Field Notes on Saharawi Feminist Politics

Author ········· Kenza Yousfi 
Published ······ Online, February 2016
Section ·······  Current Affairs

In the late 1970s, many Saharawis were forced to flee their native Western Sahara after Mauritania and Morocco took over the administration of the country following the evacuation of Spain. The refugees organised into self-run communities in Algeria’s south-western Tindouf province. Around 117,000 people still live in Tindouf’s five camps, and 40 years later, they still refuse to leave until the United Nations recognises their right to self-determination: to be able to choose integration or independence with/from Morocco, or autonomy within Morocco.

Conflicts and struggles within and around feminist movements specifically reflect key tensions associated with particular organisational processes. What if a feminist movement is still birthed out from a national liberation movement amid the endless global declarations of the decline of the nation-state? As a feminist ethnographer, I was met with many stories that offer another way of looking at how the everyday struggle of the Saharawi feminist project is lived. This struggle is translated into strategic plans to not merely achieve independence, but to articulate – through the question of independence – a further political demand for freedom. My trip to the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria was welcomed by the political leadership of Polisario, the armed wing of the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic. My presence was not as that of an ethnographer, but rather as a Moroccan. One of the questions that I faced upon my arrival to the camps was given that I’m Moroccan, what was I doing there?

For the leadership, it was an excellent opportunity to prove to a Moroccan that unlike the official Moroccan discourse, Saharawis have led a struggle and succeeded after forty years to build state institutions on a borrowed land. Ordinary Saharawis reacted to my presence in the camps in different ways. Some had a hard time accepting that I was Moroccan; despite the fact that whenever my field assistant introduced me to anyone, she made sure that I was introduced as a Moroccan researcher from Egypt. Adding the ‘Egypt’ part – the country where I live and study – does not change the fact that for them I remain Moroccan. However, the way Saharawis engage with ideas and desires beyond institutional politics opened new ethnographic and intellectual possibilities for me not only as an ethnographer, but also as a feminist interested in the way feminism – as a movement for social justice – is being revamped in the region of North Africa/the Sahel.

The legal drama over the legibility of sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara territory has made the Saharawi project one about mere national liberation. Visual and written contributions from Global North activists discussing the Sahara, the Saharawi refugees, and the Saharawi national liberation movement set their political visions in making these issues known to the outside world. In other words, these efforts want to mediatise an unknown anticolonial struggle in a declared postcolonial world, and to make sure that the Saharawi struggle is present in the media scene.

My fieldwork lasted twenty-five days, with a last minute request to extend for another ten. Most researchers who visit the camps for their fieldwork are granted less than two weeks as not only part of a security approach that is imposed by the Algerian military and Polisario, but also of the coordinators’ perceptions on what is research. This is due in part to a tradition of conducting evidence-based or policy-based research in camps. To gain permission to access the camps, I was in touch with a female Saharawi activist from the National Union of Saharawi Women (NUSW) who informally managed to put me in touch with the specific organism responsible for foreigner visits to the camps. Although there were many people involved in this process, it remained very informal in the sense that there were no specific documents acknowledging my visit – at least that were presented to me. This could either be attributed to the fact that my safety was one of the concerns of the people who tried to help me manoeuvre around the Moroccan intelligence services, who knew every step I was taking in Algeria, or because it is specifically the kind of management of researchers undertaken by the Polisario. The stay ended up being coordinated by the NUSW as an organisation, and not only the member whom I contacted first as an independent individual (as opposed to a researcher). Reasons for this were given in the form that all researchers coming to the camps need to be endorsed by a specific institution or organisation. The NUSW as an institution ended up endorsing my research and coordinating all the visits to official sites and with people.

During the twenty-five days I spent in Tindouf, I stayed at the house of Amina, a woman in her mid-twenties. Amina was chosen as a host by the Polisario department of protocol (where she also works) which coordinates visits of foreigners as requested by the NUSW. The NUSW believed that Amina and I would connect due to the fact that we were close in age. She lived with her daughter and husband. Her family lived next door, and they were known in the neighbourhood for receiving foreign guests.

The activities of the NUSW do not seem to be revolutionary in the sense that they do not present issues of Saharawi women differently from other national women’s movements worldwide. The NUSW’s agenda changed specifically in the second half of the 1990s when the cease-fire was signed between Morocco and Polisario. Humanitarian agencies started development or solidarity focused programmes in the refugee camps. Spaniards are among the most interested groups in establishing solidarios – a term used in the refugee camps to mean Spanish solidarity groups with the Saharawis – networks that campaign for the Sahara’s independence. For the Saharawis to direct attention of solidarios, a certain political performance had developed through which Saharawi organisations – and specifically the NUSW – adopted a discourse highlighting the achievements of Saharawi women in economic, social, and political spheres. The discourse was not simply presented as the differences between Saharawi women and their Arab fellows in North Africa and the Middle East, but it also picked a language that is embedded in the developmental industry. Hence, there is little chance to locate the revolutionary politics of the Saharawi feminist movement in their official work.

In a conversation I had with a member of the NUSW, who held a high position in the leadership of the union, she told me: “Sometimes we think that it is better that we still haven’t got our independence. We have more time to work on certain issues.” This statement came as a surprise to me, as I have yet to find a national liberation movement that challenges the limitations of their national project. I began to think about the possibilities Saharawi women are trying to put in place under the framework of a ‘put-on-hold’ Saharawi nation-state. In most Saharawi discourses, there is a national narrative in place for the Sahrawi nation-state. There is the legal, historical, and political perspective that every Saharawi I met feels the need to stress on. But once you pass this step, there is room for more critical reflection on what are the real questions, problems, and issues that will continue to be at play whether Saharawis have their own state or not.

The NUSW’s feminists distinguish themselves from the Western canon of feminism in how certain issues pertaining to gender equality are expressed and the way gender is politicised. Despite the fact that the NUSW remains part of the Saharawi National Congress (it is the only way it can exist as an organised body in the Saharawi refugee camps), its ultimate mission is not restricted to the plight of independence. However, it does not mean that the predominant activities that reach the international public are not those that are independence-focused.

Activities carried out by the NUSW are premised on the primary demand of the independence of Saharawis… but independence from what? In other words, how can the Saharawi feminist project – which is part of an independence movement – articulate its politics while performing differently in a presumed postcolonial world? And why is it considered that certain issues belonging to the social arena (e.g. voting in favour of a family code) should be resolved prior to independence? In many ways, the project of the nation-state is one that strives to liberate through control. A nation-state cannot exist without institutions, laws and machineries of control. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has already fetched itself as a state through implementing state apparatus in all domains of life. Although the SADR does not possess its claimed territory and full international recognition, Saharawis in the refugee camps in Tindouf live under structures and laws of a controlling machine.

Among other issues being discussed by the NUSW, writing the family code and institutionalising it is one of the major debates. As a necessary tool of the state to hegemonise differences, practices and organisations, laws are created to govern people. If for any reason a group of individuals does not fit any of the pre-established categories, more categories should be created for what is considered the minorities. However, what kind of law has the SADR inspired to put, and is it particularly problematic for the NUSW feminists? A member of the Association of Families of Saharawi Prisoners and the Disappeared said that there is an intense debate among the Saharawi leadership and activists on institutionalising the family code. According to him, some activists are counter-arguing the necessity of having a family code: “just because the model of the state asks you to have laws for everything, it does not mean it will work for us [Saharawis].” His argument is that Saharawi women may lose entitlements they already enjoy due to the nature of this kind of social inscription in the law. “If we are speaking about law, we already have a law. I would rather call it our own organisation of social, political, and economic issues. It is however, not written, simply because before [today] we did not feel the necessity to make it a sacred thing. As a community, we found solutions to social problems and justice has been the concern for us all. But justice is also political and this is why SADR feels it is time to translate it into a fixed law. This law will not speak into the way we handled our own matters,” he said.

It is particularly the elusiveness of state penetration into the life of the Saharawi community that creates this uneasy problem. For a group of people who believe in the politics of a community, of doing justice from the rough-and-tumble of everyday life, as opposed to enclosing it to the moral space of law, it becomes harder when the language of the modern world asks you to organise yourself according to the model of nation-states. There is no space for community politics in the modern state politics whereby the legality of law should be acquired in community practices.

Furthermore, one of the other points that emerges as a concern for Saharawi feminists is the kind of material inequalities rising in the refugee camps. When Polisario signed the ceasefire in 1991, the battlefield no longer provided Saharawis with salaries. Food aid was and still is minimal because the Saharawi national struggle never succeeded in reaching the international public. Polisario was well aware of the new shapes of sociality and politics that will occur after the ceasefire, and given that, it took about eight years for the United Nations to finalise the lists of voters on the self-determination referendum, and it was necessary for the camps to develop some new economic aspects. Money started flowing from shops that offered mechanical services, foodstuff, clothes, electronics, etc. With this came material disparities between refugees.

For instance, my host Amina got married two years ago and hadn’t finished construction on her house. During my stay, I was invited to a wedding ceremony of a friend of Amina’s. Her friend was the daughter of a minister in the government of SADR. The minister’s house was located at the centre of Bojdor camp, the newest of the five refugee camps. He had electricity and running water, which all of other houses did not have and instead relied on tarpaulin water storage tanks. The house had two floors and the walls were covered in high quality tiles. When I returned to Amina’s house, the whole evening was spent talking about how wealthy the minister’s family is, and how other family friends of the minister and Mauritanian businessmen are getting wealthier everyday.

The struggle of the Saharawi feminists to articulate their vision that goes beyond the question of the nation-state is what is still being constructed. There isn’t a particular language that this group of women has been able to utter. Contradictions are clear when one analyses the discourses, manifestos, and conference speeches that members of the NUSW adopt when they feel the need to play by the rules of the modern humanitarian machine – that is to play the role of the victim and the colonised. But outside of these performative politics, there is room for a critical assessment of the national liberation movement and their role as feminists. The previous quotes and examples were to suggest that there is a feminist vision in the single narrative of the Saharawi struggle. The question becomes: What do you do when you achieve independence? If independence from Morocco will bring social and political justice to the Saharawis, how can an undesired, apolitical family code bring justice to the same women who have fought for their yet-to-be-state alongside their fellow men? Although these questions are far from being resolved, a closer look at how this particular movement will add to the feminist and social struggles globally will not only complicate issues pertaining to state reform, but also critically doubt the foundations of politics and community organising far from state representational politics. This type of feminist politics demands more than an establishment of the nation-state, of an entity that aims to control more than to liberate, and to regulate differences by recreating them under different names, forms, and conditions. If the nation-state is about representation, which does not take into consideration the subjective understandings of politics, then what the Saharawi feminist movement is manoeuvring is this possibility to find alternative ways of organising. The Saharawi feminist movement, as I wish to engage with it, sheds light on these possibilities outside the master narrative of national liberation.

Kenza Yousfi is a feminist ethnographer, writer, and researcher. Her engagement has been with topics around gendered political economies, issues of political violence, subjectivities in border zones and within movements of migration, escape, and liberation movements. Kenza’s prominent occupation is being in the field.