HomeWorld NewsMarnia Lazreg, wide-ranging scholar of women in Muslim world, dies at 83

Marnia Lazreg, wide-ranging scholar of women in Muslim world, dies at 83

Marnia Lazreg, an author and scholar who used her experiences in French colonial Algeria as starting points for studies into the struggles and aspirations of women across the Muslim world, including her stance decrying the traditions of Islamic coverings such as headscarves, died Jan. 13 at a hospital in New York. She was 83.

She had been treated for endometrial cancer, said her son, Ramsi Woodcock.

Dr. Lazreg’s books and lectures over five decades roamed across history, religious expression and ways that power is wielded — politically, culturally and intellectually. She ranked among the most respected academic voices on women’s affairs in North Africa and helped expand Arab viewpoints in Western feminist scholarship.

Her work also carried autobiographical underpinnings. Some of her most acclaimed research and writing had roots in her witnessing of brutality and repression in Algeria’s war for independence, and reflected her personal stance — even as a preteen — of rejecting the billowing cloth coverings commonly used by Algerian women at the time.

“My work,” she once said, “reflects my horror of dogma, be it theoretical, methodological or political.”

Dr. Lazreg built her academic career in the United States, but Algeria remained a polestar. She often recounted the joy and pride the country felt in 1962 after victory in Algeria’s long and bloody battle for independence, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

“We had this incredible awakening,” she said in a 2011 interview at a forum for the City University of New York system, where she had led the Hunter College women’s studies program since the late 1980s. “You woke up and you said, ‘Ha, it’s going to be different.’”

What replaced French rule, however, was nearly three decades of a single-party state and then, after multiparty elections in 1991 were suspended, almost a decade of civil war seeking to crush the rising political influence of Islamists. The symbolism of those eras from the 1950s to the 1990s — resistance, then hope, then sectarian turmoil — pulsed through much of Dr. Lazreg’s research.

Her contributions to the historical record of Algeria include “The Eloquence of Silence” (1994), a survey of how Algerian women navigated more than a century from pre-colonial times to the fight against French rule. Dr. Lazreg asserted that one of the pernicious legacies of European control was the “colonial mythification” of Arab women as passive spectators to history.

As a powerful counterpoint, later editions of the book noted the waves of women in the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and elsewhere. “These events,” she wrote in an essay in 2012 during the height of the protests, “should be an opportunity for social scientists, especially those studying women, to pause and think.”

In “Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad” (2008), Dr. Lazreg detailed French repression in Algeria and drew parallels with the “wanton abuse of prisoners” in places that became synonymous with the U.S.-led wars, including Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. (France in 2018 acknowledged its use of systematic torture in Algeria.)

She described the book as a cautionary tale. “A democratic country,” she said, “is always in danger of reverting to torture because it is a source of absolutely boundless power.”

Yet the question of “the veil,” the various Islamic coverings wore by many women across the Muslim world, became perhaps Dr. Lazreg’s defining issue. As a girl, she said she refused to wear the coverings used by nearly everyone around her, including her sister, mother and grandmother. “It controls a woman instead of being controlled by her,” Dr. Lazreg wrote in a 2009 essay, “it defeats her power to choose.”

Her book “Questioning the Veil” (2009) was constructed as a series of arguments for Muslim women — and men — attempting to dismantle reasons for the veil, or hijab, including modesty, to avoid sexual harassment or as a display of piety. In Dr. Lazreg’s view, the hijab was essentially a tool of misogyny that has no grounding in Quranic teachings.

“I can no longer stay quiet on an issue, the veil,” she wrote, “that in recent years has become so politicized that it threatens to shape and distort the identity of young women and girls throughout the Muslim world as well as Europe and North America.”

The book was banned in countries with strict enforcement of Islamic morality codes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Protests and threats by some Muslim students at Hunter forced Dr. Lazreg to move her office inside the university to a more secure location.

For Dr. Lazreg, her decision to break from family and local traditions involving the wearing of the hijab was one her first acts of independence. She also never forgot the image of her mother, who could not come to her aid when a boy was harassing her when she was about 7. Her mother did not have her hijab nearby and refused to leave the house. She hurled a wooden clog instead.

“The clog landed on my forehead, making a bloody gash,” Dr. Lazreg remembered. “I had a half-inch scar for many years to remember the incident by.”

Marnia Lazreg was born in Mostaganem, on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast, on Jan. 10, 1941. Her father sold dry goods at a local market, and her mother was a homemaker.

Under the colonial system, nearly all Algerian students were sent to what were called “native schools.” At one point, the young Marnia came down with a cold that her mother blamed on the drafty classroom. Marnia was allowed to attend the school for children of French families until the weather warmed. She never left, and graduated in 1960.

After independence, her family moved to Algiers and took over an apartment vacated by French tenants who fled the country. She worked in the municipal administration of Algiers but was being denied a pass to leave the government building during the day for non-job activities. She forged the document and enrolled at the University of Algiers. She graduated with a degree in English literature in 1966.

She took a job with Sonatrach, the national oil company, and was assigned in 1967 to open its first office in the United States, in New York’s Rockefeller Center. She received a master’s degree in sociology from New York University in 1970 and a doctorate in 1975. Dr. Lazreg’s first book, “The Emergence of Classes in Algeria” (1976), was based on her dissertation about class differences growing in postcolonial Algeria after decades of collective subjugation.

Her other books include a groundbreaking study on the French philosopher Michel Foucault, “Foucault’s Orient” (2017), which put forward a case that Foucault possessed strong Western bias and considered the intellectual traditions in Asia, the Arab world and elsewhere incapable of full rational thought.

She taught at Brooklyn College, Hunter College and the New School for Social Research in New York in the 1970s and then took associate professor positions at various intuitions, including Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Dr. Lazreg returned to Hunter as a professor of sociology in 1988 and remained there until her death.

Outside academia, she played a role in building programs at the World Bank from 1999 to 2000 to introduce development loans that gave more attention to expanding opportunities for women and girls. Dr. Lazreg was also a longtime adviser to the U.N. Development Program.

As a novelist, she wrote under the name Meriem Belkelthoum. Her 2019 French-language novel, “The Awakening of the Mother,” was based on her family’s life in Algeria.

Her marriage to Mark Woodcock ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons, Ramsi and Reda; and a granddaughter.

Dr. Lazreg described her books and research as a process of excavating the stories of her homeland. Under colonial rule, only French history and French perspectives were presented in schools.

“Writing about Algeria,” she said, “is an endless discovery of a history I was never taught.”

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