Relief at last for the women victims of religious violence in Hassi Messaoud. Since March, single working women have suffered brutal attacks by gangs of hooded youths who broke into their homes and terrorized, assaulted, robbed and sometimes raped them. Now Algerian human rights associations are forming an umbrella authority to protect them. ‘Shocked by the violence and by the inertia of the forces of law and order we have decided to express to them our total solidarity,’ said Cherifa Bouatta of the ADPDF.

Who will save the women of Hassi Messaoud? By Siegfried Mortkowitz and Houria Ait Kaci Apr 27, 2010

'These women are citizens and have the right to live and work where they wish, and the state must protect them,' she said. 'But they live in terror just because they have had the courage to search out a job... outside their home towns.'

The Algerian actress Nadia Kaci, who has written a book on the violence, told the weekly L'Express that Islamic fundamentalism was behind the attacks on the women.

'The women who testified recently said that a local imam spurred on the men,' she said.

Traditionalists in Algeria say that the women have no business leaving their home towns to take jobs away from locals. Some conservatives have even charged that many of the women of Hassi Messaoud work as prostitutes.

One of the victims, identified only as Soaud, told El Watan that a police officer had advised her, 'Consider yourself lucky. The woman who was robbed a few days ago is still in hospital. Five of them raped her and left her in a state of shock.'

On the night of April 7, five men burst into Saoud's house, which she shares with her younger sister. Her mother, two other sisters and a brother were visiting at the time. One of the men slammed Souad against a wall and stabbed her in the stomach with a screwdriver.

'Then he took my gold chain, my rings and my earrings,' she said. 'He told me not to make a sound, and I was paralyzed, until he began lifting my skirt. I pleaded with him, but he was like someone drugged. He stank of alcohol, as they all did.'

Souad and her family have since left the house. She said that poverty had driven her and the other women to come to the city.

'We don't want to lose our children's bread,' she said. 'We just want to make a living with dignity and in security.'

Another victim, Hadda, said she was assaulted and robbed one night later.

'They pulled on my arm to drag me outside,' she said of her assailants. 'I held on to the wall and begged them to spare me. I was willing to give them all my savings and my jewels to keep them from defiling me. They were not thieves; they were terrorists.'

Hadda said when she went to the police station to file a complaint, she met many other women from the neighbourhood who had also been assaulted.

'The police only took their statements,' Hadda said. 'I asked them why they did not arrest them. Do you know what the police officer answered? 'Who says that I, a policeman, am not one of them? Mornings I work and evenings I put a turban around my face and attack women who live alone'.'

Another woman, Fatma, who is in her late twenties, was assaulted and robbed the same night as Hadda. She said that when she went to the police station, a police officer told her, ''What do you want? All you have to do is leave. Go back home, for example. You'll be safer. It's dangerous for women like you here.'

No one has yet been arrested.

The violence against the women of Hassi Messaoud actually began on July 13, 2001. On that night, a mob of more than 300 men, incited by a local fundamentalist imam, invaded a neighbourhood in which many of the women lived.

For more than five hours, some 40 women were brutalized, beaten, tortured and dragged naked through the streets. Many of them were raped, some of them more than once. Their houses were looted and burned down.

Several dozen women were hospitalized, some in grave condition. Witnesses and the daily La Tribune reported that as many as six women were killed, an assertion denied by police.

Since El Watan began covering the recent violence, police have taken to patrolling the quarters where the women are living and the attacks appear to have ceased for the moment.

But Fatma is not taking any chances. She told the daily that she had procured tear gas and a knife to defend herself.

'If I can find one, I will also buy a gun to defend my honour and my dignity,' she said. 'In Hassi Messaoud, the state does not protect me.'