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Jamila Bargach - Research Project | Back to Fellows' List

This research project involves studying one slum community in Morocco and working with existing associations and slum dwellers in hopes of bringing about a positive change to the their lives.
Jamila Bargach - Interview

What contributes to the seemingly insurmountable problems in slum areas?
Slums are the by-product of the failure of local governments to respond to the housing needs of poor residents who, more often than not, are destitute immigrants who come to the city for survival or in hopes of bettering their economic conditions. Slums are usually "spontaneous" housing which lack all the necessary services. The slum I have selected happens to be in the periphery of a city in Morocco, being in this marginal spot has made it grow in important proportion along with all the problems relating to it.

Logistically, how will your research be conducted?
In the first phase of my research, my intention has been to work out a conceptual model based on existing literature treating of slums in various nation-states. The main question is in what ways may Human Right discourse be effectively used to bring about a positive change to the life of slum-dwellers? Actual field-work, however, will begin once I return to Morocco in December 2002.

What do you think might be the biggest challenges that you face during your field research?
The type of problems that may surface in this sort of work (what I anticipate, that is) is the difficulty of bringing people to a consensus because of competing claims. Active within my selected site are a number of associations and NGOs, each one trying to push its own agenda and the premises of their work vary. I believe that the challenge may be in bringing these associations together.

What are your future plans for the project or for work in the field of Human Rights?
The ultimate intention is get as close as possible to the ideals of Human Rights in my work with slum dwellers and the associations that represent them. By Human Right I mean the possibility of living in and with dignity.

Along the way, how has your design or idea for research evolved?
My initial thoughts on the project were concerning questions of inadequate housing but through research and work by anthropologists and activists alike, I’ve come to realize that slum housing is just one component of the larger issue of structural inequality to which the slum dwellers are subjected to.

How might your conceptual model and field research be implemented and communicated in various communities and contexts, and in your homeland?
In working directly with slum associations and with slum dwellers to change their living conditions (getting access to water, sewage and other health services), I will be keeping close record of the changes in order to be able to rethink the more successful aspect of the work. By publishing the results of this work in specialized literature, the model could be implemented in other places.

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Jamila Bargach - Description of Research

The main structural question that this project poses is the following: how does the population of a given peripheral slum in a historically, socially, politically and economically determined context live/construct their world-view (values and practices that is) vis-à-vis the dominant structure(s)1 of meaning, and to what extent is the local/space where they live a determinative variable of their habitus2? Considering the slum as a special kind of 'field' in the hierarchically determined larger social fields, are there any possibilities of redress? If so, what are these and, what is their legitimacy? Can this legitimacy then be co-opted and employed as a platform to embed an understanding and a practice of Human Rights outside of its legal definition?

The selected research site is called Sidi Musa (SM) and it originated as a squatter slum immediately outside the South-Western side ramparts of the historical city Salé next to Morocco’s capital Rabat. Periphery squatter slums, shantytowns, inner-city slums and upgraded slums are an integral part of Morocco’s urban landscapes, as elsewhere in the "developing" world. These organic spatial growth, 'chaotic, distasteful, lawless, dangerous'3 are in fact the visible statement of the failure of governments’ urban planning, the increasing socio-economic disparities and the material poverty of entire social segments. The choice for this one specific site is predicated in a number of factors. First, SM is a periphery squatter slum meaning that it is located far away from the 'city center,' the perpetual official eye and control being absent for decades, it made SM into an invisible site that grew exponentially and chaotically in consequence. Second, this site is a historical site that houses important monuments dating back to 12th Century; and lastly because of the particular socio-anthropological processes that it has and continues to generate via the slum-associations that were able to gain some recognition from the central authorities, integrated, although they are officially an “illegal” entity.

There are deeply engrained social and imaginary processes that go into creating the image of a slum as ‘dirty, chaotic, lawless and dangerous’ space which then criminalizes the slum population and holds them responsible for the oppressive and depressed circumstances under which they live. The production of slum space (production here meaning the symbolic, phenomenological experience of space as it is mediated by varying social processes- Lefevbre4) reveals embedded forms of practice and signification that maintains the slum in its position of marginality, structural poverty and inequality, and makes it extremely tedious to gain access to resources or official channels of power in hopes of changing these conditions. This resistance to re-humanizing slum dwellers and the slums emanates also from the slum dwellers themselves as the ramifications of the political treatment, the social roots, the imagery and stigma of what a slum is and who a slum dweller is, are felt at basic psychological levels.

In his concluding remarks to the essay “Human Rights”5 published in the Blackwell Companion to Sociology, Abdullahi An-Na’im calls upon sociologist to intervene, manifest themselves in Human Rights field because their interpretations would contribute to alleviate some of the structural problems when Human Rights remain an idiom in law and politics. In his conclusion he singles out how “the protection of human rights is only part of the answers to the major issues of social justice facing all societies” (emphasis added, 98-99) and further that “a more realistic and desirable approach, I suggest, is to seek to diminish the negative consequence of the paradox of self-regulation by infusing the human rights ethos into the fabric of the state itself and the global context in which operates. In that way, the protection of human rights becomes the outcome of the free exercise of the right to self-determination, instead of being seen as an external imposition which violates that right” (emphasis in original, 91). His view, in a sense, is how to make Human Right be the instrument and the end result, a culture that would permeate the entire social fabric rather than having to deal with a piecemeal, case-by-case justice that would be in the end extremely un-productive. For Human Right to become a normative system can only be achieved if it finds a cultural basis and not be overtly identified with official institutions.

In the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Declaration states that everyone has a “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (article 25) these are essential human rights for dignified living as essential as freedom from torture, arbitrary detention and the right to life. What I’ve tried to do in this synopsis is to actually take that clause “housing” and connect it to the larger processes to which it is tied. It is through the politicization of this category (space, housing) that an understanding of how the whole creates a marginalized space is possible, and it is from this understanding that a possibility of redress may be envisioned.

1. One of the questions I wish to pursue in this research is whether there is one major dominant structure with various manifestations or a diversity of overlapping structures that the slum-dweller identify with. Back

2. Habitus is employed here in the sense that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has defined it; that is as that generative grammar that is inherent to any given social field which then defines a set of practices proper to a given social segment. Space is itself considered by Bourdieu as a social field and one that is an important component in the production of this generative grammar. Pierre Bourdieu. 1979. La Distinction: critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Editions de Minuit, and his 1972. Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique. Paris : Droz. Back

3. This is perhaps the most widespread image and belief about slums in as different contexts as Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America or the Indian Subcontinent. Back

4. Henri Lefebvre. 1991 translation. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. Back

5. “Human Rights” in Judith R. Blau, ed. 2001. The Blackwell Companion to Sociology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. Pp.86-99. Back

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Jamila Bargach - Development/Training/Networking

The Emory Fellowship program has been instrumental in conceiving and then tailoring this project on slums. It is from my tenure at Emory University -- from the two classes I took with Dr. Abdullahi An-Na’im (Graduate Seminar on Human Rights and Religion and Human Rights); my many discussions with him; the class I audited in the Anthropology Department with Dr. Mark Goodale (Anthropology and Human Rights); and the variety of lecture series that I attended -- that I have been able to develop my arguments concerning the fact that being "trapped" in slums is a violation to basic human rights beyond legal norms.

In my previous work, I’ve worked on the issue of social exclusion and victimization as it came to be embodied in abandoned and out-of-wedlock children in Morocco. My book Orphans of Islam, recently published with Rowman and Littlefield’s Anthropology’s Out-of-Bound series, studied the often unexamined legal, cultural, socio-economic and imaginary processes that engender this marginal body despite Islam’s humanist codes and contemporary legislation regarding foundlings. Through this project I’ve gained first-hand experience in doing advocacy work. I decided, therefore, to devote my entire semester to learning and thinking about linkages and points of contact needed to make of the current project on slums a structurally sound and convincing one.

I gave two presentations during my stay at Emory and was equally invited to present my research to Wellesley College (Mass.), Georgetown University (Washington, DC), and Rice University (Houston, TX). The discussions following these presentations have challenged, and consequently, enriched the project. My research was primarily conducted in the law and general libraries at Emory University.

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