The April 2010 Attack On Women At Hassi Messaoud In South Algeria: What Really Happened?
FRIDAY FILE: In April 2010, criminal attacks took place for several weeks against the women of Hassi Messaoud, mostly migrants workers in the economic industries and structures. These attacks led to international protest and an intervention by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs.
In order to understand what truly happened and why, AWID interviewed Dalila Iamarene Djerbal, a member of Réseau Wassila, a group of associations and professionals that have been combating violence against women and children for ten years in Algeria. Réseau Wassila is very active on this story and participates in the support committee for women of Hassi Messaoud.
By Massan D’Almeida
AWID: Tell us a little about Hassi Messaoud. It would seem that it is one of the largest cities in Algeria, the most secure in the country: how is it so and why? Tell us a little more about its population, activities and the positive assets that the city offers.
Dalila Iamarene Djerbal (DID): Hassi Messaoud is a city in the south of Algeria with the largest oil deposits and therefore the presence of the largest oil companies in the world and the largest number of surveillance and security companies to protect the installations and foreign workers. Consequently, the city attracts many people looking for work, both women and men. Its population has multiplied over the last ten years since the development of deposits. And these changes therefore resulted in the disruption of a society that was far from ready to deal with such upheaval at all levels: the inflow of population from other regions, the lack of housing and services, the multiplication of slums, social conflicts, and the greater visibility of women of precarious status.
AWID: We have learned that for weeks last month, criminal attacks were perpetrated against women of Hassi Messaoud in Algeria. Could you tell us what really took place? When did it begin?
DID: There were attacks against women migrants, essentially from the north, coming individually or with their children in search of work. They live in slums or share rent from the locals.
Until now, fortunately, no one has died, but several of them were attacked in their homes by hooded gangs who broke in, armed with sabers and knives. They beat them, stole anything of value and vandalized the rest. Several homes were attacked — only those where women were living alone. Most of them were wounded and strongly traumatized, but above all terrorized, first because they hadn't been protected by the police when they went to complain and then because these attacks occurred again.
This attack is a repeat of the events of 2001, at another level. Without doubt, this was a test to see how society would react. This time, the criminals were masked and attacked in small gangs, whereas in 2001, it was a crowd that lynched the women.
AWID: Who were the women that were attacked? And why were they the targets of these attacks?
DID: These women were singled out first because they are not from the region. They are temporary workers in unskilled jobs — cleaning women, cooks, etc., and they are employed by the oil companies. They are targeted as women, and moreover, have no protection, neither family nor social.
These are women hard-pressed by the crisis, who had the courage to go to other regions in search of work while women’s jobs are few and still confined in the major cities of the north. They are without male protection, thus vulnerable to everything. They live alone and earn their living, which is against the principles of a conservative society.
AWID: Why do you say that they are without male protection and therefore vulnerable to anything, and that they live alone and earn their living, which is against the principles of the conservative society? What is the situation of women in Algeria and what are the principles to which you are referring? In your opinion, what other factors have contributed to increase the vulnerability of women of Hassi Messaoud, the victims of recent attacks?
FF: Algerian society is conservative and follows rules according to social imagining: women are under male protection as daughters, mothers or wives, and protected by male relatives who are the guarantors of their protection and their honour. And it is the men who economically support the women — which indeed is increasingly being challenged. Women who are alone — single, divorced, widows with children — go wherever they can in order to earn their livelihoods. Consequently, they are far from their families, and thus become women without “attachments”, thus uncontrolled and unprotected by the men of their community. They are doubly fragile, due to the absence of their family close by and their socially precarious status. As a result, it is easy to attack them because they represent the conflicts linked to unemployment and street violence, among others. There are also women who work and live in quiet neighbourhoods in Hassi Messaoud, and are protected in this case by their social status or by their company, which is hardly the case for the "cleaning ladies", etc. living in a precarious lodging.
AWID: How are the local Algerian organizations mobilizing themselves to assist the attacked women?
DID: A declaration of women’s associations was immediately made in the media to denounce and inform citizens of these scandalous events. The women’s associations, other associations and human rights leagues formed a Solidarity Group with the women of Hassi Messaoud. The Group questioned the authorities and local institutions with respect to their responsibility to protect male and female citizens. The Group is in contact with women victims and their demands. The Group demands that women’s protection be guaranteed, and we have learned just recently that police night patrols have begun.
AWID: It would seem that the Algerian authorities did nothing to protect the women — at least the day after the attacks. How do you explain this “guilty” silence of the Algerian authorities?
DID: The authorities have never been sensitive to the subordinate condition of women, justifying their impossibility to act by discriminatory laws and regulations. Violence is still considered a “normal” behaviour of men against women, and women are made responsible for all the violence against them.
AWID: On Saturday 24 April, you organized a press conference on these violent attacks. What information did you share? What are your strategies to handle this event and to ensure the success of your actions?
DID: We shared with the journalists the latest information that was transmitted by phone by the women of Hassi Messaoud. The women demanded that we put pressure on their employers not to have them lose their jobs, because this is a constant threat, and no doubt the best means to have them leave the city. They also ask us not to go see them for fear of reprisals by their aggressors.
AWID: What have been the women victim’s demands up until now? Why do they not wish you to go see them?
DID: Some women asked us to do something to stop these aggressions, which in fact have been going on for years, sporadically and at various intensities. They asked us not to come in order not to attract attention to them and their families and to where they live, also in fear of reprisals from their employers, who don’t want to have problems. Two people nevertheless have gone to see them and will present their viewpoint on the situation.
AWID: Among your demands to the Algerian authorities were "that they provide the necessary material and psychological assistance to the victims, that they assure their reintegration in their jobs once they have fully recovered, and that they immediately undertake the necessary investigations and bring their attackers to justice." Have you taken other measures to ensure that your demands are satisfied? Because similar events happened in 2001 and it would seem that these crimes are still largely unpunished, and most of the victims still suffer from not having been able to return to their former lives.
DID: The only measure that we can take is to remain vigilant and to continue to appeal to the institutions on their responsibilities with respect to the security of their citizens. We keep informed on the changing situation and to try to answer to the demands of the women and to support their progress because nothing in the way society works is to their advantage. As opposed to the events of 2001, which received wide media attention, this is not the case today; absolute silence prevails and one sees "local civil society" under orders to ignore and deny all aggression, and to treat victims abominably.
AWID: Do you believe that your actions are going — or will go — beyond those of immediate relief and assistance to women victims of these aggressions? Will they include material and financial means, and above all, moral and psychological long-term support that these women need to be able to return to their lives and continue working to support the needs of their families?
DID: The development of the situation and the women’s demands will determine for us what future actions to take; our current role is to continue to solicit the institutions so that they will assure their mission, which is to guarantee the security of persons and property as per the Constitution. The struggle is long: the events of 2001 proved it — one must not give up publicly decrying against the crimes and demanding justice; whereas material or financial aid is only secondary to the recognition of their status as victims.
AWID: The authorities have started to react through police patrols, which is very positive — Have you received guarantees that this will continue? Are you exerting pressure in this direction? How do you currently solicit the institutions? And which types of support do you think the women’s organizations in Africa and in other parts of the world could provide you in your actions?
DID: The campaign continues because we have held a conference on the creation of the solidarity group with the women of Hassi Messaoud; some letters to the authorities have been submitted and others are about to be submitted. Also, the authorities have been solicited for greater security as per the women’s demands. The situation seems calmer now, but, obviously we remain vigilant and the Group will act as an overseeing body because this violence is still endemic.
As concerns the aid that could be brought by women in other parts of the world, I believe that their show of solidarity, distributing information in the widest circles, is a very efficient means to have the authorities respond.
To read more about how the situation of women in Hassi Messaoud, see:
The author would like to thank Saira Zuberi of AWID’s Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms Strategic Initiative, as well as Fatou Sow, Aisha Shaheed and Samia Allalou of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), for their invaluable collaboration in the writing of this article.
Note: This article is part of the AWID’s weekly Friday File series, exploring important issues and events from a women’s rights perspective. To subscribe to the weekly Friday File newsletter, click here .