NEAR TINDOUF, Algeria — Our goal was to understand the dynamics of women who live in the refugee camps here in the Sahara Desert, where tens of thousands of Sahrawi people reside in tents and mud-brick buildings, having fled their homeland up to decades ago.
The camps originated in 1975-1976, when the Sahrawis first escaped fighting in Western Sahara, territory they claim from Morocco, against Moroccan forces. The disputed region in North Africa has been stuck in limbo since then, now reflecting a political battle pitched between Morocco and the Polisario Front — the Sahrawi national liberation movement — that big powers in the United Nations Security Council prefer to leave hanging.
It is also a quiet turf war between Morocco and Algeria, which financially backs the Polisario Front, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro.
“We’re not here for a better life, we’re here for a safer life,” said one woman we met, referring to the difficult conditions in the camps, which house about 165,000 people, according to the UN and Algeria, and are dominated by women in this traditionally matriarchal Muslim society.
The UN Security Council is debating the Western Sahara situation in April, when such outstanding issues as natural-resource exploitation, human rights, independence and other related negotiations between Polisario and Morocco will receive their regular attention through the UN’s “referendum” mission, called Minurso. As to whether the status quo — little happens — will change remains to be seen. The council has been leaning more favorably toward Morocco, which the permanent-five members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) consider a crucial ally to contend with terrorism in the Sahel region.
We first contacted the Polisario Front, the camp overseers, to set us up with a family to research women’s roles there. As anthropologists, we wanted to see the extent to which the camps are run by women, as many of the men are elsewhere, participating in the military arm of the Polisario in Western Sahara.
In early September, we were met at the airport in the town of Tindouf and taken in a military convoy to Boujdour camp, our home for a few weeks. There are five district camps, named after towns of Western Sahara. Our hosts were the National Union of Sahrawi Women, an organization that assists the camps and who confirmed that the settings were entirely managed by the residents, who receive food supplies from the UN and other international donors and remittances from Sahrawi migrants. The camps suffer from a brain drain, as employment and other choices are limited.
Life in the camps requires tolerating incredible heat. On a good day during our visit, it hit 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, but most days the temperature rose to 42 to 45 degrees Celsius. We often felt as if the heat rendered the camp silent, with only the sound of the wind blowing over the sand. The desert stretches beyond the horizon and blends into Boujdour’s sandy brown buildings. Scattered animal bones, car wrecks, plastic rubbish and electrical wires lay around the camps. Everything is covered in sand.
The only burst of color comes from the bright robes women drape over themselves. We, too, draped ourselves in the robes, but we avoided wearing head scarves and the thick woollen gloves the women wear, even inside their home. When they go outside, they cover every inch of their body to protect themselves from the sun.
We spent our days among the women who run the camp as they did things like distribute food and school supplies. The women were highly organized and held meetings, just for women, to discuss what resources would be available for the coming school year, since they are responsible for ensuring the education of the camp children. One morning, more than 40 women answered the loud morning call to gather by a mosque to discuss the issue.
One afternoon, while keeping out of the heat, we played a game called “sik,” using sand and sticks, with a group of women in a tent for hours. “There’s not much to do around here and we’re always waiting for something,” our translator told us (the residents generally speak an Arabic dialect, Hassaniya). She said that patience was one quality she had to learn upon arriving in the camps 20 years ago. And it’s true, we spent many hours waiting for something: the heat to ease, the Internet cafe to open, to be picked up for a meeting.
Most of the time we spent observing our host family. The mother and the father shared the duties, the mother cooking and the father caring for the children when he was not working or making tea.
When we asked about the struggles of women in the camp, they never spoke about violence or of rape. They didn’t complain of harassment or of physical violence from their husbands. Instead, they spoke of the burning heat and of not having enough water as well as their quest for independence.
Our host, Salma, described the strong respect women receive among the Sahrawis. Women, she said, were considered equal to men in many ways; for example, they are free to divorce here, and even hold a party when they are divorced. In many other Islamic countries, divorce is forbidden, especially when initiated by a woman. Traditionally, if a new suitor becomes interested in a divorced woman, he arranges the divorce party, but because men must be away for months serving in the Polisario military, a friend of the woman usually arranges the celebration.
Questioned further about violence against women, Khadja Hamdi, the minister of culture of the Sahrawis, who is based in the camp, said she knew about a man who years ago physically abused his wife. She divorced him and married another man. The divorced man is still alone because no woman is willing to marry him, Hamdi said.
Nuha Abidin, who is responsible for the human-rights sector of the National Union of Sahrawi Women, raised concerns about changes in the nonviolent nature among Sahrawis, since lately she had heard cases of violence and rape in the Tindouf camps. Abidin said she felt that these were learned behaviors of youth who traveled abroad and returned with changed values.
The struggle for women’s equal participation in the camp society is hardly perfect, and many women said that they still fought for their rights even in their women-friendly culture. Hamdi, the minister of culture, said that it was tiring for many women to be both leaders and provide for their families while many of the men were gone.
Mostly, the women want to go back to Western Sahara and live in freedom.
“You can’t be human without your freedom,” said a UN official based in the region, referring to the Sahrawis’ epic struggle for independence from Morocco.
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.