Western Sahara: Women’s Rights Flourish in Difficult Times

Deep in harshest Sahara, brightly dressed figures stand out against a white stadium. Scarves and sunglasses protect heads and eyes from the glare of the midday heat. A closer look reveals that some of the sunglasses are decorated with diamante; all these guards, just like most of the audience, are women. 
This is just one example of the roles women are playing in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria’s southeast corner, one of the largest refugee communities presently under UN protection. The Polisario political movement that runs the area has enshrined women’s rights in their constitution, illustrated by the prominence of women in the public sphere. The deputy governor, Fatima Balla, a woman, says men and women are equal; they have the same voting rights and are regularly elected to political office. All heads of wilayas (districts) are women. 
Compared with many societies, the Sahrawi are way ahead on women’s rights such as political inclusion and access to education. But all is not well for this tiny group of 500,000 people, who say they consistently suffer human rights abuses at the hands of their hosts, the Moroccan government. And the Sahrawis’ leaders—many of them women—are clamoring for change.
Recently, the United Nations joined their calls for a human rights mandate to be added to the ongoing UN mission there. The United Nations is already the main provider of food aid to the camps’ 150,000 inhabitants. And Sahrawi leaders say the organization is key to ensuring that all their rights are guaranteed.
The story of the Sahrawi camps and the group’s strong women leaders go hand in hand. In 1975, Morocco and Mauritania stormed into the Sahrawis’ homeland, wedged between Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. Spain had just concluded a secret agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, dividing up the country between the two. Morocco won the phosphate- and mineral-rich northern part, as well as fishery rights to a coastline that stretches over 1000 km.
In response, the Frente Polisario, the Sahrawi Liberation Movement, started a guerrilla war. Mauritania quickly relinquished its claim to the southern half of Western Sahara in 1979, and Morocco swiftly moved in to occupy a large part of the vacated area. To keep the liberation fighters out, Morocco built a 2,700 km wall of sand snaking through the desert, surrounded by one of the world’s largest minefields. The resulting strip of isolated land is still disputed. Polisario wants an independent state; Morocco is reluctant to yield its de facto control. UN-backed informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario, which began back in 1991, are scheduled to restart next week.
When the conflict began, Sahrawi society was already characterized by its gender rights. The harsh climate and difficult lifestyle necessitated it, and so the culture solidified, says Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, lecturer in forced migration at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. “Saharawi women have historically played very important roles in their families and communities, just as Bedouin women, for instance, across the Middle East and North Africa have held substantive responsibility over their households and communities.”
The war entrenched women’s roles even further. As the war dragged on into the 1980s, many responsibilities fell to women as men went off to fight. “We were very useful in the first years of the revolution; there were women with weapons, we carried ammunition and weapons, as well as supplying the men,” says Bismallal Aliha. In the refugee camps, made up mostly of women and children, homes started to be known by the names of their female owners, rather than by the male heads of the households, a custom that persists today.
Of course, challenges still exist, the Sahrawi women say. The majority of women are still expected to fulfill household responsibilities, such as cooking and cleaning, in addition to any external duties they take on. Young women say they are free to pursue professional careers, but must also conform to society’s more traditional expectations. The lack of employment opportunities in the camp also means that men often leave to search for work elsewhere, while women stay at home to look after the family. “Sahrawi women and girls continue to struggle for their rights to become a reality, and unfortunately, not all women and girls have equal access to all kinds of rights,” says Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. 
Despite their impressive demonstration of women’s rights in the camps, the occupied territories are no stranger to human rights abuse. Sahrawis are regularly subjected to abuse and torture by the Moroccan government in response to political activism, as well as arbitrary detention, according toHuman Rights Watch. Abdelsalam Omar, president of AFAPREDESA, a local human rights organization, says his organization records new cases daily. Currently, Morocco holds 24 Sahrawi political prisoners.
Unlike other peacekeeping missions worldwide, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) lacks a human rights mandate. MINURSO is responsible for overseeing a referendum on self-determination for Sahrawis, as well as for making sure both parties observe the ceasefire. But it can do little when rights are trampled. In April of last year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called for the establishment of a full-time human rights monitoring team in Western Sahara.
Securing such a resolution will likely prove difficult, however, according to Sahrawis who insist that Morocco is keen to preserve its lucrative rights to exploit their phosphate resources and fishery rights. Morocco counts France and the United States among its allies in the Security Council.
Enforcing a human rights mandate, which would allow Sahrawis the freedom to express their political aspirations for self-determination, would require a change in Moroccan law. It could also be the first step toward self-determination for the Sahrawis, which would end Morocco’s current rights to exploit resources on the land.
The conflict’s stagnation breeds frustration among youngsters, who are demographically the most significant in the camps. More than 60 percent of residents are between 18 and 35. Desperate for change, increasing numbers are calling for other options. “Most of the young generation want to go back to the war,” says Najla Mohammed, 23.
Hamdi Toubali, a 26-year-old Polisario member who fled occupied Sahara in 2007, is convinced that violence is the only option. “Without war, change will not happen,” he says. He cites the Arab Spring to support his argument; events in Syria and Yemen show that violence can lead to international attention and pressure. Many Sahrawis claim the Arab Spring started in September 2010, with the large-scale peaceful protests in Gdeim Izik camp outside of Layoune in their occupied territories. These protests were brutally, and successfully, repressed by the Moroccan army, but remain ongoing.
Calls for war are backed up by local imams. According to Toubali, religious leaders condone violence in the face of an unjust, if Muslim, occupier. The mosques are a relatively new phenomenon; the nomadic lifestyle ensured that there was little use for communal houses of worship. However, since 2000, mosques have been a staple of the camps, attracting many youth in particular. “In this time, our people, especially the new generation, are engaging more with Islam. So it is a good thing that these mosques are being built, they are very popular with young men and women here,” says Mohammed.
Sahrawis of all generations dispute that this rise in religious communality will affect women’s rights. Such rights are institutionalized through bodies like the Sahrawi Woman’s Union and other women’s organizations throughout the camps. “I think I am equal to a man, except for the rules of Islamic sharia. I can study, I can work, all the things I want to do I can do, including choosing who I want to marry. The most important rights the world sees as being equal between men and women, we have,” says Mohammed.
On one thing, both men and women are certainly equal: The Sahrawis lack security and protection of their human rights. And there are few hopes that things will change soon. The most recent reportof the Secretary General on the question, published in October 2011, noted that the parties were talking to one another, but no progress had been made. It is unlikely that next week’s talks will change this stalemate, leaving the women of the Western Sahara to exercise their rights in exile. 
-Fernande is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. She is currently a correspondent for de Groene Amsterdammer (NL) and worked for Baladna English in Syria in 2010. Fernande recently graduated with
distinction from King’s College, London with an MA in War Studies. She previously completed both a BA in Political Science and in Arabic at the University of Amsterdam. 
– Giulia Zuzic is a freelance photographer. She obtained an MA in Social Anthropology and Development from The University of Edinburgh and her longstanding interest lies in documenting people across the world 
– Sarah Clark is a video journalist currently working on a BBC documentary series. She has written for numerous publications including the Independent on Sunday and the Guardian.