My trip to the Western Sahara this month was the first time I had ever traveled to a Muslim country — and as a very Caucasian Christian American woman, I had some reservations.
Before you get excited, this will not be a commentary on Islam. I have no intention of drawing any conclusions about the religion — my goal is simply to illustrate what I saw on the ground in the Western Sahara.
The Western Sahara, for the majority of you who have no idea where it is, is the land between Algeria and Morocco that has long been in dispute. The Saharwi people fled Morocco 35 years ago and have been in camps on the Algerian side of the border ever since, fighting for self-determination. I was not entirely sure what to expect out of this trip, but I hopped on my plane to Paris amidst a chorus of questions and concerns from my friends and family.
The morning after our arrival in the Western Sahara, we went to the February 27th camp to meet with the head of the women’s school and wound up in the middle of a Saharwi heritage festival.
Standing on the edge of the parade, listening to the music and watching the dancing, I quickly forgot any reservations I had and was drawn to the women and children. They wore bright tie-dyed malfas, beads and jewelry. They smiled at us and welcomed us into their tents for tea and taught us how to play games. They were beautiful and confident and gracious, and I immediately realized that whatever subconscious preconceived notions I had about their culture, I had been wrong.
I learned quickly that the concerns were totally unnecessary, and that the Saharwi women were breaking all my stereotypes.
Many left their faces uncovered. They held positions of power in government. They were well educated, and pushed back against the oppressive Moroccan regime. There was a sense that the women had more to lose in the battle than men – they were fighting for their freedom with everything they had.
The festival itself was a celebration of the Saharwi people. The flags they waved read “Sahara Libre” across the bottom. They laughed and danced and watched children sing traditional songs. Substitute a decorated convertible for the camels and replace the dusty Sahara ground with Main Street and it wasn’t unlike a small town parade in America.
We wandered around and purchased jewelry from the merchants and spoke to many of the people in the town, who seemed nothing but grateful to have Americans in their midst. Most of them spoke two and three languages, making it easy to communicate and ask questions . . . and making me feel the part of the ignorant American who only spoke English and a bit of pathetic Spanish.
Later in the week, we had the opportunity to meet with Nana Rachid, the director of the Union of Saharwi Women. I was so taken with her and what she had to say — our meeting was easily one of the highlights of my week. She was beautiful, confident and incredibly intelligent, laughing easily and happy to spend time taking questions.
She focused on the level of education, touting their 95 percent literacy rate (100 percent in people under age 35 — the period of time since the Saharwi people moved to the camps).
Nana Rachid spoke of the small business loans for women, enabling them to start up agricultural and textile businesses.
The women raise their children, work hard outside the home, and are treated with respect. They divorce and remarry, and are entitled to the house and children in the instance of a split. Nana spoke of her disdain for men who take multiple wives and the practice of arranged marriages (although we understood from other conversations that there may be some men who did have more than one wife).
She was in the process of having her fourth book published, both in Arabic and French, and expressed interest in having her poetry translated into English.
One of the other women we had the opportunity to meet with was Mariam Salek Hamada, the minister of education. She fled to the camps in 1975, at age 9, and began her career as a teacher in the early 1990s. By 2004, she had been appointed minister of education.
Judging by the caliber of the people with whom we had the privilege to interact, she does her job well.
After meeting the Saharwis and experiencing firsthand how incredibly well educated they seemed to be, this was a meeting of particular interest.
In 1975, when the Saharwis fled Morocco and the men were off fighting, the women were left on the oases with the children. They began “school” by doing math problems and writing in the sand with sticks or scratching things onto stone.
They now they have their own school buildings in each camp, special accommodations for children with disabilities, and universities.
Their biggest problems remain a shortage of supplies (books, paper, pencils, etc) and educating teachers.
As far as continuing education, they struggle to find places that will provide scholarships for the education of their doctors and those seeking other advanced degrees.
They tend to have more in common with Latin cultures, in part because of the Spanish influence, but also because much of the Arab world believes the Saharwis to be too free. They begged us to bring their students to the United States for higher education, explaining that only Cuba, Spain, Libya, Venezuela and Mexico would take their students.
The difference between the Saharwi people and the other refugees I have encountered was simple: hope. They are there because they choose to be, and they believe they will soon be independent. They don’t believe they will live in camps forever, and they have a vision for what their people can accomplish. Their will is strong, and their fight for freedom is one that should resonate with all of us.
Tabitha visited the camps this month. She received no payment for this trip from any government or from the Polisario, or Sahrawi liberation front. The trip was privately funded by the Defense Forum Foundation.