The role of women in the struggle for independence in Western Sahara

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By Isabel Lourenço / PUSL.- Since the first contact with the Saharawi people, I was impressed with several aspects of the social structure, traditions and unique customs of these “sons and daughters of the clouds” as they are known.

Many of the traditions can be found in other peoples but only one aspect or the other, never the totality of those present in the Saharawi people. It is the set of rules that govern Saharawi society that are impressive.

Undoubtedly, the role played by Saharawi women is one of the most surprising for any Westerner like me, who daily hears a great deal of commonplace about “African woman” and “Arab woman” as if it were a single culture and if every Arab and African country had the same culture, customs, traditions and laws.

Saharawi are Africans, Arabs and Muslims and do not fit into any of the conceptions and descriptions that are embedded in all movies made in the USA or shown in European news and are usually negative.

In the case of Saharawi women, reality could not be further from “fiction”.

Those familiar with the conflict know that the Saharawi are divided by the largest separation wall in the world (2720km) between the territories occupied by Morocco and the refugee camps in Algeria since 1975 and in the liberated territories.

The resistance and struggle for Independence started during the Spanish occupation that “received” Western Sahara in the “sharing” of Africa by Europeans. Spain called Western Sahara, Spanish Sahara and attributed to the territory the administrative classification of Province, being so the province 53 of Spain.

Spain never finished decolonization and in 1975 “sold” Western Sahara and its people to Morocco and Mauritania as if it were a commercial cattle transaction.
This agreement is illegal and Spain continues to this day as the de jure administrative power no matter how much it denies it.

The resistance that started against Spain already had the participation of Saharawi women.

Saharawi women who are transmiters of knowledge and the foundation of society are not limited to a passive role. They are present in the home, in front of the resistance, they are active and heard voices in the decision making of their government, their liberation movement and they are in the administration at the level of the refugee camps. In the occupied territories they are at the forefront of peaceful resistance and have faced the invader consistently from day one.

Organized by nature, they built refugee camps in the middle of an inhospitable desert, making clay bricks, packing water, building schools and hospitals and, above all, reinventing themselves every minute in the face of the numerous difficulties of forced exile, under bombings and scarcity of all goods essential to life.

One of the priorities was education, which may seem superfluous in a context of war and survival, but which demonstrated the capacity of these people to see further, to prepare for the future.

Women built women’s schools where they not only learned to read and write but also learned communication, languages, nursing, and more recently information technology and other areas that allow them to not only co-manage refugee camps but also intervene in international forums. They are deputies, ambassadors, delegates, ministers, presidents of the local administration, doctors, teachers, translators, soldiers, mothers, wives and daughters. Women who embrace all aspects of life and who exceed all expectations.

Saharawi men speak proudly of their women, the pride of sharing goals and building a free society, side by side as partners.

During the war they took up arms to defend their homeland, and even today there are female soldiers who are trained in the Polisario Front women’s military academy. Warriors as prepared as men for a war that they hope to avoid but which the international community seems to look forward to by systematically supporting the Moroccan occupation and its reign of terror.

In the occupied territories the situation is drastically different, other difficulties arise for these women who live under the regime of Moroccan occupation who have no respect for human rights, Saharawi and even less for women. Psychological and physical violence are ubiquitous, but even so Saharawi women do not lower their arms. They resist, demonstrate, take care of families, live under constant surveillance. The military, police and Moroccan settlers do not respect women as Saharawi do, they want to impose their own customs and traditions, which represents yet another challenge for these women and for Saharawi society that tries to transmit in their homes another education to their children.

Saharawi women are an indispensable element in the struggle for the independence of their country, a role that is recognized by Saharawi society and that is put into practice on a daily basis. The fact that women are on the front lines side by side with their partners is visible in the African Union, the United Nations, and other international bodies. But it is also visible on a daily basis in the diaspora where women are once again a driving force, where they organize themselves in associations and promote activities to publicize the struggle of their people.

The role of women in the struggle for independence in Western Sahara is of great prominence and activism, it is not a slogan it is a reality.