As Africa’s last colony, formerly Spanish and now ruled by neighboring Morocco, the territory of Western Sahara has been awaiting independence for nearly four decades — during which several promises have fallen through.
In 2010, Western Sahara’s struggle for independence underwent some radical renovation. Activists set up a protest camp, Gdeim Izik, in an empty stretch of desert without permits, making it illegal according to Moroccan law. According to the Boston Globe, there were workshops, a charity group, and a dialogue committee which handled correspondence with the Morroccan government. After 28 days, the camp was burned to the ground by authorities and in the process, many protesters were beaten and arrested and some were even killed. Gdeim Izik has served as inspiration for several events that followed, and many see it as the inspiration for the Arab Spring. Since the camp was dismantled, the media silence has been broken (though there still isn’t much coverage) and the movement has been invigorated and is now stronger and more determined than ever.
If there is any coverage in regards to Western Sahara’s struggle for independence, women are, more often than not, left out of the conversation – yet it is women in Western Sahara who are leading and playing a large role in the movement.
Women in the Western Sahara have participated in actions ranging from a guerrilla war with Morocco to peaceful protests in their struggle for recognition and independence. Western Sahara is a Muslim-majority region– meaning that it is expected that in such a region women would be barred from political participation – but many women have attributed their activism to a mostly moderate interpretation of Islam and their indigenous Sahrawi roots. The guerrilla war with Morocco has given women in the refugee camps (several of which are in Algeria) the ability to participate in the day-to-day operations that are part of the ongoing movement; this has empowered many women to participate in activism, though, according to The Washington Post, “female empowerment spans both ends of the political spectrum, and some women work in support of the Moroccan government.” (Women have also paid the highest price in the struggle for liberation, often finding themselves as the victims of violence often at the hands of police. Human Rights Watch reported that Moroccan courts have convicted Western Saharan activists on information that they either obtained through torture methods or that was falsified by authorities.)
As activist Sultana Khaya explains, “The Sahrawi woman is very great; she’s very powerful. I don’t even think about getting married until the Sahrawi women become independent.”