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Occupied Sahara: Resistance on women’s shoulders: “They go to the front, but we support life”

It is six o’clock in the morning and a young woman removes her Melhfa, the typical dress of Saharawi women, revealing the belly of a six-month pregnant woman. He trades colorful cloths for a helmet and bulletproof vest and prepares to leave his tent, set in the Western Sahara desert. She is Fatitetou Boucharawa, a 30-year-old woman who has taken it upon herself to mine the Sahara fields and remove the anti-personnel devices that Morocco has placed near the so-called Wall of Shame that separates the liberated from the occupied territories. Zone. During the reign of Muhammad VI.

She is in charge of SMAWT (Sahrawi Women’s Action Team Against Mines). This group, made up of diverse women, led part of the initiative when it comes to mine clearance, an activity that has historically targeted men. “At first it was very difficult because our society did not accept that we did this work. They felt very bad that we were taking on male roles and found it unacceptable that we removed our melhfas,” Fatitetu says.

Demining tasks began when the Saharawi refugee camps were established after the 1975 invasion of Morocco. When the war broke out, women carried their people – literally – on their backs. One such woman is Abida Yeslem, who carried her children on her back when the Moroccans occupied her home. He traveled across the Sahara desert on foot for three days, eluding the occupiers. “We did what we could, it was our children. Goats, our goods and resources remained,” recalls this 62-year-old woman. He was 16 years old when he ran away.

The men went to the front. Only they remained to build a new home among the inhospitable and merciless desert dunes. With temperatures that can easily swing from 50 to 10 degrees in a matter of hours. There is no water or vegetation to hide from the sun. They had to build new wooden houses. “We carried our children on our backs and because we had no water, we often used our own urine,” says Naza Muhammad, a woman who went into exile with Abida. “They go to the front, but we go on living.”

The two take refuge from the harsh Saharan afternoon sun in a jaima (tent) in the Ousserd refugee camp (Tindouf, Algeria), one of the areas free from the Moroccan occupation. These days, it hosts the FiSahara festival, an initiative that brings film and human rights to the camps.

For a week, everything is a party, but with a veil of sadness and also with justification. Naza and Abida put henna on their hands to paint on their fingertips, as they do on big occasions. As they wait for the paste to dry, they reminisce about the years when “the whole nation was ruled by women,” says Abida. “No one understands that we suffer in this terrible desert, but this is our home. Although the conditions are desperate, what you see, we built with our own hands. “We’re not going anywhere until we get home,” says his partner.

When the war started, all the men went to the front and the women were tasked with building the refugee camps, but also organizing them. socially, economically and politically. This forced empowerment of women persists to this day and, for this reason, the Saharawi people are among the most egalitarian in their administration. 19 out of 52 are parliamentarians. Most of the mayors are women. One such politician is Mariam Salek, who was the Minister of Education and Culture and later became the governor of the Smara camp.

She devoted herself completely to the administration after her husband died at the front and realized that those who returned did not know everything that women had gone through. “Men don’t stop us, but the patriarchy is still here. When I was meeting with other ministers, they would make tea and I would do the work,” he recalls.

Sahrawi women are proud to say that men went to the front but were unable to perform other tasks to support the community. As they do, many of them have also been on the front lines or leading the political resistance. One of them is Embarca Brahim, in whose house the Polisario Front was founded in 1973. She was one of the women who supported the entire town while they were gone. She is very proud of this, but at the same time regrets that women’s power has somewhat declined in the domestic sphere when men return from battle.

“Before the ceasefire, we did awareness courses for women and prepared them for the men to come back and want to take all the positions of power,” Salek recalls. Many women did not want to give up their seats to men, but many others returned home. It is this resignation that angers Zagra Abdelahim, a 32-year-old Sahrawi woman. He opens his story in the ward of his house where only women live. Something very unusual in the fields where there is always a man, be it a husband, father, brother, cousin or neighbor.

“It’s a matriarchy,” she explains, sitting on a thin woolen mattress. He leans his back against the wall and holds a laptop on his lap. “My weapon,” he says solemnly, about his “reed” activity on the networks. This room is a refuge for her and other women. There they talk about feminism and the future of the Saharawi people “without the shadow of patriarchy,” she says, holding a cigarette in her hand, which is only allowed to be smoked in private.

“The image of a Saharawi woman is strength, competence, determination. But this photo is not real; They have donated rights,” says Zagra. “If the women built the fields, it was only because the men were not there. “They exceeded expectations, yes, but it’s not something they did on their own,” says the young woman. Criticism of the Polisario Front government is acknowledged, but “respectfully”. He acknowledges great gains in education, health and safety, but believes they have stalled. “Women in power roles have a very institutionalized discourse and they don’t know that we’re stagnant,” Zagra says, referring to the resolution of the Sahara conflict, which has not come a millimeter closer since the 1991 ceasefire.

In fact, it seems that the solution has been removed. In 2020, hostilities resumed after Morocco opened fire against the Polisario Front. The war started again two years ago, men returned to the front and women left their homes and returned to take up roles of power. “We don’t like war, of course not, because they kill our children and grandchildren. But, after all, we have a feeling that we are going again,” says the old man Abida.

Older women retain some hope that the conflict will be resolved, but this is not the case for younger women. Some, like Fatitetu, see the new war as a return to the past. His expeditions to the minefields have been halted and he can’t wait to get back there to retrieve the artifacts. His journeys are hard, he spends two months in the field, works eight hours a day and sleeps in tents before returning for 15 days to rest and return to the field. “All I can do is help myself, but now I don’t know what to do for my nation,” he laments.

The shadow of migration hangs over many young people. It’s not what they want, but for many it’s the only way. We are tired of Morocco, Pedro Sánchez’s conspiracy and this conflict. Many do not see how this can be solved and go to study in Cuba, Spain, France or Venezuela. Earlier, they used to come back to bring knowledge, but now they stay,” laments Zagra, who, despite everything, understands this decision.

He himself studied in Spain and stayed there until 2017. Tired of racism and xenophobia, as well as “white feminism that discriminates against us,” she decided to return home and bring her struggle and teachings to the refugee camps. He raises his two daughters, the product of a marriage that ended in divorce, in a Western way. “They are free and I teach them to be what they want to be.” I want them to study here, although I know that they will never be free in the field,” says Zagra. He knows, unfortunately, that he will eventually return to Spain. “Whether independence is within reach or when I realize it will never happen. But my daughters will not grow up here.

Source: El Diario





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