Meet Leila Touchi, the artist daring Algerian women to be themselves
We leave the cinema in silence. It takes a few minutes to sort the wide range of emotions we’ve experienced. Papicha, Mounia Meddour’s debut feature, is a beautiful celebration of sisterhood and women’s empowerment. But it is also a sobering reminder of how hard women have fought for the rights we now enjoy. That, even today, our simple girls’ night out to watch a film is considered an act of disobedience in many countries.
Inspired by real-life events experienced by Meddour herself, Papicha (or “pretty girl”) takes place in Algeria during the Black Decade. Sparked by a conflict between the Algerian government and extremist armed groups, the civil war ravaged the country in the 1990s and took the lives of more than 150,000 Algerians. In the film, friends Nedjma, Wassila, Kahina and Samira are enjoying the carefree life of university students when they are confronted by the rise of fundamentalism. A growing campaign to fully cover their bodies, interruptions of classes deemed non-appropriate, and new bans are set by radicals.
Supported by her friends, the lead character Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) decides to fight back her own way. Passionate about fashion, she takes the “haik”, a traditional garment wore by Algerian women, to design a collection and organise a fashion show. The white haik, once the symbol of the Algerian resistance against French colonialism (women would smuggle weapons underneath the cloth), is modernised, and acts as the perfect antithesis to the forced social changes represented by the black niqab. Only the powerful friendship the women share will see them through the rising oppression and violence.
The outstanding actresses’ performances – specially Khoudri’s – and the intimate, close filming immerse us completely into the lives of the young women. We share their dreams, their hopes, and deeply feel their pain. At the end of the film we can’t help but wonder: how have things changed for women in Algeria today?
Control over women’s bodies (and minds) is despairingly still a hot topic in many countries today. In Algeria, twenty years after the end of the Black Decade, demands for gender equality have emerged again during the year-long protests for a new republic. There have been many reforms these last few years that made great strides for women’s rights. But outside of the capital Algiers, it is still hard for those who don’t conform to the conservative vision of the ideal woman. Leila Touchi, a 33 year-old actress who is the first known woman to perform on the streets in Algeria, shares with us her experience.
In Tipaza, a coastal town at 70kms from Algiers where she lives with her family, people have been having a hard time accepting her career choice. “I started having problems when I was young, because I was different. I didn’t wear the veil, and in the evenings I would go to the conservatory to learn violin.” But, she explains, it was still manageable as people considered it to be a teenager phase. It started becoming dangerous when, years later, she started appearing on television.
“People would recognise me everywhere I would go and call me the TV’s prostitute,” she tells us. “I’ve been called names and threatened because I am an actress, because I come home late from shoots or social gatherings. I had very hard times with my neighbours. And so did my dad.”
Her parents have always encouraged her to be her own woman, something their neighbours didn’t understand. “When my dad would take a walk, he would hear people say that he lets her daughter do whatever she wants, that he is not a man.” But still, she says, he has always defended her and kept encouraging her to pursue her dreams.
I hope that seeing a woman who resists will encourage and inspire other women
Harassment and threats kept growing. “When the production’s driver takes me home late at night, it bothers people that a man is taking me home. For them, I am tarnishing the town’s image. It is something you don’t do. Here, women are back home by 5pm. There is no woman outside at night. So, when I get home at 3am, and a man drives me home, they are very judgemental” she tells us. “They’ve even forbidden me to go back home. And if I drive home myself, I am also in danger. Whatever I do I am in danger.”
The situation got from bad to worse. When in 2018 a man entered her garden to watch her undress, the Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi publicly gave Leila his support, calling these behaviours unacceptable.
“My parents feared for me. They advised me to leave, to go far away. It was difficult because they tried everything to convince me to leave, but I refused. My dad got scared, he got angry, saying I am putting my life in danger.” But, like Nedjma in Papicha, Leila wants to stay and fight.
“I think of the other women. Of my sister for example, who is 20 and goes to university. I think of my niece, of all the other girls. If I leave, me, who is supposed to try and change things, me, who is in the cultural field, if I don’t do anything and leave, what will these women do? They will surely go through worse things. That’s why I decided to stay here, to fight and make things happen in my country. Hopefully, seeing a woman who resists will encourage and inspire other women.”
Leila has never been one to run away from a challenge. When in 2010 artist and director Adila Bendimerad wanted to bring street theatre to Algeria and posted an ad on Facebook for a two-week training, Leila didn’t hesitate. And loved it. She has been performing on the streets ever since, even during the protests in Algiers.
“At first people didn’t accept to see a woman perform in the streets. It was difficult,” she tells us. Only men would watch, which made Leila uncomfortable. “But now it’s getting easier. For the last five years, we perform everywhere in Algeria and people love it. There are many women and children who attend our plays and encourage us. Things have changed. We are on the right track.”
Leila is a strong believer that culture is key to bring change and advance women’s rights. She went to Tunisia in July last year for training on how to manage a film club. And in October, she opened one in her home town.
While there are about 400 cinemas in Algeria, 95 per cent of them are closed or in shambles. In Tipaza, the cinema was turned into a community hall, and is used to celebrate weddings, Leila tells us. She got permission from the council to screen films every Saturday, and the reaction from the town’s people has been very positive.
“My mother used to go to this room to watch films with her friends when she was in high school. And now, at 65, she goes to the cinema with her friends again. It’s great, it’s like a dream come true.”
At her cine-club, named Cinéحouma, Leila screens Algerian films. “We don’t have the opportunity to watch our films, it’s sad. We make films but we don’t have cinemas. In Algeria, we have one premiere, most of the times in Algiers, and then films are screened in a few festivals and stored away. So I decided to put the spotlight on Algerian films, and invite the directors and actors to attend.”
And already Leila can see improvements. “I am very happy to see young couples, married or not, families, students, children, coming to the film club. Things are changing little by little. It’s just the beginning, it’s still hard to see many women coming to the cinema, but things are starting to change.”
“My message to women: be brave. Dare. Do whatever you want to do. Just be yourself. Most importantly, make your own decisions. That’s already a good start.”