As dusk enveloped the salmon-pink houses of this capital city, the brightly colored robes of women stood out in a mass of protesters chanting for independence from Moroccan rule.
While other colonies in Africa threw off occupiers one by one, this rocky desert expanse on the continent's northwestern coast remains a disputed territory controlled primarily by next-door Morocco and locked in a nearly 40-year-old forgotten struggle for the right to choose its fate. And in a Muslim-majority region where women are often marginalized from politics, women have taken an unusually prominent role in Western Sahara's independence movement.
Their involvement has spanned a guerrilla war with Morocco and, for the past two decades, a mostly peaceful protest movement. Female activists in the former Spanish colony attribute the phenomenon to a combination of the indigenous Sahrawi population's moderate interpretation of Islam and the freedom they derived from their nomadic roots — but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to the prevalence of traditional gender roles, which they say give women the time to demonstrate.
“This is a pride for us, that this is led by women,” said Aminatou Haidar, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the most recognizable face of Western Sahara's nationalist movement.
But as its duration shows, the campaign is an uphill battle that has so far been won by Morocco, which annexed most of Western Sahara after the Spanish withdrawal in 1976. Morocco argues that Western Sahara — home to abundant fishing grounds, lucrative phosphate mines and offshore oil — is an integral part of its territory and that separatists represent just a fraction of the population of about 500,000.
That is now probably the case, because Moroccan citizens — whom the Moroccan government entices to the area with tax breaks — are thought to outnumber the remaining 150,000 or so Sahrawis inside the territory by at least two to one.
The United States, like most nations, does not recognize Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, but calls by the Sahrawi people for a referendum on independence have made little headway. Experts attribute that to a combination of Moroccan lobbying against the proposal, lack of international will to upset one of the region's most stable countries and arguments between Morocco and the Sahrawis' rebel-movement-turned-government-in-exile, the Polisario Front, over who should vote.
Moroccan officials argue that an independent Western Sahara is not viable and that longtime enemy Algeria is backing the cause to stir problems.
“There is no room for a failed state in the region,” Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister Youssef Amrani told reporters in May. “It will fall into the hands of extremists.”
Despite the independence movement's regular protests, the victories are small. Still, it appears to have brought about a shift in Moroccan government policy, which now officially supports making Western Sahara an autonomous region within the Moroccan state.
“Even if I don't reach that day when the Sahara is independent, I am completely convinced that the next generation is going to live the day of independence,” Haidar said.
Instead of the dozens of people that most protests draw, the May march drew more than 1,000, including hundreds of women. Some activists described the protest as the largest in the history of the independence movement, and they partly attributed the crowd strength to anger over a recent U.N. Security Council decision not to approve a U.S. proposal to grant the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara a mandate to monitor human rights. The United States later abandoned the proposal after strong opposition from Morocco, which canceled a military exercise between the two countries in protest.
The key role of women in the independence movement can be partially attributed to the Sahrawis' nomadic background, said Djimi el-Ghalia, a prominent activist. Until the early 20th century, women were often left to run camps while men traveled, putting the women in control of household finances and community management.
The legacy of that tradition was consolidated in the refugee camps in Algeria, home to the Polisario Front and an estimated 165,000 Sahrawis who fled during the 16-year war with Morocco, which ended in 1991. Women are responsible for much of the administration of the camps.
“Compared to the status and role of women in the Islamic societies along the Mediterranean coast, Arabia . . . women in Western Sahara enjoy significant advantages,” said Jacob Mundy, an assistant professor at Colgate University and co-author of “Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution.”
“The war gave women in the camps more opportunities to become involved in the daily operations of the independence struggle and the effort to build a state in exile,” he said, while in the territory across the border, female activists play a “huge role.”
Sahrawi female activists say they generally have freedom to express their political views, and women divorce without stigma.
Female empowerment spans both ends of the political spectrum, and some women work in support of the Moroccan government.
Malainin Oum el-Fadl is among them. She heads l'Espace Associatif de Laayoune, a women's collective that gives grants to small businesses and was established after thousands of Sahrawis set up a protest camp near the capital in 2010; the camp was later dismantled by Moroccan authorities.
“We wanted to absorb that tension,” Fadl said. “We are not concerned with politics. . . . To us, bread comes before politics.”
And not all is positive for women in the Algerian camps; there have been reports of women being imprisoned for adultery, and they remain excluded from the highest political posts. In Western Sahara, too, while traditional gender roles have freed women to push for independence, those norms also often mean that they do not pursue careers.
“It's about the space provided,” Ghalia said. “Women stay at home and get more involved; at the same time, men don't want to lose their jobs.”
Women have paid a high price for their role in the independence struggle. Ghalia and Haidar spent years in detention centers for their political activism in the late 1980s, when forced disappearances of Sahrawis were widespread, according to human rights groups.
Sitting in a traditional bedouin tent erected on the rooftop of her Laayoune home, Ghalia pulled back her head scarf to show her scarred scalp, which she said was doused in a stinking mix of chemicals while she was in detention. She said she spent most of nearly four years blindfolded and was often stripped naked and subjected to torture.
“I still have the scars from the dogs biting my flesh,” she said.
Although the darkest abuses are over, torture still goes on, rights groups say. Last month, Human Rights Watch reported that Moroccan courts have convicted Western Saharan activists on the basis of confessions obtained through torture or falsified by police.
In a hotel in Laayoune, another activist, Sultana Khaya, recalled a 2007 protest during which she said a police officer hit her face until her eye socket was crushed, causing her to lose one eye.
She showed bruises from her most recent run-in with police.
“This is just a small testament compared with the testaments of other Sahrawi women since 1975,” said Khaya, 32. “The Sahrawi woman is very great; she's very powerful. I don't even think about getting married until the Sahrawi women become independent.”