Arab World. Housing Rights under High Tension

The Low-Intensity Protest of Algerian Women

For many Algerian families, assigned to cramped or unsanitary apartments, rehousing is an imperative necessity. It is mostly women who are voicing this demand, quietly laying siege to the administrations and their officials.

Sidi Mhamed social housing in Birtouta, in the southern suburbs of Algiers
Ryad Kramdi/AFP

In the working-class neighbourhood of downtown Oran, the decrepit walls of the apartment building are covered with tags calling the authorities’ attention to the housing problem. After the partial collapse of her building’s roof, Naima, a divorced worker, hung a sheet behind one of her windows on which she wrote, “Where are the authorities?” Five years have gone by since then and a rusty iron beam is still hanging in the middle of her sitting room where water seepage is plainly visible on the walls and ceiling. And yet each week, Naima and the eldest of her four daughters betake themselves on the days when the public is admitted to one or the other administrative levels to follow the progression of their application for a council flat dating from the early 2000s and assert their rights. Despite all the requests filed with the administration and a sit-in in front of her building, her application is still on hold. Far from being an isolated instance, tis family’s predicament illustrates one aspect of the multifaceted housing crisis in Algeria. It also highlights the key role of women in the low-intensity mobilisation around the housing access issue.

A multifaceted crisis

The housing shortage has been a recurrent problem ever since independence. Aggravated by rural depopulation, the problem is due to the acute disparity between the accessibility of affordable housing and the increasing needs brought about by rapid population growth. The inadequate construction projects and significant real estate inflation, especially in the big cities, are such that the issue of housing accessibility now affects the different social classes.

To deal with this shortcoming, the government has set up several programmes. Ever since the election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 the problem has been proclaimed a political priority and four types of access to subsidised housing have been created for different income levels.

Several “participative” programs were set up like the National Agency for Housing Improvement and Development (AADL) whereby applicants share in the financing of a real estate project. The dwellings are built by private firms, but the choice of beneficiaries is in the hands of the State which is committed to bearing the bank fees. For the poorest classes (households earning less than 24,000 dinars, i.e., $175), the acquisition of a council flat means being chosen for a program of “locative public housing” (LPL) or for resettlement under a slum clearance program.

According to the Housing Ministry, 3.6 million dwellings were built between 1999 and 2018, 30% of which were for the most destitute classes. In spite of which, authorities are still struggling to make up the deficit in this area and many families must wait long years fort a council flat. In the meantime, two residential situations coexist and overlap for the populations at the bottom of the social ladder: on the one hand, the scarcity and exiguity of dwelling accommodations often oblige several households to live together: and on the other, the state of disrepair and advanced deterioration of many mansion blocks endanger the health and physical safety of the poorly housed.

Given this situation, the pool of applicants for social housing never stops expanding, and waiting lists grow ever longer. For families living in overcrowded, unsanitary housing, or which is on the verge of collapse, living conditions can sometimes become unbearable.

Aside from the situation of urgent which many of the poorly housed experience, the search for a place to live also plays a key role in a person’s life cycle when it is often essential to move house to get married or simply leave the family home. The acquisition of a council flat enables the beneficiaries to become homeowners, making them upwardly mobile, socially and financially. This gives rise to great expectations vis-à-vis the government, so that the attribution of these public goods in scarce supply often generates tensions. Street protests are often organised, for example to demand assistance following the collapse of a building or flooding of a shantytown, but also, after compensations have been awarded, with the posting of lists of beneficiaries suspected of bribery.

The issue of the availability of council housing and the accusations of unfair attribution of these public goods prompt recurrent street protests which are the object of wide media coverage and often turn into riots.

While this mode of action, mainly masculine, has become a routine way of challenging the authorities and their distribution of resources, its high visibility often obfuscates the more discreet and long-term forms of struggle carried on mostly by women.

Socialisation in waiting rooms

The mobilisation of women in these protest movements is often an individual affair, connected with their social roles. The central part played by women in these housing struggles is based upon the gendered division between private and public space. As the home is mainly a female space, the daily discomfort of living in overcrowded and sometimes unsanitary dwellings affects women particularly since they can spend less time than the men in the public space outside the home. Moreover, the activism of the mother’s eldest daughter can be understood in the light of the gendered nature of domestic work (housekeeping) but also the family’s reproductive function: having enough room to raise children, getting a flat to marry the eldest son. Indeed, it is around this familial collective that the struggles for social housing are made visible in public, in particular through banners proclaiming, “Family in danger” and graffiti on mansion block walls.

How are we to understand the mobilisation of the family entity within the demonstrative lexicon? We might propose two hypotheses. The first refers to the inscription of the family in the categories of public policy where it constitutes the social entity around which are distributed the public resources. The second concerns the organisation of the mobilisations. The family, like the neighbourhood committees, constitutes a basic structure for mobilisation. Thus, these protest movements, conducted individually—around the family entity—and in small groups—around the neighbourhood networks, generate low-profile struggles. However, these methods tend to atomise social demands.

This mobilisation of women by way of the family considered a political entity is reworking at the same time the separations between the public and private spheres. While these demands originate for the most part with individuals, the actual representations are made rather through networks of mutual acquaintance.

Thus, the women we met seldom go alone to the administration: they are often accompanied by neighbours, friends, sisters, sisters-in-law, or their children. These collective visits also provide many women with an opportunity to circulate in a public space generally reserved for men. The waiting rooms, which tend to reproduce that same gendered division of public space, become a locus of female socialisation, but above all a place where information is exchanged about how to deal with political officials and civil servants.

Family mainstays

Applicants in search of council housing practice what Asef Bayat describes as an “art of presence”. By showing up—sometimes every day—at city hall or the district offices they are trying to make their voices heard. By inquiring about the progress of their case and pleading their cause, they are trying to establish personal relations with the officials who sit on the committees in charge of selecting beneficiaries.

These daily acts of presence are also motivated by the existence of a registry where the names of each day’s applicants are recorded. The women are keen to have their visit recorded, thus providing material evidence of their personal mobilisation, their perseverance, and their “worthiness.” This perseverance is often bad-mouthed by the men of the family, who regard this waiting as a sign of passivity and submission, confirming in particular the headings under which they perceive femininity. Women have a different reading. Even if the too express sharp criticism of the public authorities who exhort them to wait and to keep coming back, they do not consider the time they spend waiting as wasted. They see it rather as a sign of their capacity to act in an environment where the scope for political action is limited. They do not stay home twiddling their thumbs; they go out, they strike up acquaintances with officials and sometimes come right out and criticise the political system in tete-a-tete with its representatives.

Through their rhetoric, these applicants construct their womanhood around attributes of strength, resilience, and perseverance. They make the most of their role as family mainstay and chief protagonist of social and material struggles. Thus, these mobilisations are not addressed to the authorities alone. They also enable the women to reposition themselves in their own eyes, rejecting the condition to which they are assigned, besides shouldering the necessary role of mediator with the public authorities during an occupation of public space or a street blockage in in front of or near the home of a group of applicants, protests in which women and children are often in the front line.

By investing their efforts in these spaces for dialogue, both inside and outside administrative office, these women are shedding light on situations patent injustice. Both by occupying public spaces and repeatedly showing up in front of administrative building, they are subverting the images of apathetic citizens based on such notions as the “clientelisation of society” or social peace being “bought” with the oil revenue. While the obligation to wait plays a key role in their undertaking and results in the moderate formulation of their demands, by refusing to be marginalised, paradoxically enough they also reject the authorities’ exhortation to be patient. Their low-profile actions show that beyond the large-scale mobilisations and well-publicised protests, other protest movements are having a long-term effect on Algerian society.