Algeria: A Brief Introduction to the Position of Women Living in the Saharawi Refugee Camps

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"Life for Saharawi women living under the Moroccan occupation is tough, especially for those who dare to express a Saharawi nationalist sentiment."
"Women Living Under Islamic Laws in the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR): A Brief Introduction to the Position of Women Living in the Saharawi Refugee Camps"
"In the bleak desert region of Tindouf, Algeria, around 170,000 Saharawi refugees have been living in camps for 34 years, in the desperate hope of an eventual return to their homeland, the Western Sahara. Their exile began in 1975 when King Hassan II of Morocco sent in a 350,000-strong invasion of the Western Sahara, known as the “Green March”, bombing the fleeing Saharawis with phosphorus and napalm. Shortly before, Spain, under UN pressure to decolonise the territory, had been discussing independence for the Western Sahara with the Saharawi liberation movement, known as the POLISARIO. However, rather than risk war with Morocco, the Spanish government illegally passed the territory over to Morocco and Mauritania, abandoning its former colony to a grim fate.

By 1979, Mauritania retreated but Morocco continued in its colonial aspirations, pushing back POLISARIO fighters by constructing the largest military wall currently in use in the world, known as the “berm”. It cuts the Western Sahara in two separating the Saharawis who did not escape during the 1975 invasion from those who now live in exile in refugee camps situated in the harsh conditions of the barren Algerian desert. In 1991, a UN-brokered ceasefire was agreed upon in order to conduct a self-determination referendum for the Saharawis. This has been continually blocked by Morocco, yet the UN is unwilling to impose sanctions in order to put into effect the referendum, whilst the international community continues to ignore the Saharawi people’s plight and is reluctant to force Morocco to end its unlawful and brutal occupation.

Life for Saharawi women living under the Moroccan occupation is tough, especially for those who dare to express a Saharawi nationalist sentiment. Hundreds of women who have participated in non-violent anti-occupation protests across the Occupied Sahara face systematic rape, torture, murder, forced migration and forced disappearance. These human rights abuses have been widely documented by many international NGOs, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International. On the other hand, the position of women living under the POLISARIO in the refugee camps in Algeria, which since the 1976 declaration of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic have constituted the Saharawi state-in-exile, is drastically different, though not without its problems.

The POLISARIO, a socialist movement inspired by Vietnamese, Palestinian and other African causes as well as by revolutionary thinkers such as Castro, Guevara, Fanon, Nasser, and Mao Tse-tung, have pushed for the large-scale participation of women in the public sphere. They interpret the oppression of women as a symptom of Spanish colonialism, and therefore see the emancipation of women as one of the necessary steps on the path to the liberation of the nation. Yet, as Article 2 of the SADR Constitution states, “Islam is the religion of the State and the source of its laws”, which has certain implications for the position of women.

The National Union of Saharawi Women (NUSW), the branch of the POLISARIO concerned with the position of women in the camps and transmitting the Saharawi story internationally through feminine voices, highlights the powerful and dynamic characteristics of various heroines of the Koran such as Aisha, Fatima and Zainab in order to encourage and religiously justify an active and important role for women in the public sphere. Their efforts have been fruitful, since the majority of staff in the camps’ schools, hospitals, artisan workshops, gardens and local committees is female. Indeed, many international aid workers, journalists and researchers who visit the camps marvel at the power and autonomy enjoyed by Saharawi women. In addition, although women continue to be underrepresented in high political positions – they make up 34% of Saharawi parliament – the POLISARIO has recently begun to discuss the possibility of introducing a quota in order to increase female representation. Furthermore, the battering of women is seen as intolerable and vehemently anti-Islamic, and indeed very few, if any, cases of this form of gender-based violence exist in the camps.

On the other hand, some interpretations of Islam have infiltrated SADR laws in such a way that women are left vulnerable in the face of gender-based injustices. This is particularly so concerning marital and sexual relationships. Men have the unilateral right – said to be legitimized by Islam - to grant a divorce, to “repudiate” a wife, and to practice polygamy. It is true that all these cases are considered politically incorrect in Saharawi society and men who make use of such “rights” are widely criticized, yet this begs the question as to why these laws have not been challenged and overturned. Worse still is the legal framework which surrounds sexual abuse. In order to find someone guilty, four eye witnesses are needed, and consequently, despite many accusations, no one has ever been convicted of rape. Indeed, the whole subject of sexual abuse is shrouded in secrecy and denial. In addition, any women who become pregnant before marriage are judged before a court and sent to a “centre”, allegedly to protect them from their families, until the child is born and a husband can be found. This illustrates the double standards that punish women but not men for “infringing” sexual codes and social norms, perhaps deriving from the Islamic concept of fitna, which refers to the moral and social disorder caused by the pernicious sexuality of women when left “unrestrained”.

In conclusion, although POLISARIO interpretations of Islam have helped to catalyze the public participation of women and condemn those who justify the seclusion of women to the domestic realm and the battering of women, they have also served to solidify gender discrimination with respect to relations between men and women in the private sphere. While it is encouraging that there are few cases of refused divorce, repudiation and polygamy, the lack of legal frameworks to protect women when these cases do happen is a serious barrier to women´s equality. Furthermore, the incarceration of women who become pregnant before marriage coupled with the near impossibility of punishing a rapist are two interpretations of Islamic law which amount to a violent attack on women´s rights. In sum, the SADR is yet another case where the intimate interaction between religion and law has resulted in an erosion of women´s rights."

Article by: Joanna Allan (Read the blog here)