Schools, style and sacrifice: the nonviolent revolution of the women of Western Sahara

Since the Moroccan occupation and subsequent repression of the Sahrawis of Western Sahara began in 1975, some Sahrawi women have taken the lead in the nonviolent pursuit of independence and human rights.

Text: Tess Kurtz

Fatma’s story

One afternoon in December of 1975, a young girl named Fatma was playing in her hometown of Elgelta, Western Sahara, just like any other day that winter. At 4 p.m., airplanes appeared overhead. They were followed almost instantaneously by fire all around caused by mines dropped from the sky.

Unable to locate her whole family, she grabbed the hand of her aunt and began to run. Thus began a four-day journey to seek refuge in the Algerian desert, a journey that included the stillbirth of her cousin and days spent in hiding. Along with all the other civilians that arrived, her mother and grandmother began to build tents for a refugee camp out of nothing but the clothes on their back. Thirty-six years later, they still live in the same camp.

When Fatma was 18 years old, she gave birth to her first child, Selma, who became ill from a polio epidemic in the refugee camp when she was 11 months old. Fatma worked in the National Union of Sahrawi Women while at the same time caring for her child on her own. Her husband was fighting in the war for independence against the Moroccan army.

As Selma grew sicker and sicker, Fatma sent her to receive treatment in Spain, the country that had been the colonial power in Western Sahara until 1975. She lost contact with her daughter for a full year. During this time, Selma learned only Spanish and could not communicate in Arabic.

The first time they talked, her daughter did not believe Fatma was her mother, insisting, “If she were my mother, she would speak as I do.” Through years of studying, Fatma learned Spanish and the two developed a relationship, even though Selma remained with a family in Spain and Fatma remained in Western Sahara.

A unique social structure

Within a Muslim society like that of the Sahrawis, it may be surprising that a woman would carry such great responsibility as Fatma did in the refugee camp. But the history of the Sahrawi people differs from that of many other societies in the region.

The Sahrawis are nomadic residents of the desert and “children of the clouds” who follow the rain in order to provide for their families. Historically, men had the role of leaving the home in order to make these provisions and women were charged with organizing and administrating society. Given this role, women could not be pushed to the margins of society; instead, they gave order to it.

The conflict between the Moroccan government and the Sahrawis amplified this role. In November of 1975, Morocco occupied Western Sahara in the Green March and claimed sovereignty over the region based on alleged pre-colonial ties. Shortly thereafter, Spain gave up Western Sahara, then its province, to the occupiers in the Madrid Agreement, despite a previous ruling from the International Court of Justice’s declaring that the Sahrawis deserved a right to self-determination.

The Moroccan position, shared by the vast majority of its population, is that the conflict is essentially Europe’s fault, as Western Sahara was a part of Morocco prior to colonization and was rightly returned to Morocco in Europe’s decolonization process.

Though there were very strong economic ties between Morocco and Western Sahara prior to European intervention, the Sahrawi independence movement claims that this doesn’t constitute political sovereignty.

Therefore, the Sahrawis declared an independent state on Feb. 27, 1976—the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic—which marked the beginning of a 16-year war in the region. The war divided the population between those who stayed in occupied Western Sahara and those who fled to refugee camps in Algeria, where they established their own government.

Until the 1991 ceasefire, many Sahrawi men from the camps fought in the war against Morocco and women again were responsible for the organization of society. Sahrawi women set up schools, food distribution, hospitals, administration and all other necessary aspects of the framework of a refugee camp society.

Previously unable to attend school during the Spanish colonial period, Sahrawi women are acutely aware of the importance of education in society. According to Abidin Bucharaya, a delegate in Andalusia of the Polisario Front, which has been Western Sahara’s government-in-exile over the last 36 years, 50 percent of students sent to study outside of the refugee camps are women, as required by Sahrawi law.

In addition, the Sahrawis have organized the Escuela 27 de Febrero in their refugee camps. The Escuela is a women’s school that trains students to teach younger generations, which enables female empowerment among the Sahrawi community.

Power through art

Despite the infrastructures that women put in place during the war, men took over the majority of administrative roles in the Sahrawi community when they returned to the refugee camps in 1991 after a United Nations-brokered ceasefire.

“The problem right now is that Sahrawi women are returning, to some extent, to housework,” said Fernando Peraita, the president of the Association of Friendship with the Sahrawi People in Seville. As a result, many Sahrawi women and organizations have been working for the past 20 years to reestablish the power they previously held.

One such organization is called Sahara Libre Wear (SLW), a clothing brand that grew out of two projects featured in the annual Sahrawi Art Festival ArTifariti. These projects –¡A pintarropa!, run by artist Alonso Gil, and Entretelas, run by artists Angustias García and Esther Regueira– merged in 2009 to form SLW.

The clothing line seeks to express the pain and hopes of the Sahrawi independence movement through fashion made by Sahrawi women. SLW produces traditional clothing depicting Gil’s unique designs, such as guns that fire flowers and the name of the independent Sahrawi state written in the Roman alphabet and Arabic script.

The three artists said in an interview with the French-language magazine Rézo that they created this project because “clothing serves as a vehicle to make visible and evident the situation in which the Sahrawi community lives, [which has been] forgotten and silenced by those who choose to see only their own interests in the Sahrawi condition.”

At the same time, the artists emphasize that the Sahrawi women are the heart of the project, and that the choice of traditional clothing as a medium of expression lends itself to “a space of feminine communication, reflection and debate of, with and for women.”

As this program grows, the three founding artists have been working with Sahrawi women to give them complete control of the project. It is a challenging task, given that it takes far less time to create the clothing in Spain, where Gil presses the designs onto the fabric ten at a time, than it does in Western Sahara, where the climate requires women to press the designs separately to keep the paint from drying too quickly.

“But even though it takes time, I think that the process of self-administration of the project is going to go very well. The Sahrawi women are already creating their own unique designs for Sahara Libre Wear,” Gil says, beaming with pride for what the women of SLW have accomplished.

Reflecting the continuing pain of the Sahrawi community, many of the recent designs created by the women depict the Gdim Izik (also written Gdeim Izik or Agdaym Izik) incident. As reported in Amnesty International’s 2011 Annual Report, Moroccan security forces dismantled a peaceful protest outside of Laayoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, on November 8, 2010. The forces physically assaulted the protesters and destroyed much of their property. This incident sparked violence in the camp, ending in casualties on both sides as well as hundreds of arrests of protesters. The women of SLW responded to the Gdim Izik incident by making icons of the Sahrawi victims of the violence.

The fight continues

Individual Sahrawi women such as Aminatou Haidar have continued to promote the roles of women in the fight for Sahrawi rights and freedom in recent years.

Imprisoned and tortured from 1987-1991, Haidar is one of the most well known representatives of the plight of Sahrawis across the world. On Nov. 13, 2009, Moroccan authorities denied her re-entrance into Western Sahara because she refused to write that she was going to Morocco, which would have demonstrated a recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Characteristically nonviolent, she responded with a month-long hunger strike while exiled in the airport of the Spanish island of Lanzarote, which resulted in her being hailed as a “Sahrawi Gandhi.”

Fernando Peraita, who served as her spokesman during her hunger strike, praises her as a woman who “never surrenders to any adversity, and has very clear in her mind that her fight is a pacific one, and that what gives her strength is that she never raises a hand against anyone.” On Dec. 18, 2009, under international pressure, the Moroccan government permitted Haidar to return to Western Sahara.

Like all these women who work for the rights of the Sahrawi community, Haidar’s work has come at a great personal cost. In addition to the arrests, beatings and threats that she has suffered, she is pained further by the threats against her two children.

Still, she sees herself as an individual who can influence the future of Western Sahara and she is prepared to give her life in pursuit of that future. She does not stand alone. Fatma El Mehdi, the same Fatma who fled her home in December of 1975, is now the secretary-general of the Union of Sahrawi Women, one of the highest posts within the Western Sahara independence movement.

In a speech given at the European Conference of Solidarity with the Sahrawi people in 2002, she summed up the contributions of these superheroines of the Sahrawi cause, saying, “The constant violation of human rights, the lack of freedom, the arbitrary arrests, the abductions and forced deportations reflect the level of resistance and determination of our women who are the backbone of the Sahrawi society, which has introduced a network of solidarity with any and all persons who defend and love peace and justice in the world.”

Brief History of the Conflict in Western Sahara

1884: Western Sahara becomes Spanish colony.
1973: The Polisario Front (the Spanish acronym for Popular Front of the Liberation of Saguía el Hamra and Río de Oro) organizes as the political representation of the Sahrawi independence movement.
1975 (October): The International Court of Justice rules that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination.
1975 (November): Over 300,000 Moroccans enter Western Sahara in the “Green March” ordered by King Hassan II. Through the Madrid Agreement, Spain allows the northern two-thirds of the territory to be acquired by Morocco and the southern third by Mauritania.
1976 (February): The Polisario Front declares the independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic and organizes its first government.
1978: The Polisario Front orders a coup resulting in Mauritania’s renunciation of its claim to Western Saharan territory.
1976-1991: The Polisario Front fights a guerrilla war against Morocco, exacerbated by Morocco’s occupation of Western Saharan territories liberated from Mauritania.
1978: Algeria allows the Polisario Front to set up its base in refugee camps in Tindouf.
1991: The United Nations organizes a ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco and establishes the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso).
1996: Unable to reach an agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front over voter identification and the options that should be available for vote in the referendum, the UN suspends the process.
2001: James Baker proposes Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan authority, followed by a referendum in four years with voting rights for all who have lived in the territory for over a year. The Polisario Front and Algeria reject the plan.
2003: A plan similar to the Baker Plan is proposed; Morocco rejects it.
2010: Moroccan authorities destroy a protest camp outside of Laayoune called Gdim Izik, resulting in violent clashes between the two sides.

Source: BBC News Africa: “Western Sahara Profile”

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