The Women of Hassi Messaoud

Algeria’s oil companies have for years been recruiting an army of young, single women to run their logistics, cleaning, caring and catering. Their unplanned presence in huge numbers in a town of male workers has led to resentment and violence. Editors.

An article in the Algiers daily El Watan this April, reporting violence in the Algerian town of Hassi Messaoud, triggered a storm in France, and to a lesser extent in Algeria: round tables, demonstrations of solidarity, sensational headlines. Hassi Messaoud was “rape city”; “Hordes of turbanned rapists … armed with swords” carried out “pogroms”; and each day “bodies were found in the dunes.”

Hassi Messaoud first made the headlines in July 2001, when hundreds of men attacked women in the El Haicha area in the name of “public decency”. The victims were reported to have been “beaten, thrashed, stabbed, undressed, thrown naked in the street, dragged on the ground, lynched by the crowd, mutilated, tortured, raped and some even buried alive”.

Hassi Messaoud is a one-hour hour flight from Algiers, 850km to the southeast. It was late when I landed; officers on duty vaguely asked the purpose of my visit. I mentioned the name of a fictitious company and there I was. The place was a shock: could this be the richest municipality in Algeria? It was run-down, with potholed roads, almost no pavements, patched-up facades, gashes of cement. Everywhere there was rubbish – down narrow lanes, right up to the edge of the desert where it is laid out to dry.

Everything in this region is organised around oil. Over 71,000 sq km there is spread an industrial zone, luxury compounds, and the town itself – a basin surrounded by desert. The place was always a folly. It had been a male-dominated dormitory town. Then it was supposed to become residential, with women and children, and so it was declared a municipality in 1985. In the 1990s, the town grew rapidly. Thousands settled, seeking employment and fleeing terrorism elsewhere. Between 1987 and 1998 the population grew from 11,428 to 40,368. But in violation of safety norms, the town was built over pipelines that run between the refinery and flares that burn day and night. Only in 2005 was it declared a “high-risk zone”.

There are now 60,000 officially registered inhabitants, although according to a former MP, there could be double that. The municipal budget is 4bn dinars ($54.8m). What it is spent on is unclear since the tap water is undrinkable, piped gas a luxury and public transport nonexistent.

Hassi Messaoud always had big dreams for the future. The authorities’ grandiose plans meant razing the failure that was the existing town and creating a new town a few kilometres from the present chaos, scheduled for 2015, costing $5-6bn. But, said a local journalist, “there’ll never be a new town. What will they do with the residents? Some people have made their fortune here and others have settled with their families. They will not give up. And who to compensate, and how?” The authorities have not found the answer. No building permits have been issued and the project has been frozen. Only the destitute, crowded into shantytowns, have been forced to leave, and the luckier relocated to nearby towns. A long-term resident says: “They want to turn it into a Dallas for Americans and their families. The shantytown inhabitants were moved, but it won’t be easy to dislocate us.”

In 2007, the municipal council was dissolved because of charges of “dysfunction” among the members. According to the law, new elections should have been held within 45 days. But, as one local said, the council members “get elected, stay in power for a couple of years, get arrested for embezzlement or corruption, then condemned to two or three years of prison. At the end they come out billionaires.” Meanwhile, the head of the daira (administrative region) manages day-to-day affairs, the status quo. Only the security forces can claim to legitimacy.

Enter the women workers

Women have worked in oil companies since the construction of the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, inaugurated in 1994. And so a new generation of female workers appeared, attracted by oil. The multinationals recruited them to clean, cook and launder. They followed their employers from place to place – and to the huge constructions at Hassi Messaoud, where they settled and were joined by other women.

Rarely, in this small an area, have so many working-class women invaded a market space – a free labour force following the sites like men. In 2001 the National Fund of Social Insurance listed 9,700 female workers. It now counts 28,700, nearly half the population. That makes the region unique: overall in Algeria, only 18 per cent of women work. Yet neither the authorities nor the employers made any plans to deal with this unprecedented state of affairs in a town which hitherto had been predominantly male. The oil companies entrusted their logistics to subcontractors, who thrived alongside the multinationals with the liberalization of the oil market in the 1990s.

Samia, 34, is typical of these women. She arrived at Hassi Messaoud in 1999 with her father, a driver. He became ill and went back home to his town in Aures but, said Samia: “With my sisters, we took a bold decision and stayed on.” She progressed from cleaner to governess. And, as she talked at the base where she hires and trains other women for a catering company, she was impressively assured. The base is managed like a four-star hotel. There is security at the entrance, a restaurant, bar, cabins with air conditioning and plasma screen TVs that are let out to visiting businessmen. The only security the women have is their work (and that is not very secure). The company deducts a commission on their salary. Though Samia’s salary is 60,000 dinars (around $820), she receives only 25,000 dinars ($340). But Samia doesn’t complain: “It’s normal: they ensure we have work and take care of the transport.”

Every day the employees cross town aboard minibuses, passing from one universe to another. Where they live it is all chaos and disorder; they have to find a home in a property market with no written rules. To enter the rented three-room apartment that Samia and her sisters share with four other women downtown, you have to knock three times on the wall. The owner does not encourage visitors, to “avoid having problems” with police or neighbours. He charges 18,000 dinars ($240) rent for the spartan apartment from which they can be evicted at any time. This uncertainty is made worse by harassment from the neighbours, who demand money in return for letting them live in peace.

The April events

Samia experienced the violence in 2001, when she lived in the El Haicha area of town. She said: “I was saved by a brave friend who said ‘you’re a virgin, go and hide, I’ll go out in front of them’. I remember how her dress got swept away. We got away thanks to a neighbor who put us in a taxi. They wanted to frighten us and make us leave. The Sahara locals think Hassi Messaoud belongs to them.” She acknowledged that she got frightened again after the reports of renewed violence this year, but couldn’t decide whether this was after the El Watan article, or before. “We hadn’t heard at the time of the events at the ‘136 Logements’ [dwellings, the area where the violent incidents of this spring are said to have taken place], though you end up knowing everything here.”

With Samia’s help, I found a woman who had been assaulted this April. She was on leave out of town, but she told me over the phone: “There were four or five of them. They smashed my door in. I was threatened with a knife and robbed of everything. But I cannot lie to my sister before God: they didn’t touch me. When I went to complain, there were plenty of other women; the policeman told me ‘think yourself lucky that they didn’t cross the line’.” (In Arabic, the word “rape” is rarely used.) She did not know the other women who were assaulted, and told me to ask her sister who lived at the 136 Logements. But the sister said she did not know the women, and told me to ask the police. “They know,” she said. I contacted other women, workers on the bases or residents of the 136 Logements, but found out nothing.

It’s clear there was some violence but not on the scale of 2001. According to the police, four or five assaults were reported between April and May. The figure should be taken with caution, but it matches the number of cases reported by El Watan. A local journalist says that “the scale [of this year’s violence] has been exaggerated. I’d have heard of it. In 2001 it was the talk of the whole town.”

Strangely, I met the only rape victim willing to tell her story in a police station; I had been put in touch with her by a union organiser who wanted to prove that Hassi Messaoud was “a town like any other”. Lamia, 24, seemed traumatized. She said the when she first arrived in Hassi Messaoud, she had “just come out from behind her mother’s skirts”. She had followed her fiancé, who then reneged on his promise to marry, and found herself alone. She got work as a receptionist at an Italian company: “I was doing fine, I was OK.” But one evening, on her way home through the rough area near the station, she was followed. “There were four of them, the oldest not 24. They smelt of alcohol and going by their eyes, they were on drugs. One of them put a knife to my throat and raped me. I cried. After him, it was his friend.” Lamia filed a complaint and was examined by a specialist in forensic medicine. She said the officer had asked her: “What would you prefer, lodge a complaint or find work?” and she had replied: “Find work.” Then she blurted out: “I must tell you I wasn’t a virgin.”

What constitutes rape in Algeria is unclear. According to Khaddija Khalfoun, one of the victims’ lawyers in 2001, the penal code leaves room for doubt: “The penal code speaks of rape only in the French version … And the Arabic, with great hypocrisy, mentions only ‘affront to modesty’. It’s the social dimension which gets priority; the honour of the tribe is more important than the victim.”

“We live on rubbish”

The 136 Logements area was dangerous, people warned. It was on the outskirts of town, the last neighbourhood to be built, between massive villas and housing developments. The place reflected the story of the people of the Sahara: they have lived here longest and they feel their marginalization.

My host greeted me amid industrial waste. “We live on rubbish,” he said. “The authorities aren’t human, they’re robbers. We need a different breed of humanity, stronger than me, to bring justice. Nobody gives us anything, and if you speak out, they throw you in jail.” He turned to a lad of about 20: “Tell her how many of your friends are in prison.” The lad said: “At least a dozen.” He was unemployed. “I get just enough to eat. But everything is closed to me. To work, you have to commute from one company to another; that means paying a taxi, and how am I supposed to pay?”

This marginalization is happening in the presence of women who have jobs. “The place of women is the kitchen,” growled an old man. “We are not against women working, but it must be organised. They do everything, they sweep, they do the laundry, make the food. All this is the state’s fault. They [the authorities] want people to revolt; they are creating disorder so they can go on stealing. If I were a youngster, I’d steal. They push people to do things cursed by God.”

Prostitution was bound to exist in this place where money flows and an army of immigrants live away from their families. A young girl told me: “It’s true there are some women who came here to walk the streets.” The girl had ended up in this environment, then escaped.

The subject makes other women feel uncomfortable. Fadela has spent her entire career in the state oil company Sonatrach: “I was four when I arrived with my father at Batna in Hassi Messaoud. I started out as a social worker on 26 June 1977.” She has been promoted to health coordinator for the state oil works: “I move around between 27 sites. I even went to the Libyan border with a driver, and nothing has ever happened to me.”

She was very angry about the French solidarity campaign with the “women of Hassi Messaoud”. Through it, she said: “You have defamed us [all]. You have smeared the reputation of the women who live here … It’s true that there’s violence against women, but it’s like that in any other town in the world.”

Fadela is a union leader, elected by a majority of men, and met us at the office of the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the only recognised union in the country. She is unmarried and lives with her three sisters, who are managers and supervisors with university degrees, the daughters of that socialism and nationalism which integrated workers through the state company. “It was a mini Paris here. We went to the swimming pool, everyone knew each other, and we knew how to make ourselves respected.”

She defends “the honor of the town and its inhabitants” and blames the “other women” (the immigrants), whom she considers partly responsible for their misfortune: “When they came here, they were known as ‘the Americans’. You should see the way they dressed. They forgot that the men coming out of the works here sometimes hadn’t seen a woman for 60 days.”

In Hassi Messaoud, the issue is not female employment. Rather, it is the mass arrival of so many young single women, free of their hometowns and families, whose economic independence and experience have given them the freedom to behave as they wish, without regard for the working class areas where they live. But they don’t escape supervision: the social and religious police attempt to enforce good behavior and sexual morality by reminding them that the neighborhood is watching them. And those who don’t listen get punished, in a manner befitting their “sin”.

Translated by Kashif Islam

GHANIA MOUFFOK is a journalist in Algeria.

This article appears in the October edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.