colonialism Conflict Equality and non-discrimination Gender Indigenous peoples July 2021 Migration and refugees Uncategorized Women

Gender rights in Western Sahara: Will future generations of Saharawi women maintain their position as ‘owners of the tent’?

By Danielle Smith

In Saharawi society, married women are described as the “mutKhayima”, literally translated as “the owner of the tent”.  This means even when a man is married, the tent exclusively belongs to his wife and she can kick him out at any time if she is displeased with him.

Who are the Saharawi?

The Saharawi people from Western Sahara are a nomadic community divided for the last 46 years.  After the Spanish withdrew from their colonisation of the North West African state in 1975, Morocco annexed and occupied the western coastal region, and built a 2700km long wall known as the “Berm” to defend its occupation.  It is reinforced by millions of landmines and policed by the Moroccan army.  The region east of the “Berm” is known as the “Liberated zone” and is under the control of the Polisario, the Saharawi liberation army.  Further east in south west Algeria, the remaining 170,000 Saharawis live in refugee camps, set up to receive those fleeing the war with Morocco to continue fighting for Saharawi post colonisation independence and self-determination. 

Saharawi Women

Due to their nomadic way of life Saharawi women have always enjoyed a respected position in society.  They were the ones in charge of the home encampment, making all the decisions, representing the family and receiving guests while their menfolk were away with their animal herds.

Other factors help buttress the status of women in Saharawi society.  For instance, once a woman marries she continues to enjoy the protection and support of her family, who will intervene if there are any problems.  In fact, in the first year of marriage a young wife and her husband will often live with her family who ensure their daughter is being well treated and looked after.  In Saharawi society, it is considered an abhorrence for a man to hit a woman and traditionally, Saharawi women have also been able to divorce and remarry easily without stigma.  They even celebrate divorce in a party called Tekhlia.  This distinct cultural trait is something that sets Saharawis apart from their neighbours, particularly in Morocco and Algeria, where attitudes towards women are much more conservative.

Photo courtesy of Emma Brown Photography

With the launch of the Saharawi liberation movement in the early 70’s, emphasis was put on building a new nation based on eradicating inequalities, including gender differences.  As a result, Saharawi women have been at the forefront of the gender equality struggle from the outset.  While the men were fighting at the war front for 16 years, from 1975 to 1991, it was the women who faced the hardships and challenges of building, running and defending the camps after they were forced into exile and became refugees in SW Algeria.

When I first arrived at the refugee camps, in 1991, there was no doubt that the women were firmly in charge of running all aspects of life there.  Their confidence and indisputable capacity for leadership was what most impressed me on that trip and drew me to the cause.  Technically, the Saharawis were still at war but the Polisario, their liberation movement, had already agreed to a cease-fire to implement the UN Settlement Plan to organise a referendum for self-determination, and the women were clearly preparing to secure their role in a future independent state in Western Sahara.  

I could not help being inspired by their vision and, particularly, by their determination not to experience the kind of setbacks women had suffered in other liberation movements once independence was achieved. Encountering those proud, strong, generous women, in the middle of the harsh Sahara, was a truly humbling experience and one that compelled me on many levels and blew the lid off all kinds of prevailing stereotypes.

Throughout the long years of their liberation cause, Saharawi women have unquestionably been the backbone of the struggle, and every Saharawi man recognises that.  Today, women continue to play a vital role in the camps. They are the lifeline of the community.  They work in the health and education sectors, in the camp administration and in radio and television.  They hold leadership roles such as camp governors and ministers, and increasingly in recent years have assumed roles outside the camps as diplomatic representatives in Europe and Africa.

Many of the prominent activists in Western Sahara, under Moroccan occupation, are women, such as the Nobel Peace prize nominee Aminatou Haidar, Khayat Sultana and Naziha of Equipe Media and many more.  In all the protests and demonstrations that happen almost daily under the occupation, Saharawi women are out in force on the streets, taking the beatings and paying a high price for their activism.

The impact of external influences on Saharawi culture

It would be misleading to say, however, that all is good and forward-looking for Saharawi women.  Back in 1991, while the women were busily preparing themselves to secure a real role in an independent Western Sahara, no-one was preparing for the prospect of prolonged exile and the negative impact that could have on them.  Indeed, in the past 10 to 15 years a creeping layer of conservatism has been seeping into the society and its attitudes towards women, their roles and their freedoms, particularly in the camps. These have been affecting attitudes around married life, even divorce, as well as opportunities for women to gain education outside the camps. 

Now it is not that uncommon for men to want women to stop working once they are married and dedicate themselves mainly to a domestic role.  In the past few years I have begun hearing that it is also becoming more difficult for a divorced woman to remarry, as the society is more inclined to blame her for the failed marriage and question her character and morals.

Photo courtesy of Quintina Valero. Mariam, Minister of Culture outside her tent in the Western Sahara refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria.

Previously, girls were encouraged, just as much as boys, to become educated and to play an active role in public life, but this has also noticeably changed. Young women are increasingly experiencing pressure to stay closer to home to look after their families and to get married instead.  This has led to climbing dropout rates for girls in secondary school, which has had an inevitable impact on their future prospects and income earning capacity.

While this situation is by no means universal it is certainly a visibly growing trend.  Many Saharawis blame these developments on the educational experience of their children, the majority of whom have to leave the camps to continue their studies after primary school.  Algeria, which is the main sponsor for the secondary and higher education of Saharawi children, sends them far and wide across the country in places where attitudes towards women are generally much more conservative.  This has been influencing attitudes amongst Saharawi youth, especially young men.

Sandblast’s work with Saharawi women

One of the issues that Sandblast is tackling through its Desert Voicebox project is to give opportunities to young Saharawi refugee women to develop professionally, even if they haven’t finished secondary school.  Through our specialised training programme we are currently working with four women to get them qualified to teach English and music for the four year long after-school programme that we run for primary school children in one of the camps. Although the project still functions on a modest scale, the aim is for them to become self-reliant educational leaders and train other women, able to drive the project forward for future expansion to the other camps and earning a livelihood to reduce their aid dependency.  By their example, we seek to counter the negative trends around the value of education for girls and show how with skills, they can improve their lives and that of their community and be better equipped to advance their cause internationally. 

With the recent resumption of war in Western Sahara, since November 2020, the Saharawis are now entering the next phase of their struggle. Although this is not making news yet, their determination to fight for their rights is stronger than ever and the women are again at the forefront. Perhaps now with the benefit of hindsight they will be all the more vigilant about keeping those flames of gender equality going full blaze, and focus on ensuring their rights are secured now rather than in the future. 


danielle_smithDanielle Smith is the Founding Director of Sandblast, a UK arts & human rights charity promoting the voices and visions of the Saharawi people from Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony in North West Africa.   Fluent in 5 languages, including the Saharawi Hassaniya dialect, Smith graduated with an honorary degree in Biochemistry from Mount Holyoke College in the US, studied Arabic at UMass and Middlebury College and then did a MA in Anthropology at Haifa University.

Smith began her long term involvement of educational and cultural activism for Saharawi self-determination after her first visit to the Saharawi refugee camps, in SW Algeria in 1991.  Smith’s involvement with the Saharawi includes teaching English in the camps, photography and award-winning documentary making, including the 1998 BBC 2 Correspondent programme ‘A forgotten war’, on which she was Associate Producer. 

Regarded as a regional expert, she has spoken widely at the UN General Assembly, the UK parliament and many university campuses in the US and UK and been interviewed on BBC radio and TV. She was commissioned to write the peer-reviewed research guide on Western Sahara for the Centre for Refugee Studies at Oxford (2004), co-published 31 with Pablo Martin at Leeds University, the first book of Saharawi poetry in Spanish and English by the collective Friendship Generation and contributed the historical endnotes for Luis Leante’s novel, ‘See How Much I Love You’, published by Marion Boyars in 2009.

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