Colonial Sisterhood: The Missionaires d’Afrique and “The Regeneration of the Muslim Woman” in Algeria (1890-1912)

Towards the end of the 19th century, the French colonial system in Algeria underwent a slow transition as administrators began to standardize and codify Islamic and customary law, thus tipping the delicate balance upon which French legal dominance hinged. This paper addresses these important changes through a study of two of the most prolific missionary orders of the late colonial period, the Missionnaires d’Afrique and the Soeurs Missionnaires de Notre-Dame d’Afrique (better known as the ‘White Fathers’ and ‘White Sisters’, respectively).  Although much has been written about the White Fathers, especially their extensive anti-slavery activities, no historical studies have fully considered the role of the White Sisters, or the legal activism of either congregation.  These missionaries came to engage the ubiquitous colonial ‘woman question’ through their concern over matters of divorce, repudiation, and marital monogamy – issues that fell within the realm of ‘personal status’ law and were, in principle, beyond French authority. This paper situates the ‘woman question’ in the context of the assimilation and codification of customary and Islamic legal systems, and the role of missionaries in these processes. The order of the White Sisters was founded within a year of the White Fathers (1867), when their celebrated founder, Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, became convinced of the crucial need for women missionaries to approach Muslim women. By the early 1880s, Sisters were recruited from across the francophone world to “penetrate” Muslim households and arrange monogamous marriages between converts, most of whom were orphans and women “ransomed” from polygamous marriages. While the material and legal distinction between marriage and slavery were (and remain historiographically) murky, the missionaries’ efforts were based on an understanding of all Muslims as polygamous and all Muslim women as slaves/concubines of Muslim men, and a belief that African ‘women’s liberation’ would speed their conversion in greater numbers. I will be focusing on the Kabylie regions of northeastern Algeria, where metropolitan and official attention was drawn to local dowry customs by which the Kabyle women were ‘sold’ into marriage and subsequently ‘enslaved.’ This controversy was exacerbated by reports of men ‘selling’ their daughters to pay off debts, and marrying polygamously, thus reducing their wives to ‘concubines’[1]. The Berber populations of Grande and Petite Kabylie were firmly committed to a form of local, customary law as much as Maliki Islamic jurisprudence, and the assimilation and codification of Kabyle law was thus particularly complex. In Kabylie and elsewhere, the White Fathers and Sisters were often drawn into disputes over the girls and women they had “ransomed” and were forced to defend their pater familias rights in colonial courts. By the beginning of the 20th century, the missionaries sought to influence the delicate business of engineering colonial legal pluralism in Africa, demanding that women’s emancipation went hand-in-hand with the illegalization of polygamy and concubinage, and equal access to divorce through civil courts. In exploring these tensions, this paper hopes to elucidate the relationship between missions of ‘emancipation’, colonial law, and the moral economy of the French-Algerian départements.

Sarah Ghabrial is Phd Student in the Department of History of McGill University in Montreal. She works on 19th and early 20th century French colonial legal regimes in North and East Africa ; gendered experiences of slavery, emancipation, and post-emancipation ; colonial and postcolonial histories of citizenship and “multiculturalism” ; feminist movements in Islamic cultural contexts, within and outside the Middle-East.


[1] The language I am using here is largely paraphrasing that of local missionaries and Algerian newspaper reports, but also reflects the outlook of many state officials and newspaper reports.

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