Five slam poets — three women and two men — came together to found Awal, a slam poetry collective, in January 2017. The collective is based in Oran, the second-largest city in Algeria. These young poets, whose popularity has been on the rise thanks to their riveting YouTube videos, write and recite verses about tough topics, including violence against women.
Awal’s first video tackled street harassment in public places, which has been a long-standing problem in Algeria. On March 5, 2017, a new law came into effect that makes it punishable by two to six months in prison.
In the video, two women from the collective, Zoulikha Tahar, alias Toute Fine, and Samia Manel, alias Sam MB — the former choosing to wear a headscarf, and the latter who doesn’t — act out what it is like for them to move through the streets of Oran on a daily basis. They describe what is essentially an obstacle course when they go out in public, as they try to avoid insistent stares, inappropriate comments and even being touched up.
The poem begins (translated from the French):
"I try to make myself small so they leave me alone,
Sometimes, I get depressed and I stay at home.
Some say that we’re making too big of a deal.
But come live a day as a woman,
You’ll see if we’re making it up or if it’s real."
"I wear a headscarf but that doesn’t stop men from making comments"
I’m a PhD student in Mechanics of Materials at the University of Sidi Bel Abbès. I’ve never studied literature but I started reading the works of great French writers at a young age. Baudelaire and René Char are my favorite poets. I learned French at school but it’s my mother, who went to school in France and is a perfectionist about anything to do with education, who pushed me to attain fluency in it. I started writing poetry in French at a young age, but I didn’t do anything with my work. It wasn’t until I discovered the French-Belgian slam poet Le Journal de Personne that I started wanting to perform my work and share it on social media.
Later, I started organising writing workshops with an association in Oran. That’s how I met the other members of Awal. I was really moved by a poem that Sam MB wrote about street harassment, so I suggested to her that we collaborate on a performance about our frustrations.
It’s hard to walk in the street without being whistled at and getting unwanted attention and comments. The harassers even start insulting you if you try to ignore them and they don’t like it. This problem isn’t unique to Algeria, it’s universal and we’re determined to call it out.
It doesn’t make a difference if you wear a headscarf or not. I happen to wear a headscarf but that doesn’t stop men from making comments and sometimes even threats when I walk alone in the street. Whether we choose to wear a headscarf or not, men should let us move about freely without the fear of being harassed. That’s the message that we are trying to spread.
Samia MB slams the following lines in the second half of the video (translated from the French):
I write these rhymes as armour against those who attack my femininity.
Femininity that you fear like a rose and its thorns
I learn to erase myself as my body takes form."
"Street harassment is not a compliment"
I’m a musician but I found it hard to sing because girls who sing in Algeria are frowned upon. I noticed that when I got on stage to perform songs that my father wrote or when I posted videos of my performances on YouTube. So I chose to focus on slam poetry instead. I started by performing “Guilty", a poem about the guilt that women perpetually feel in a society that is still full of taboos. I talk, for example, about the way that you sometimes feel guilty for going out in the street and occupying a public space that is still dominated by men. That’s also a topic that Toute Fine and I cover in our slam poetry. People say you should be flattered when you get comments. But street harassment isn’t a compliment. I wrote a response in bars:
"I’m supposed to feel flattered when he leers at me, when I know he’d never accept it if someone did to his sister what he does to me.”
I’m 24 and since the age of 12 I’ve been subject to stares and to everything from oppressive "flirty" comments to vulgar comments… And it isn’t just young men between the ages of 20 and 30 who do it, the ones who are unemployed and spend their days hanging around in the street. You also get it from young boys and old men.
"These men think that the only reason that women go out is to provide them with entertainment, so they do what they want,” I say in my poem. Of course, not all men are like this. Lots of them do respect us. But this minority needs to stop harassing us. That’s the message that we wanted to share. We know that a lot of people have seen our work on social media and appreciate this message.
"I think institutional violence is even more serious than street harassment"
Lounis Youcef, alias Doc2Rap, was the national slam champion in 2016. He is also a member of the Awal collective, and taps into his own experience to write slam poems that denounce violence against women.
I’m in medical school and when I was an intern in the university hospital in Oran, I saw things that deeply disturbed me. Toute Fine and Sam MB have written and performed slam poetry about street harassment but I think there is even an more serious form of violence that we rarely talk about: harassment in more institutional settings. I’ve seen professors make passes at students who must be the same age as their own daughters. I wrote a poem about it which is still tucked away in my noteook, that begins "Welcome to my world where high-ranking doctors harass young students in the Oran hospital”. I’ve also written a poem about women who are abused by their husbands. It’s called “I’m a woman [Je suis une femme]”.
Excerpt from the poem (translated from the French):
Tired of hurting, I’ve stayed quiet for so long,
I take care of the house alone, I do it for love.
But since my love has starting hurting me, with threats and bruises,
Since he’s been angry at me, sincerely, I can’t,
Live in fear’s grasp every day,
He hurts so much with his words and his blows."
Slam performance of "Je suis une femme" by Doc2Rap
I put myself in the shoes of a woman who I had examined when I was an intern at the hospital. She opened up to me about the hell she was living in. I wanted to write this poem and share it because I believe that men and women are equal but our society is still patriarchal, and men continue to dominate and think about this domination as a positive thing.