“My Name’s Muhammad but Everyone Calls Me Aisha:” Emasculating Jokes from Algeria’s “Dark Decade,” 1991-2002

By Elizabeth Perego
Submitted to Session P5000 (Textual Configurations of Gender and the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
Terrorists enter a couple’s home in the middle of the night. They drag the man and woman out of their bed to interrogate them. “What is your name?” they ask the wife. “My name’s Aisha,” she replies. “Oh,” responds their leader, “that’s my mother’s name so I won’t kill you.” He turns to the husband and poses the same question. Trembling, the man replies, “My name’s Muhammad but everyone calls me Aisha.”

This joke, like so many others from the height of Algeria’s civil conflict of the 1990s (the “Dark Decade”) transmitted strong views concerning masculinity. Here, the man is depicted as powerless while he claims a female name to try save himself at the expense of his so-called manliness. Indeed, jokes represented discursive imagined worlds through which Algerian civilians explored the extent of the horrors that unknown, masked fighters could inflict upon them at any time during their country’s decade-long armed struggle of the 1990s. As this paper asserts, Algerian jokesters did not randomly choose to laugh at instances in which the war’s major belligerents –the state and insurgent groups claiming to act in the name of Islam– robbed normal men their supposed “manly” character. Rather, as this paper shows through a textual analysis of these anecdotes, men used comedy to express feelings of inadequacy and a sense of helplessness in the face of what they perceived to be a general weakening of the “typical Algerian man” during the violence of the 1990s.

This presentation will explore shifting notions of masculinity during the “Dark Decade” as individuals articulated them through humor. Both in the period leading up to and during the war, Algerian communities told jokes that played on socially-accepted norms concerning “appropriate” male behavior and sexuality. In the middle of the armed struggle, though, these anecdotes reflected how the terrifying and random violence that characterized the conflict incited a gender crisis among Algerian men who were supposed to embody ideals of masculine citizenship.

Scholars have long recognized the gendered nature of citizenship in Algeria. Yet, little work has been conducted on how these gendered notions of citizenship have shifted over time. By drawing upon dozens of jokes from the country’s “Dark Decade” and theories of gender and humor, this paper fills this gap in the literature while contributing to scholarly understanding of how the nature of violence in Algeria during this conflict impacted subjectivities of gender.