Procession of women wearing the 'haik' in Oran.

Women across Algeria are organising events to defend an iconic garment worn by their ancestors but now almost completely forgotten. Some of them prefer this traditional veil, the haik, to the hijab that they view as imported from the Middle East.

The haik [Editor's note: also known as the 'hayek'] is a long veil made from silk or wool that comes with a piece of embroidered triangular fabric to hide the lower part of the face. From Ottoman times onwards, it was worn by city-dwelling women who ventured outside the home and was considered a sign of purity. It has seared itself into Algeria's collective memory because of the role it played during the country's war for independence. Members of the National Liberation Front [Editor's note: the FLN waged an eight-year war of independence against France] - both men and women - hid under the long garment to secretly carry arms and avoid French army security controls.

The outfit also symbolised Algerian society's resistance to French colonial authority, according to Sihem Raheb Ramdani of the department of Islamic and Arabic studies at the University of Madrid. The colonial power considered that a woman's “unveiling” went hand-in-hand with her “emancipation”.

Nowadays, the haik has virtually disappeared from Algeria’s streets. Since the rise of Islamism and the pressure put on society by the Islamic Salvation Front [FIS] and the Armed Islamic Group [GIA] during the 1990s, the wearing of the scarf-like hijab and a long tunic called a djellaba has become far more commonplace. However, the haik appears to be making a comeback. The 'Miss Hayek' prize was created in 2012 to "promote the traditional Algerian veil", and during the past few years women wearing the haik have staged processions in Algiers, Oran and other cities to restore the veil's place in Algerian society

"I want the haik to make a comeback"

Sarah, a 25-year-old nurse, organised one such procession on March 7 during International Women's Day in Oran.
The haik has been forgotten. My grandmother wore it. My mother didn't. As for me, I want the haik to make a comeback. It's part of our cultural heritage: a heritage which is slowly dying, and which could disappear altogether when our elders pass away. I wear the haik, but not the hijab. Many outfits like the hijab have been imported from abroad, particularly from the Middle East. Nowadays, we're tossed to and fro by dress codes that come from other civilisations. Young people don't know what to wear anymore. To find the answer, I think we need to start looking at our own history. The haik is part of that history.

In the streets of Oran.

The haik has a rich and interesting history that differs according to each region. In the east, for example, women used to wear black-coloured haiks [Editor's note: known as a 'mlaya'] to mourn the death of Salah Bey [Editor's note: the governor of Constantine, a city in western Algeria, at the end of the 19th century. His death was ordered by the governor of Algiers]. In Tlemcen, the haik is a golden beige colour [Editor's note: it is known as an 'acheachi']. In Algiers and Oran, the outfit is white [and also known as a “mrama”].

In Oran.

"For me, the haik is not synonymous with oppression. On the contrary, it makes women stand out, makes them elegant"

The haik was most notably worn during special occasions - at weddings or funerals, for example. I wear it during marriage ceremonies. Instead of wearing a Middle Eastern outfit, I wear a haik on top of my dress. It's a beautiful garment, made entirely from silk. For me, the haik is not synonymous with oppression. On the contrary, it makes them stand out, and it makes them quite elegant. It covers the entire body but underlines the body's charm. In 'Topography of Algiers', Diego Haedo [Editor's note: a Spanish commentator who lived during the 17th century] celebrated the beauty of women who wore those "delicate, white coats, woven from fine wool or silk fabric".

In Oran's Turkish baths.

Many girls who wanted to take part in our march in Oran couldn't because they weren’t able to find a haik. It's difficult to find one nowadays. The know-how has disappeared. You have to go to shops that specialise in selling wedding clothes – some conservative families still insist that the bride's dress should include a haik.

The reaction of passers-by was very positive. One of them said to me: "the haik makes us forget our sorrows." After the end of the procession, we went to sit in Turkish baths just like our ancestors did. We spoke about our country's history and our nostalgia for the haik.

Sarah presiding over the ceremony.

However, not everyone has responded favourably to calls for the haik's revival. Journalist and writer Akram Belkaid likens a return of the garment to a step backward, adding that he even prefers the hijab because it lets women move about "more freely". He called for people to focus on more important struggles, like the scrapping of the family code that maintains inequality between men and women in the country’s law.

Post written by FRANCE 24 journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou (@Dorakellou).

All photos published courtesy of the NGO Sidi El Houari.