Renowned Scholar of Muslim Women, Marnia Lazreg, Passes Away at 83

Marnia Lazreg at Hunter College in 2018. (Hunter College)

Marnia Lazreg, an author and scholar who used her experiences in French colonial Algeria as a springboard for research into the struggles and aspirations of Muslim women around the world, including her criticism of Islamic covering traditions such as headscarves, died on January 13 at a New York hospital. She was 83.

Her son Ramsi Woodcock confirmed that she had been treated for endometrial cancer.

Over the course of five decades, Dr. Lazreg’s publications and lectures have explored history, religious expression, and power dynamics – politically, culturally, and intellectually. She was one of North Africa’s most respected academic voices on women’s issues, contributing to the expansion of Arab perspectives in Western feminist studies.

Her art also contained autobiographical elements. Some of her most celebrated studies and writing stemmed from her witnessing of cruelty and persecution during Algeria’s battle for independence, and they represented her personal attitude — even as a preteen — of rejecting the billowing cloth coverings usually worn by Algerian women at the time.

“My work,” she declared at one point, “reflects my horror of dogma, be it theoretical, methodological or political.”

Dr. Lazreg advanced her academic career in the United States, but Algeria remained a shining star. In 1962, the country celebrated victory in Algeria’s deadly independence struggle, despite the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

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

After French occupation, the country experienced a single-party state for nearly 30 years, followed by a decade of civil war to suppress Islamist political dominance after multiparty elections were suspended in 1991. Much of Dr. Lazreg’s research was infused with the symbolism of the 1950s to 1990s eras: resistance, then hope, then sectarian upheaval.

Her contributions to Algerian history include “The Eloquence of Silence” (1994), a survey of how Algerian women navigated over a century from pre-colonial periods to the struggle against French control. Dr. Lazreg claimed that one of the worst consequences of European dominance was the “colonial mythification” of Arab women as passive observers of history.

Later versions of the book noted waves of women participating in Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa and abroad, providing a striking counterweight. In a 2012 essay, she argued that the protests should prompt social scientists, particularly those researching women, to reflect.

In “Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad” (2008), Dr. Lazreg compared French repression in Algeria to the “wanton abuse of prisoners” in locations associated with US-led wars, such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. In 2018, France acknowledged the use of systemic torture in Algeria.

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

However, the topic of “the veil,” or the numerous Islamic covers worn by many women throughout the Muslim world, became probably Dr. Lazreg’s defining concern. As a child, she stated that she refused to wear the coverings worn by almost everyone around her, including her sister, mother, and grandmother. In a 2009 essay, Dr. Lazreg stated that it takes control of a woman rather than allowing her to govern herself.

In her book “Questioning the Veil” (2009), the author presents arguments for Muslim women and men to challenge the reasons for wearing the veil or hijab, such as modesty, avoiding sexual harassment, or displaying piety.Dr. Lazreg argued that the hijab is misogynistic and not based on Quranic principles.

“I can no longer stay quiet on an issue, the veil,” she said in a statement, “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 prohibited in Saudi Arabia and Iran, two countries that strictly enforce Islamic morality rules. Protests and threats from certain Muslim students at Hunter compelled Dr. Lazreg to relocate her office within the university to a more secure location.

Dr. Lazreg’s decision to break away from family and local norms that involved wearing the hijab was one of her first acts of independence. She also remembered her mother’s inability to intervene when a boy harassed her when she was about seven years old. Her mother did not have her hijab with her and refused to leave the house. She threw a wooden clog instead.

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

Marnia Lazreg was born on January 10, 1941, in Mostaganem, Algeria, near the Mediterranean coast. Her mother was a homemaker, while her father sold dry goods at a local market.

Under the colonial system, almost all Algerian pupils were assigned to “native schools.” At one point, the young Marnia caught a cold, which her mother blamed on the drafty classroom. Marnia was permitted to attend the school for children from French families until the weather improved. She remained and graduated in 1960.

Following independence, her family relocated to Algiers and took over an apartment vacated by French tenants who had fled the nation. She worked in the municipal administration of Algiers but was denied permission to leave the government building throughout the day for non-work purposes. She falsified the document and enrolled in the University of Algiers. She earned a degree in English literature in 1966.

She began working for Sonatrach, the national oil business, and was assigned in 1967 to open the company’s first office in the United States, in New York’s Rockefeller Center. She earned a master’s degree in sociology at New York University in 1970 and a PhD in 1975. Dr. Lazreg’s first book, “The Emergence of Classes in Algeria” (1976), was based on her dissertation on how class distinctions emerged in postwar Algeria after decades of collective enslavement.

Her other books include a groundbreaking study on the French philosopher Michel Foucault, “Foucault’s Orient” (2017), which put forward a case that Foucault had strong Western bias and considered 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 before becoming an associate professor at several institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Dr. Lazreg returned to Hunter in 1988 as a sociology professor, where she remained until her death.

Outside of academics, she helped design programs at the World Bank from 1999 to 2000 to offer development financing that focused on expanding opportunities for women and girls. Dr. Lazreg was also a long-term adviser to the United Nations Development Programme.

She published novels as Meriem Belkelthoum. Her 2019 French-language novel, “The Awakening of the Mother,” is about her family’s experiences in Algeria.

Her marriage with Mark Woodcock ended in divorce. Two sons, Ramsi and Reda, as well as a granddaughter, survive.

Dr. Lazreg defined her publications and study as a process of uncovering the stories of her birthplace. Under colonial authority, only French history and perspectives were taught in schools.

“Writing about Algeria,” she went on to say, “is an endless discovery of a history I was never taught.”

Written by PH

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