poor condition, this too is attributed to the concurrence of births. The mother then resorts to different rituals. For example, in order to revoke the “moon-binding”, she has to go out on the second or third day after nightfall to “a meeting with the new moon”, and there she will ask the luminary to undo the ill situation. This ritual reveals the close connection between birthing rites and lunar powers. Later I will report how the birth rites are connected with the moon in the magical 40 days after delivery.

In traditional Kabyle society the purpose of life is focused on the family and its continuation. Without marriage no new social groups come into being. Kabyles know, the individual does not count, if not backed up by a social group. Beginning with puberty young men and woman are prepared for their future role as mothers and fathers. There is almost no adolescence, because arranged marriages take place quite early. Therefore the wedding rituals do not refer to the separation of the spouse from their respective families, but to the end of childhood. They celebrate the changeover to their new responsibility, which is understood as the continuation of life s legacy passed on by the ancestors.

1. 2. In search of the bride

According to the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the reason why women do not occupy the same place or the same status in human society is because it is the men who exchange the women and not the other way round (Lévi-Strauss, p. 188). The way marriages are arranged and kinship groups organized among the Kabyles show a different picture. It is a society in which the mothers chose their daughters-in-law.

“It is truly unbelievable, but women look for, choose and find the wife. Whether a man has close relatives or is alone, he would even send out a stranger he trusted, for it is always women who one turns to when one is looking for a wife.” (At-Ali 1979, p. 90f) In the world of thoughts as in reality of traditional Kabylia, it is not the women who look for a husband, but the men have to take the woman their mother chooses for them. The search for this woman is a long ritual stage, starting with the birth of the son. Supported by their sisters and daughters, the mothers choose the future daughter-in-law. Never has a man attempted to search for a woman in Kabylia. The mothers alone have this task and hurry to get it done. This is why the wedding often takes place during puberty. When the girl menstruates for the first time she instantaneously turns into a young woman, a wife and a potential mother. The selection of the future bride depends solely on the character and strength of the girl s mother. When the woman is found, the mother of the son informs the father.

“The last-minute-intervention of male relatives is a Kabyle representation of the decision making process. In effect the selection is the women s domain (mother, sister, aunts, grandmother) Men only intervene to bless the decision, which despite outer appearance is not their domain at all.” (Khellil 1979, p. 63f)

1. 3. Weddings and wedding rituals

Kabyle weddings are never a private affair of the future spouses. There is no consent needed from them. They do not even meet up during the time of preparation for the wedding. The wedding was originally the concern of the whole kinship-group and a commitment by one s word of honour. The French introduced a registry only at the beginning of the 20th century.

“The character of a wedding is purely a family matter, no church or temple, nor is the official representation of any religion needed.” (Laoust-Chantréaux 1990, pp. 188-189)

The wedding rituals were connected with the cycle of nature. Therefore no weddings were held in May. What was true for the work of the potteress, for the wedding the same applied, the fertility of the freshly seeded soil was not to be disturbed. For this reason weddings were held mostly in October. When the woman is fertilised by the man through sexual union she is likened to the earth, the Earth-Mother of human life (Terre-Mère).

2. The pregnant woman – the “form-giver”

2. 1. The pregnant woman as Earth-Mother of humankind

All native peoples equate woman-mother with the earth. The analogy between the fertile soil and the fertile woman shows up clearly in the rules surrounding pregnant women. These rules are identical for women and the soil. Agriculture is accompanied by rituals similar to those that apply to pregnant women. For the first time, when a woman walks through her flourishing vegetable garden during harvesting season, she opens her belt ritualistically in reverence and silence, as she would do before giving birth. She does what a pregnant woman ready to give birth would do, so as to not hinder the growth of the plants.

The positive regard given to the belly of a pregnant woman stresses the importance of female creativity during the process of pregnancy. An expression of thankfulness or reverence is still to this day: “May the belly be blessed which carried you.”

A woman is compared to a garden with its swelling fruit especially the pumpkin. The moon also has this characteristic, of swelling till it is full and round.

During her pregnancy a Kabyle woman is not allowed to work the soil, as she would be ‘shaping the soil with her work. In so doing she would also analogously form the infant. During pregnancy she will also avoid whitewashing, plastering, or decorating the walls of her house, or making pottery, for this could also have an adverse affects on her or her child s health. Baneful spirits could disrupt or even destroy the life in the womb. They believe that childlessness is not to be ascribed to the woman, as this would contradict her fertile and creative abilities. The inability to conceive is always attributed to some magical, supernatural obstacle. This perception is still found nowadays in Algeria. Pregnancy is treated magically and Kabyle woman will employ difficult rituals, as for example undertaking rituals at faraway grottos, holy springs and the gravesites of ancestors.

2. 2. The rituals of delivery

In Kabylia birth is not a ritual of de-livery as in separation, but one of uniting the mother with the child. The Kabyle woman delivers in a squatting position to put the infant down on the ground. This ritualised birthing process directly onto the ground (Humi positio) can be found the world over. This tradition took place in the home exclusively until 1950. The birthing process is women s domain and is experienced in the community of older mothers. The midwife-healer, or another experienced woman, the mother-in-law or the mother, holds the birthing, naked woman from behind with her two open hands forming a kind of seat. There is a great spectrum of rites and practices surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and the period of nursing, but these are not communicated to the outside world.

“This mystery handed down from the ancestors is creating true community among all female members of society, which is the foundation of the life of the society.” (Getty, p. 43)

Motherhood is experienced as a collective occasion. But it means much more. Motherhood of the Kabyle woman spreads magically over the whole natural environment and influences the fertility of the fields and the domestic animals. Based on this understanding it is possible to explain the birthing and motherhood rites, just like the prohibition to work the fields and a special way of dealing with the fire of the hearth. During the whole duration of pregnancy the fire must not be removed from the house. This rule is also observed at the birth of a calf, at weddings and during the autumn fieldwork.

3. Mother and child

3. 1. The 40 days after delivery and birth

Until the time of delivery the Kabyle woman takes care of all her usual chores, after the delivery she is obliged to adhere to a strict resting time. The fixed time for this is 39 nights, both for mother and child. This time is considered to be the most dangerous time for a mother. Often the woman will spend this time in her mother s house, for her mother will instruct her in all she needs to know. This is why the birth of a daughter is highly valued. The mother cares for the daughter turned mother herself and accompanies her through all the birthing rites. I have searched long for the meaning of these magical 40 days, which are observed after delivery and likewise after the death of a person. The older women gave the explanation to me: It is connected with the cycle of the moon.

“The lunar phases – appearance, waxing and waning and disappearance of the moon – followed by the reappearance of the same after 3 pitch-dark nights – have played a powerful role in the formation of cyclical worldviews.”(M. Eliade 1969, p. 104)

During the three days following the birth neither the child nor its mother are allowed to leave the bed or the home. It is prohibited to visit her as the saying goes: “She s got one foot in the grave.” Like the dead, both of them have to disappear from sight for 3 dark nights, before they can reappear again. Mother and child then hold an additional resting period in the house for 7 more nights. During this time they can only have visitors from the immediate family. Only after these 10 days of isolation within the family community is the woman allowed to cross over the threshold of the house. But she will only do this after she has observed a number of magical rituals, which will protect her from harm. The mother will furthermore wait another 28 nights, a moon-month, before she leaves the compound of the family. Only then, covering the child carefully, is she able to show the child off to the rest of the village. The time of 38 nights or 39 days is finally finished after the woman has ritually visited a well or a sacred place. Only on the 40th day will the mother resume a normal life again.

“The Israelis keep to the tradition of 40 days in most cases. Catholics still celebrate Candlemas on the 2nd of February. This festival reminds us of the cleansing of the Virgin Mary 40 days after Christmas.” (Rahmani, p. 111)

3 . 2. Motherhood

Traces of matrilineal relationships show up in rituals after a child s birth, which are celebrated exclusively by women, by the mother and the female members of the clan. Men are excluded from such rituals and magical practices such as the beautifying lustration in the moon shine. In the traditional Kabyle society the most common alliance is that of the marriage between cousins. It is not viewed as incestuous when one marries within one s own family group. However, marriage is prohibited in the case of two children who have emerged from the same womb, or been suckled at the same breasts. The bonding created by breast-feeding is indeed as strong as the blood bond. The symbolic gesture of offering a breast constitutes an adoption rite, which carries with it a prohibition to marry. The children of the same mother but by different fathers are also seen as fully-fledged brothers and sisters.

“Maternal lineage can be read from the names children are given: Brothers, – children of one mother are called – atmaten – likewise sisters are called tissetmatin; one s own brothers are called “sons of my mother – aytma – and the sisters are “daughters of my mother” – issetma.” (Plantade, p. 46)

If a Kabyle woman is attacked, it is firstly the sons of her mother, her brothers, who stand up to defend her, and not her husband or father. The natural mother-child relationship is of such importance that losing one s mother is the worst tragedy, which could happen. ” I did not harm the one whose father I took away, but I left bereft without anything, the one whose mother I took away.”

4. The older women: The Crone

4. 1. Birth of the grandchildren

In the eyes of the Kabyles, the woman is the foundation of the house and the family, but her role as woman and mother is only completely fulfilled when she becomes a grandmother. One of the most important tasks a mother can have, is the search for the wife for her sons, for it ensures the continuation of the family line through her descendants. From early childhood onwards traditional upbringing of the Kabyle boy is geared toward keeping him close by his mother s house. It is not desirable for the young married man to cut the ties to his mother. Traditionally the daughters also stay in close proximity to their mother, in order to marry a cousin from a neighbouring house. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did marriages between different villages become more common. By marrying outside the original family kinship-group the women followed the men to settle far away from their mothers close to their mothers-in-law, who coordinated all economic affairs of the local family group. The search for a “bride” has become much more difficult these days. As long as the task is still under female guidance, I can attest to the fact that they still concentrate on the same family group and that the descendants of the mother are favoured.

When the first child gets married, the mother calls herself grandmother according to her new role, tamghart or the Crone. In Kabyle language this word expresses her very honourable position. At the same time her role as mother to her grown up children lasts to her death. In old Kabylia the mother cares for the children of her son turned father and at the same time assists her daughter-in-law in her mother role. This is carried out to such a degree that gifts at the birth of a child are handed to the grandmother, not to the mother or the father of the child. The relationship between a mother and a daughter is of utmost importance. The mother hands down all her knowledge to the daughter, the heiress of all the mother s wisdom. She is endowed with a “special love”.

At the end of her life the grandmother is viewed as magic. In her womb she created human beings, who have been recipients of her nourishment and care. She turns into a weaver who is able to weave together the threads of life of the ancestors with those of the descendants. The crone was present at every fertility rite and directed all ritualistic-magical work. Based on her experience she often became a midwife and every evening recounted the myth and fairytales she had heard from her mother and passed them on along with her mother s wisdom to her grandchildren.

4. 2. Return to the earth

In Kabyle mythology, i.e. the narrative of The first parents of the world, human beings were born from the earth. In this way the Kabyles believe the dead return to the belly of the earth, where they came from. The funeral customs clearly show up, the return to the earth follows the same rituals, which leads by progressive stages to the birth of an infant. Any remains of the dead person have to be removed before the third day after the death occurred. Within those days the straying soul of the deceased is hovering over the threshold of the door of the house and will return after 40 days. The visit to the cemetery has to be conducted on the 3rd and the 40th day after the death. We find the observance of these magical 40 days after delivery and also after the funeral. In this way life takes on an eternal cyclical character, which is continually carried forward in the womb of the mothers. The funeral rituals make clear that death is not perceived as the end of life, but as the cyclical renewal, serving the renewal of all of life of nature, the earth and the heavens.

“In the perception of everybody, death is but a changeover in existence, a kind of transit time, and belief in a life after death is all encompassing. One does not say a person is “gone”, but that she or he is “heading for another world”, (teruh di-laxert), for the life down here and the future life is, we are assured, two sisters amazingly alike, whom we will get to know one after the other.” (Laoust-Chantréaux, p. 241)


This four-part analysis represents at the same time the methodology and the main results of my research on the magical dimension of the position of the Kabyle women. From the cradle to the grave the woman as mother is the protectress of life itself, the potteress, the provider, the weaver of human bonds. Until I developed my specific approach it was common to view women s lives in two phases, young and old. This twofold model was later replaced by a threefold model, girl, woman and elderly woman. But the great regard given to the mother cannot be fully grasped with either the two-phase, or the three-phase model, as it does not take into account the phase of the pregnancy. When we consider the beginning of a human life as its birth, we do not give credence to the most important phase of the life in vitro, the unseen development of a human being inside the womb of the mother. When the beginning of human life is the actual birth of the child, then the unseen development of the human being in the womb of its mother is not perceived as a crucial phase in the mother role. In this way the time of motherhood is curtailed. Starting with the birth of the child would be equal to starting with fatherhood, thus producing a false equation. The phase of pregnancy is very important for re-establishing the basis for the forgotten roots of humankind. The refusal to honour this vital part of a woman s life results in misconceiving the woman as the true source and preserving power of life itself. Every Kabyle is raised in deep reverence for their mother and in the awareness that all humankind owes its life to a woman. In this way the following sentence has to be understood.

“The woman carries the life of the man – husband, brother or father – of the defender of her honour, in her womb.” (Ait-Ali 1979, p. 98)

The ritualised life of the Kabyle women, especially of the grandmothers, emphasises the reverence of mothers. All rituals in the traditional life cycle of a Kabyle woman, which accompany her existence from cradle to grave, show up matriarchal structures of previous times. These rituals have been preserved in the life of women. They can be called magical, because they mirror the cosmic creation in human procreation. In this way women see themselves not only as creatresses of human life, but also as a symbol of the creative power itself. Therefore they see uniquely this creative power in everything they themselves have created, be these objects made from clay, as in pottery, or things made from wool as in woven garments. The production process is regarded as magical creation, which corresponds to the act of sexual union between man and woman and the fertility resulting from it. This is shown clearly in the symbolic language of the women, as geometric ornamentation on pottery, pieces of weaving and on the walls of the houses.

The adoration of the mother was also expressed in the high regard given to the family, as well as in ancestor veneration and in the rituals performed for the natural environment. This spirit of unity – which encompasses the whole of life – regulates, affects and explains the magic of the women and their traditional customs in traditional Kabyle life.

(translation by Jutta Ried)


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  • Nazim Chambi

    Just wanted to thank you for this amazing article!

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