Hassi Messaoud is an oil-producing city in south-east Algeria, where people from 159 different countries live and work for national and foreign drilling or extraction companies. In this conservative metropolis, where many young people remain unemployed, social tension is often high. In July 2001, Hassi Messaoud became infamous after several hundreds of men assaulted women living in a township.
I came across Hayet and Kalima in Ouargla, a town some 80 km from Hassi Messaoud. Two Kabyle sisters originally from Tizi-Ouzou, they arrived in the area in 1986. The father of the Manane family had found a job at Sonatrach, the state oil company, and had decided to move from the rural northern mountains to this barren, harsh desert with his wife and five children. During our interview, the sisters told me about their daily life and described the social reality of this industrial area.
Both are employed here; Hayet (34) as an executive at a petrol drilling company, Kalima (42) as an administrative manager at the national well engineering company, ENTP. Yet they both dream of escape. “There is nothing in Hassi Messaoud,” Kalima says “No doctor, no hospital, no entertainment, no park either, let alone swimming-pools.” Hayet chimes in: “It’s a 52,000 people city without a single gynecologist. All my friends in need of an examination have to go all the way to Ouargla. This is not normal!”
Still, because of their executive positions, the two sisters are making good enough money and have their housing provided by the companies they work for. This is a rare privilege in a town which, since the 1990s, has attracted workers from all over Algeria. The incoming workers are crammed in the slums of El Haicha (“the jungle”) and its 136 dwellings. They strive every day, looking for potential jobs at the numerous petrol companies — national and foreign — which have a presence in Hassi Messaoud.
Until the end of the 1980s, Sonatrach managed everything in Hassi Messaoud, from the housing of its employees to the education of their children. With the liberalisation of the Algerian economy, Sonatrach switched focus on drilling and started subcontracting out its remaining activities. It is these subcontractors who caused the workers to flock from all over the 48 wilayas (counties) of Algeria. Hayet explains: “They lure women into hypothetical cleaning jobs, but once they’re here they realise they have no other choice than to prostitute themselves. Some of these subcontracting networks are actually managed by pimps.”
“Prostitution has always existed in Hassi Messaoud,” she goes on, “As in any industrial area. In the 1980s it was hidden. Only foreign expatriates had access to it. From the moment it became widespread, it started creating problems with the local population.”
According to Houria Alioua, local correspondent for the Algerian daily El Watan, the social situation is indeed quite tense: “Local people have no jobs and live in ghettos. They see strangers coming from all over the country for work, while they themselves have no access to public infrastructure or services. Since 2004 there have been riots almost every day. People have had enough; they don’t want to live in misery anymore.” The journalist accuses the state of negligence in the South which, she bitterly says, only uses the region “to pump petroleum, full stop.”
An exceptional event
It all took place during the night of July 13, 2001. Five hundred men assaulted 50 or so women in the El Haicha district, raped them, beat them and forcefully stole their meagre belongings. Most of these women were working as housemaids, some as prostitutes. In an outcome of social pressure building up throughout the 1990s, a local imam had just launched a fatwa against these women. “When I learnt what happened, I cried,” Hayet remembers. “I had just returned home from university and it was as if I was entering a lawless world. Social pressure was very strong alright… But how can these people still call themselves ‘good Muslims’?”
“I’m not surprised by what happened,” Kalima goes on. However, [the incident] remained an exception and such a degree of violence has not been seen since. Women’s living conditions remain difficult, however. They have to watch each other’s back and it remains a challenge for them to go out alone in the streets.”
In this conservative area, the two sisters stand out. In 1994, Kalima was one of the first women to drive a car in Hassi Messaoud. She’s now studying for a bachelor’s degree in English, “out of intellectual curiosity.” Hayet, meanwhile, tried unsuccessfully to launch a potato production business. As she originally comes from a region where women are allowed to be part of the public space, Hayet is enraged not to be able to do as she pleases, and doesn’t understand how women put up with the local status quo. “If nothing is done about Hassi Messaoud, it’s because of the political will behind it” she concludes.
The story was edited with the help of Gregory Dziedzic, India Stoughton & Helen Southcott, and was originally published on the blog Fatea.