The Women’s Role in the Struggle for Independence in Western Sahara

This short article underlines the leading role of women in the struggle for self-determination in Western Sahara. Through an analysis of their positions and functions, one can assert that Sahrawi women take on a dual strategy: resistance towards the Moroccan government and women’s empowerment.

What is Western Sahara?

Western Sahara is located in North Africa at the continent’s extreme right and is bordered by Morocco to the North, Mauritania to the South and Algeria to the Northeast (see maps).

It was a Spanish colony until 1975, when Spain withdrew from Western Sahara without setting up a referendum on self-determination. This led to an invasion by Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario Front declared in 1976 a National Liberation War and the formation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Due to the war and the Moroccan and Mauritanian invasion, a large part of the Sahrawi population fled to Algeria with the help of the Polisario Front. Around 165,000 people settled in four camps, near the city of Tindouf in Algeria. In 1979, Mauritania gave up its claim for sovereignty on Western Sahara, however, Morocco holds on to the territories until now.

Eventually, in 1991 a cease-fire was established and the UN deployed a mission to organize a referendum on the self-determination of Western Sahara´s people. Nevertheless, the referendum did not occur yet because of strong reluctance from the Moroccan government. Indeed, Morocco wants to keep its control over natural resources, namely phosphate deposits at Bu Craa.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is defined as a government-in-exile based in Tindouf. It is controlling one third of Western Sahara and has been recognized by more than 80 countries.

The Western Sahara case can be considered as one of the famous “forgotten conflicts” since the international community seems to have lost interest in this issue. Yet the peace process is obstructed and thousands of Sahrawis still live in precarious conditions in refugee camps.

Reasons for women’s involvement: a nomadic Bedouin legacy

The women’s role in Western Sahara differs from the one in Morocco and other Islamic societies. Indeed, Sahrawi society has a Bedouin legacy, in which women are equal to men. Sahrawi women manage and make communities functioning. Therefore, they are autonomous from men and do not systematically wear the veil. There is no sex segregation in these societies.

Besides, because of the war between the Polisario Front and Morocco, a great number of men went to fight. Consequently, women were alone and organized and managed the life of the Sahrawis. According to Jacob Mundy, “the war gave women in the camps more opportunities to become involved in the daily operations of the independence struggle and the effort to build a state in exile”. He also underlines the leadership of women in the independence struggle. This place of women contrasts with their role in other Islamic societies.

The National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW)

The NUSW is the women’s wing of the Polisario Front. It is the Sahrawi people’s representative, according to the UN, and the political party defending the self-determination of Western Sahara. The NUSW was created in 1974 as the voice of all Sahrawi women.

Nowadays, the National Union of Sahrawi Women asserts to have around 10,000 members and is mainly active in refugee camps in Algeria. Moreover, two of its members took office in the Sahrawi republic’s government: the current Minister of Culture Khadijah Hamdi, and the Minister of Education Mariem Salek Hamada.

NUSW’s main objectives are to empower women and to encourage them to struggle for independence. Within the NUSW, “nationalist revolutionary thinking can be related to activism for gender equity” (López Belloso/Mendia Azkue 2009: 164). There is not, as it is often the case, a superiority of the independence claim over the demand for women empowerment.

Managers in refugee camps in Tindouf in Algeria

More than 165,000 Sahrawis, who escaped Western Sahara due to the war against Morocco, live in refugee camps. They are regarded as protracted refugees, i.e. they “find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo” (López Belloso/Mendia Azkue 2009: 162).

Women are responsible for the camps’ administration and functioning. They are involved in education and training, health, food distribution, justice and social issues. Hence, they promote human development strategies. “Sahrawi women have made to the development and enlargement of refugees’ capacities, parallel to their own process of individual and collective empowerment” (López Belloso/Mendia Azkue 2009: 160).

Sahrawi women are aware of the great humanitarian help provided in the camps, but they also acknowledge its possible decrease. Therefore, they steadily foster income-generating activities in the camps to create a sustainable economic system. Grant-based programs and micro-finance systems were created and are administrated by Sahrawi women such as the Women´s Cooperatives Program. The latter offers micro-credits for women to start a business, so as to empower women and, at the same time, to economically secure the life in the camps. They also greatly promote universal education by creating and managing a complete educational system from kindergarden to secondary schools. They signed agreements to allow Sahrawi students to study abroad. Furthermore, a camp was created to host schools and give female refugees access to education and trainings in nursing, sewing, computing and so forth. A health system was set up through the foundation of health infrastructures on municipal and provincial levels. Furthermore, committees of justice and social affairs have been launched to deliberate on issues such as divorces between refugees.

Through their building efforts and leadership, Sahrawi women broaden the refugees’ capacities. They manage a nation-building in exile and the survival of the Sahrawis.

Aminatou Haidar, a representative of the women’s role in the struggle for independence

Aminatou Haidar is a famous Sahrawi human rights activist. She fights for independence of Western Sahara by means of nonviolent protests, hence her nickname „Sahrawi Gandhi“.

After demonstrating peacefully for independence in 1987, she was imprisoned by Moroccan forces. Overall, she stayed in prison for five years, at the end of the 1980s and during the 2000s. At the end of the year 2009, she went to Spanish Canary Islands to receive a price. As she wanted to come back to Western Sahara and refused to accept the Moroccan nationality, she was denied the entrance in Western Sahara by Moroccan forces and forced to take a flight back to the Spanish Islands. After that, she started a hunger strike, which caught international attention. During her strike, Haidar received support from several Nobel Peace Prizes such as Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, and from NGOs, namely, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. An open letter was also signed among others by film director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Penélope Cruz and was sent to Juan Carlos I of Spain. Finally, after more than one month of fasting, she was allowed to come back to Western Sahara thanks to international pressure.

Since 2010, Haidar has continued to condemn human rights’ violations in Western Sahara and Morocco. She regularly organizes and participates in nonviolent protests to defend self-determination of the Sahrawi people. She is the president of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CODESA). In 2012, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, Haidar is not alone in her fight for independence since many Sahrawi women also participate in it.

Eventually, through their resilience towards the Moroccan claim for sovereignty in Western Sahara, Sahrawi women empower and organize themselves. They enable the struggle for the independence of Western Sahara to continue.

Nevertheless, women are still underrepresented in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic polity. Their challenge is to keep their positions and strengthen them.


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