Some pre-essay musings:

I wrote this essay in early 2019 for a subject at The University of Melbourne. It’s about colonialism in Algeria, and how the French reconfigured normativity and ‘watched’ Algerians to consolidate their colonial mission.

I poured my heart into this essay—my dad is Algerian and was born in French-Algeria. The Algerian-French colonial encounter is a very sensitive issue for me, and writing this essay brought me close to my Algerianness. In fact, writing this essay was one of the first times that I consulted academic literature about colonialism in Algeria. 

It is a strange experience to write on a deeply intimate topic and then expose oneself to academic criticism. It was hard for me to embody feedback and criticism on this essay, especially from someone (my tutor, a lovely person, who, from my knowledge was not a colonised person) who would understand the discussion of colonialism through received and taught academic discourse.

Enjoy the essay.


Question: Colonisers intend to reproduce normative metropolitan values, structures and practises in colonies. In colonial Algeria, colonial success was taken to be indicated by the departure from traditional Algerian society and the consequent assent by the colonised to the normative proscriptions of the coloniser. Accordingly, how did colonial Algeria espouse the model of colonial normative dictatorship and native assent to colonial normativity through (1) the structural reorganisation of society and the surveillance this yielded; (2) the ensnaring of Algerian society in Frenchness through expert discourses; and (3) the reconfiguration of gender roles and the veil so as to extend French colonial normativity to all members of society?

The Algerian-French colonial encounter in the context of surveillance, discourse, gender and the ‘mysterious’ veil

French colonial conquest in Algeria intended to completely restructure society. Physically, French Colonial Administration (“FCA”) structurally reconfigured Algerian society by engaging in an extensive resettlement program with the intention of recreaing la métropole in Algeria. Ideologically, by relying on metropolitan structures of morality, FCA sought to disseminate Frenchness under the guise that it was the right thing to do, especially in light of the moral turpitude of Algerians. The immorality of Algerians was viewed through a traditionally orientalist prism, which became the primary justification for la mission civilatrice, the mission to civilise Algeria, to instil “correcting norms” by recreating France in its place (Bourdieu 2012: xi). Accordingly, this essay will argue that colonialism in Algeria, through its strategic geographic, social manipulation, institutionally configured conceptions of ‘normativity’, restructuring of gender roles and the veil, and heavy dependence on ‘mystery’, perpetuated power relations which intended to legitimise the colonial encounter morally necessary. Firstly, I will investigate the structural reengineering of Algerian society as representing an instantiation of the Foucauldian panopticon. Here, I will explore the impact of ‘resettlement’ programs on traditional Algerianness. Secondly, with reference to the panopticon, I will argue that through the expert discourse of medicine, FCA gained mastery over the foreign, incomprehensible, and classically oriental elements of Algerian society which escaped the panoptic gaze. Thirdly, I will investigate the institutionalisation of normativity through the expert discourse of education, which I argue manifests the most successful configuration of Franco-normativity. Fourthly, I will consider to the attack on the Algerian patriarch, which extended the FCA’s ideological purview to those outside the education institution. Finally, I will examine the targeting of colonised and mysterious veil- wearing women as a means of totalising FCA’s colonisation of Algeria.

i. Recreating la métropole

Traditional Algerian society was viewed by FCA through a classic orientalist prism. It was despotic, metaphysical-oriented and intrinsically incomprehensible. Algerians organised themselves in a way that was undefined and spontaneous (Quinn 39; Varsico 66), and they organised their land and morals in a way that was not codified (Bourdieu 2012: 137). However, pre-Colonial Algerian society was self-sufficient and organised and was guided by a coherent cultural teleology (Bourdieu 2002: 93-94, 137). This teleology rested on three core premises. Firstly, boys would become men by working the land and would project their identities outward towards other men. Secondly, women would project themselves inward and towards the spaces which did not belong to men; they were the “pivot” of Algerian society (Fanon 38). Finally, everyone had to respect the patriarch, who was the quasi-divine epistemic author and narrator of purpose and identity. Nevertheless, the unspoken social regulation and primitive agricultural practices positioned the French to view Algerians and their landscape as synonymous: they were “scented, and sunny, and spicy”, and most importantly, they were unregulated (Hubble 155).

Figure 1, Bourdieu 2012

An unregulated geographic and ideological landscape was problematic for FCA. How could colonisation be successful if neither colonised nor their environment were comprehensible? To address this issue, FCA developed ‘resettlement programs’ which intended to structurally recreate la métropole so as to make Algeria French. These resettlement programs involved the physical as well as ideological reengineering of Algeria. Scott provides a helpful justification for such programs — they instil colonial dominion by ordering society “according to a [familiar] formula” (135). The preferred formula for FCA emulated Bentham’s panopticon.

Figure 2, Bourdieu 2012

The panopticon is a prison structure which positions prisoners to self-regulate within the confines of prescribed behaviour (Foucault 1977: 190-5). Figure 2 is the FCA’s attempt to recreate this structure in Algeria. In Figure 2, we see a neighbourhood enclosed by fencing and with walkways separating each house. The main entrance at the north of the settlement is surveilled by the “poste de garde” (guard post), with an eye over all traffic going in and out. Similarly, the “Abris” (shelters) and “Etablissements militaires” (military establishments) enclose the settlement, covering all other entrances and places that the eyes of guard post may not reach. In a panoptic structure, the “gaze [of authority] is alert everywhere” (Foucault 1977: 195). Configuring domestic spaces in a way that aims at erasing privacy means placing ‘eyes’ everywhere and at all times. It is not the gaze of the coloniser itself which is important in the panopticon. Rather, it is the positioning of the colonised in a space where they cannot escape the potential to be watched. This is the sense in which Foucault argued that the panoptic structure positions the colonised to self-regulate with respect to the normative proscriptions of the coloniser (1977: 236).

ii. (Self)-Surveillance through resettlement

Surveillance affirms normative behaviour and excludes abnormal ways of being through punishment. In response to threats of native resistance or disobedience of colonial authority, FCA frequently resorted to kidnappings and torture (Stoler 59; Fermeux 53-57). Constantin Melnik, the Coordinator of Intelligence Services for the French President during the Algerian Independence War, explained that the punishment for dissent need not be “spectacular”, but only demonstrate that “anyone can be taken off at any moment” and that there is a “mystery surrounding... [their] fate” (Fermeux 59). As modes of punishment become more effective and more clandestine, punishment shifts its target from the “body... [to the] mind” (1977: 11). The ‘mystery’ that Melnik refers to is precisely what Foucault called the “economy of suspended rights” (1977: 11). The concept of suspended rights is the nexus between punishment and its generation of normativity.  In Algeria, FCA positioned themselves to become the repository for the fears and insecurities of Algerians when it became unclear which liberties the Algerian were deprived of and which consequences they would face when they undermine FCA.

Colonial dominion is contingent on the punishment of dissent being the opposite of the coordinated regime it wants to create. For dominion, FCA had to make its dissenters (and their fate) a mystery. Here, the success of power is relative to how well it “masks” its presence (Foucault 1978: 86). Foucault’s reading of ‘mystery’ is also relevant. Foucault argues that the construction or depiction of something as ‘mysterious’ by an authoritative body positions subordinate bodies to self-regulate within the confines of what doesn’t yield ‘mysterious’ punishment (1978: 66-67). In other words, normative and accepted behaviour is not clearly defined, rather, it is that which is notpunished. Take the example of the ‘mysterious’ extraction of dissidents such as Maurice Audin, a young pied noir (a European living in Algeria (coloniser)) mathematician who was detained by FCA. Audin’s fate remained a ‘mystery’ until President Macron admitted to his torture and murder six decades later (Nossiter 2018). The cultivation of an epistemic lacuna by framing punishment for dissent as a ‘mystery’ would position Algerians to project their fears and insecurities into this ‘void’. The FCA does not tell you why it should be feared. Instead, by making its mechanisms ‘mysterious’, every colonised Algerian has a personalised FCA to fear according to their individual insecurities. The consequence of the creation of an epistemic void is submission to colonial authority.

iii. Medicine

In addition to their exertion of dominion over the physical manifestation of Algerianness, FCA extended their purview to metaphysical and incomprehensible Algerian phenomena by arranging it through the medical discourse. By characterising Algeria as dangerous, FCA could simultaneously taxonomise Algeria and create a medical discourse to normatively arrange colonisers (Fermeux 51). Firstly, in order to prevent the uprising of a system over which they knew they did not have spiritual dominion, in order to prevent a metaphysical resurgence, French doctors perpetuated an expert medical discourse to interweave narratives of colonial taxonomical supremacy over the ‘mysterious’ Algerian horizon. Expert discourses are instrumental to the construction of a reality in which only normativity can exist (Foucault 1968: 84). To understand the theoretical relevance of expert discourses, consider the creation of an epistemic quasi-lacuna (quasi because this lacuna is artificial) from which experts can configure normativity.

French-Colonial doctors described a trademark colonial disease, “neurasthenia”, which blamed geographic distance from la métropole for conditions which could produce pathologies, including suicidal thoughts in bad cases (Hubbell 248). Stoler argues that the production of such conditions, which have a “phantom”-like presence, lead to the “destruction of the social order” as well as a justification for deviant sexually behaviour among colonials (66). Thus, secondly, by portraying Algeria as metaphysically targeting colonials, expert discourses position themselves to proscribe and prescribe FCA priorities while giving the impression that they are providing remedying ‘ailing’ colonisers (Stoler 65- 67). Medical discourse also provided FCA with a mechanism to blame the immorality of colonisers who become sexually deviant on the Algerians’ environment. By positioning the Algerian environment as a dangerous and incomprehensible phenomenon, FCA grant themselves authority to diagnose and narrate the path to recovery for all colonisers involved in the colonial encounter. Colonisers themselves are subjected to the self-regulation within FCA diagnostic boundaries. In other words, for one to ‘heal’ themselves, they must accord to medical discourse.

iv. Education

We must remind ourselves of the primary objective of the FCA – la mission civilatrice, which sought to propound normative Frenchness in Algeria. So, if the panoptic resettlement programs and expert discourse of medicine were responsible for the taxonomising of Algeria, what actually defined normativity? The education institution was framed as a main vessel for “improve [the Algerian] moral standard” (Colonna 352). So, what was unique about education? Firstly, education was a neutral expert-discourse independent from the army. Neutrality confers a ‘genuine interest’ in the development of Algeria (Foucault 1978: 65). Secondly, the educator was there to fill the epistemic void that was created in the wake of resettled Algeria with no patriarch as its moral author. Again, only neutral educators can be trusted; they are there to teach not colonise (Foucault 1978: 66-67). Finally, the educator positioned themselves as the opposite of “image, idea, personality and experience of the Algerian” (Varisco 60). They promised the development of a metropolis that, unlike its colonisers, was governed by doctrines of the French Revolution – Liberté, Égalite, Fraternité. The educator wished to peacefullycreate a world opposite to the fundamentally anti-progress Algerian (Fanon 41).

We can interpret the success of the education by analysing the priorities of post-Colonial Algerian academics. Algerian Francophone academics either educated à la métropole in French institutions or in Algeria by pieds noirs wanted to rest on these values in order to create an independent Algeria (Addi 93). Conversely, the “vast majority” of Algerians educated by Algerians, in Algeria and in Arabic wanted to recreate a pre-Colonial Algeria based on ettawabit el watania — on traditional Arab-Islamic customs and language (Addi 93). Thus, normativity was framed by Franco colonial education institutions around revolutionary ideals. This was done by establishing themselves as bodies independent of the army who wished to co-author a better world alongside Algerians.

v. Morality and gender

We have already met with the idea of the traditional Algeria patriarch serving as the social and moral engineer of the family unit (Bourdieu 2002: 137).  In order to access Algerians who escaped the education institution, FCA reconfigure gender roles by dismantling the patriarch as author of normativity. Here, a reading of Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’ is instructive. The ‘habitus’ refers to the individual’s mechanistic repository for ideological and physical interaction with the world, which manifests in a production of the “customary movements” that characterise the individual (Bourdieu 2002: 112). In the context of gender roles, ‘customary movements’ would refer to the relationship between man and woman and how men and women negotiate spaces, duties and morals. Thus, in order to destabilise the patriarch as epistemic author, FCA had to undermine the established boundaries between men and women.

One example of this can be observed in increased characterising Algerian men as “sexually aggressive” by colonisers (Stoler 59). Stoler argues that gender roles, specifically the hyper-masculinity of native men and vulnerability of native women, are evoked during times of colonial-political instability (56). These claims allowed FCA to position themselves as bastions of morality who quelled resistance to morally justified colonial endeavours and also escorted native women around resettlement camps in order to ‘protect’ them from violent native men (Bourdieu 2012: 114). In another attempt to disintegrate the authority of Algerian men during challenges to colonial authority, colonisers would routinely remind Algerians who were academically successful and socially mobile that they had ‘still not graduated from being sexist Arabs’ (Fanon 41). However, these men were concurrently fastened as emblems of an egalitarian and meritocratic Franco-colonial regime (Bourdieu 2002: xiii). Thus, during challenges to colonial supremacy, FCA would characterise the Arab man as being destined to stifle the freedom of women (Fanon 41). By dismantling the nobility of the patriarch, the French were able to simultaneously present themselves as necessary and progressive.

vi. Veil as target; as independence; as mystery

However, while displaying the Algerian patriarch as an immoral and sexually violent fiend justified a policing of men/women, the reconfiguration of gender roles did not successfully extend the guiding hand of colonialism to Algerian women; FCA could still not see and control them. Also, a consequence of resettlement programs meant more social overlap between men and women, which drove them indoors; Algerians women still obeyed their customary and necessary distance from men (Bourdieu 2012: 110-114). In order to challenge this resilient custom, FCA launched an attack on the veil (Fanon 37).

The veil represented the ultimate hurdle for FCA – it was the most important gender identifier, it was a manifestation of the immorality of Algerian men who ‘imprisoned’ Algerian women, and most importantly, it defied the vision of the panopticon and positioned the French to project their insecurities onto the mysteries hidden behind the veil (Fanon 37; Abu-Lughod 35). One particular event makes resounding Stoler’s thesis that the image of the fragile native woman in need of saving is invoked as a mechanism to ossify colonial dominion (59). During the immense political instability of the May 1958 coup in Algiers, the Generals of FCA facilitated a public de-veiling of Algerian women by pieds noirs women (Abu-Lughod 33). Fanon argues that de-veiling represents the manifestation of macho-colonial sexual energy; de-veiling meant omni-penetration of the watchful and predatory colonial gaze (46). Behind the veil was the ultimate oriental dream. This is confirmed by the common believe among colonisers that behind the veil was the most beautiful and sexually repressed woman of all (Fanon 44-6). In addition to this, I view de-veiling as the final hurdle to establish the omniscient and omnibenevolent panopticon. For Algerians, rescinding the veil was taken to mean a symbolic resignation to Franco-normativity; for the French, it was a testament to their pursuit of the liberation of the oppressed woman, but it was also the last unseen space (Fanon 42-43). In a certain respect, I interpret the retaining of the veil as a decolonising gesture by unsettling the panoptic gaze of the FCA. Algerian women donning the veil not only undermine the omnipotence of the panopticon, but deploy an orientalist colonial trope against the coloniser; the veiled Algerian woman is mysterious and impenetrable.

Figure 3, Bourdieu 2012

This essay interrogated the mysterious, taxonomical and normalising manifestations of the colonial encounter. I began by arguing that a structural reorganisation of Algerian society recreated a panoptic structure, positioning the colonised to regulate themselves within the parameters of normative behaviour set by colonisers. I then looked at expert discourses to understand the way in which normative behaviour was defined. Medical discourse sought to define the metaphysical elements of the Algerian environment, whereas education discourse sought to define normativity with respect to Franco-Revolutionary values. The product of these two discourses was a normativity which punished dissent and idolised Frenchness. I then focused on the patriarch, whose position as author of morality was undermined in order to extend the lessons of the education institution to all Algerians. Finally, I explored the veil as the ultimate symbol of Franco-orientalist obsession with mystery, but also as a vessel for women to decolonise by stifling the colonial gaze. We should thus treat the fragility of French surveillance as resting on the presence of forces which veil, whether in the form of a cultural garment or in uncodified living arrangements. I end asking the reader to ask what France’s recent outlawing of the veil in public spaces means in light of my analysis.


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