“When we think of Western Sahara we think of
number one the women,
number two the women,
number three the women.
For they are strong and they are beautiful”
Mafoud Salama (Saharawi Poet)
Before Spanish colonization in 1884, the people of Western Sahara lived a nomadic life on their own land, chasing the rain and the green grass for their animals. During this era, Saharawi culture was heavily influenced by the Arabs and Islam, which were both inherited by a tribe that can be traced back to Yemen. Saharawi men were the main providers and herdsmen and the only ones involved in taking up arms when conflict erupted between tribes, while Saharawi women stayed behind to take care of the family. Nevertheless, women also played an important role in Saharawi society. During the moving season, women helped with the setting up and packing of the tents during the raining season as well as herding the animals and harvesting food. Furthermore, Saharawi women took charge of developing and conserving Saharawi traditions, along with making decisions for their families and communities.
When Spain colonized Western Sahara, the dynamic of Saharawi culture, along with the role of Saharawi men and women, changed. Upon Spain’s acquisition of Western Sahara, the Spanish began to discover natural resources such as phosphates amongst others. All of these resources were exploited when the Spanish government began to build phosphate mines where many Saharawi men were employed to work, in addition to serving in the Spanish army. Women lost their traditional roles and found themselves living under the influence of the Spanish. Due to the Spanish influence both Saharawi men and women lost their voices, especially when it came to their own heritage. Before the Spanish took over, Saharawi culture and literature was primarily oral. Nevertheless, the richness of Saharawi music and poetry set them apart. Under the Spanish, the Saharawi people found themselves obligated to learn different customs and languages and after 100 years of colonization, the Saharawi were considered the most illiterate people in North Africa.
In an attempt to follow the example of their neighbouring countries that were fighting against colonialism, a group of Saharawi students formed a liberation movement that came to be known as the POLISARIO. Attempting to gain Western Sahara’s independence, they began a series of attacks against the main Spanish stronghold. In addition to fighting for Western Sahara, the POLISARIO’s aims also were to restore the Saharawi culture and Saharawi women’s previous roles at the centre of Saharawi society. However, to do this, they needed the women’s involvement.
The Spanish promised the Saharawi people independence, but everything changed when Morocco and Mauritania claimed Western Sahara as part of their own land. Tragically, behind the backs of the Saharawi community, Spain, Mauritania, and Morocco signed the Madrid Accords. This was not only the biggest slap in the face for the POLISARIO, but also for the rest of the Saharawi population. After the agreement of the Accords, the Spanish packed their belongings and returned home, which opened the door for Morocco and Mauritania to invade Western Sahara. The Saharawi people became homeless, and were forced to run for their lives as both countries entered Western Sahara with their guns, killing and raping. The Saharawi began to flee to the southwest of Algeria where they took refuge. Those who couldn’t escape were trapped in a violent war.
When the war erupted, the POLISARIO found themselves fighting against two forces. They knew they couldn’t do it alone, so for the first time Saharawi women took arms and fought side-by-side with Saharawi men. Along with fighting, Saharawi women who escaped to Algeria began to build refugee camps. Despite lacking basic training or education, they became doctors and nurses and cured the sick and the wounded. During these crucial times, Saharawi women regained their place in the Saharawi society, becoming the pillar that the Saharawi men depended on. As time passed and the war continued, Saharawi women continued to build the camps, making education the main focus for the younger generation. It is because of their effort today that Saharawi people can now pride themselves as one of the most educated peoples in North Africa.
Even after 40 years of waiting for a solution to one of the world’s longest conflicts, Saharawi women continue to be the leading force in the Occupied Territories in Western Sahara. These women are the most politically active in their community; they organize street protests, advocate for human rights, and oppose Moroccan brutality. In the camps, Saharawi women are the point of call in all type of affairs. Women hold leadership positions and have equal educational and professional opportunities and they have the right to divorce and remarry. Violence against women is something that has no place in Saharawi society. Saharawi women, both in the refugee camps and the occupied territories, are constantly fighting against occupation and harsh living conditions, yet they still continue to be a voice of hope and the symbol of liberation and resistance against all odds.
Agaila Abba is a writer and poet specializing in North African and Middle Eastern affairs. She is also the editor of Aloha Arabia blog. Find her tweeting @Agailita