Mariem Hassan

The voice of the Exile of Western Sahara

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Arab women of a different kind

El Ayoun Refugee Camp, Algeria - The sun chars everything to cinder around here. It's a barren, wind-lashed, inhospitable desert - hardly the place to raise children or much of anything else.
But thousands of Saharawis, cast here by political upheaval, have lived for the last 25 years in refugee camps in these wastelands of southwest Algeria. Against all odds, they have raised a nation-in-exile.
What's more remarkable is the society that's emerged, largely nurtured by women, stands out starkly from that of other Arab and Muslim peoples. Saharawi women have demanded and won equal rights. They receive full education, have work opportunities similar to men and can vote in elections held every four years.
On a personal level, marriage partners are freely chosen, women can initiate divorce, and contraception and abortion are permitted.
"We are proud to be women, proud to be Arabs, proud to be Muslim, but we do not intend letting anyone dictate to us how we should live our lives," Mariam Salek, culture minister in the Saharawi government-in-exile, told The Associated Press.
The Saharawis, descendants of nomadic tribes, live in tent cities that sprouted when they fled their neighbouring Western Sahara homeland after Morocco annexed the 285 000sq km land at the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1976.
Morocco still insists it is the rightful ruler of the territory, which is rich in phosphates, and says Saharawis are simply Moroccans.
To assert their claim, Saharawi men formed the Polisario militia - the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia de Hamra and Rio de Oro, the regions of the former Spanish Sahara. They fought a 15-year insurgency, something of a Cold War conflict since their allies in the battle against US-backed Morocco were often radical states such as Algeria, Libya and Cuba.
Today, a 10-year-old, UN-forged cease-fire is holding while debate drags on over the terms of an independence referendum. The Saharawis are resisting attempts to have Moroccans who've moved to the territory given the right to vote.
The latest mandate for UN peacekeepers ends later this month, and the Saharawi men are again on patrols, ready for a possible return to war. It reminds Salek of earlier days when women organised the first camps while men did the fighting.
"With men at the front, we had to invent a social organisation," she said.
In those days, the main task was not to succumb to the temptation to return to territory under Moroccan control or disperse and integrate into Algeria or neighbouring Mauritania.
"When we first came here there was nothing, absolutely nothing," said Mariam Hassan who at 16 fled the Western Sahara city of Smara hundreds of kilometres to the east and escaped by foot from the Moroccans.
"At night, we used to unwrap our shawl dresses and, with some sticks, we'd set up tents to shelter the children," said Hassan, a leading Saharawi singer who lost three brothers in the war. Now 41, she has five children, all born in the camps.
The Saharawi camps are named after the four main cities of the Western Sahara - El Ayoun, Smara, Dhakla and Aoussert - and the refugees are distributed according to their origins.
Built on parched, sandy land, the settlements have mushroomed into virtual cities with a population of some 200 000. They lack running water and draw electricity from solar-powered car batteries, but are models of organisation, divided into districts with "town halls" run by the women.
Women are 56 percent of the electorate and have seven deputies in the 51-seat Parliament. Salek's appointment last year as the first woman minister in President Mohammed Abdelaziz's Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was seen as recognition of the women's achievements.
Salek said she felt the Saharawis were "unique and very advanced" compared to the rest of the Arab world.
"In so many countries, women almost don't exist," she said. "They're not allowed to vote or do so many things, they have no basic rights. There is nothing the Saharan men can do that women cannot.
"Much still needs to be done to further the equality, but the problem now is with ourselves, our own self confidence as women, not with men, laws or the government," said the 36-year-old Salek.
The Saharawis' economy has not kept pace with their politics, however. They remain almost totally reliant on United Nations aid and contributions from friendly nations. Besides some mud-brick structures, the camps consist of thousands of single-room tents, the vast majority UN-supplied. Each family is entitled to a tent and a milk goat.
Money has little function in the camps since there is not much to buy or sell. Work in the schools, hospitals and communal farms is carried out on a co-operative basis.
Food is rationed, and the daily diet consists of semolina or legumes and tinned fish, along with bread, goat's milk and the traditional green tea and mint of Arab society.
Warts on children's faces and the stains on their teeth point to widespread nutritional problems, but no one goes hungry.
Perhaps the Saharawis' most ambitious achievement has been in education. Under Spanish colonial rule, an estimated 90 percent of Saharawis were illiterate. Now, virtually everyone can read and write, most speak one or two foreign languages and many are trained as doctors, nurses, mechanics or technicians.
"From the beginning, we were aware that we must have as many children as possible but we must also educate them. Otherwise, our race would disappear," said Maarouf Bud-da, 29, a soldier who studied in Havana, Cuba, for 11 years.
The average Saharawi family has five or six children. Boys and girls attend camp schools until age 12 when, with few exceptions, they are sent to study in politically friendly countries. After completing high school or college, most return to the camps or join the army.
The revolution has bolstered the Saharawis' pride and helps to explain why they have shown themselves such formidable foes despite their small numbers.
"The fact that we have survived these past 25 years of suffering and sacrifice in the desert refutes Morocco's claim that the Saharawis do not exist as a separate people," President Abdelaziz said in February, marking the 25th anniversary of his Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.
While the Saharawis have built a liberal society in exile, some fear their women's achievements may be washed away should they get back home. Salek insists that won't happen.
"When we get independence and a normal country, we won't let men cut back the role we play," she said. "Besides we don't believe they will try."
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