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Sahara refugees form a progressive society

Literacy and democracy are thriving in an unlikely place.

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2004


A dozen women recline on the steps of the main girls' school in the Saharawi refugee camps, their pastel robes like blots of water-color on the whitewashed cement. When the door opens and the headmistress emerges, the women suddenly leap up and crowd around her, clamoring. They are mothers seeking places for their daughters in the already-crowded school.

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The Saharawi women are among the most liberated of the Muslim world, and their status is characteristic of the well- organized, egalitarian society that has developed in the refugee camps over the past three decades. For all their bleakness, the Saharawi camps boast a representative government, a 95 percent literacy rate, and a constitution that enshrines religious tolerance and gender equality.

The Saharawis are the Arab nomads of Western Sahara, bound together by their Yemeni ancestry and their dialect, Hassaniya, which remains close to classical Arabic. For centuries, they roamed the territory with their camels and goats, sometimes trading with Spanish colonizers, and became known as "blue men" for the indigo robes they wear.

When Spain abandoned Western Sahara in 1975, Morocco invaded and drove the Saharawis into neighboring Algeria. Trading their camels for Land Rovers, they fought a guerrilla war under the leadership of the Polisario Front, an independence movement, until the UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991. Since then, the promised vote on independence has been stalled by disagreement over who should be allowed to participate.


Meanwhile the Saharawi refugees, numbering some 160,000, have clung on in camps amid the flat, stony wastes near the town of Tindouf, in southwest Algeria. Subsisting on foreign aid - chiefly rice, bread, and a few root vegetables - most suffer from chronic malnutrition. Their settlements consist almost wholly of adobe huts and dusty canvas tents, appearing from afar as brown smudges on the slightly lighter brown desert.

"Women built these camps," says Menana Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the Union of Saharawi Women. When the Saharawis arrived at Tindouf, most of the men had stayed behind as soldiers. "You'll still find women doing all kinds of work, including leading," Ms. Mohammed adds.

While most of the top brass are men, the minister of culture is a woman. Women hold one fourth of the seats in the Saharawi parliament, and they make up most of the civil service, including teachers, nurses, and doctors.

"These days our chief concern is education," says Mohammed. All young Saharawis learn Spanish as well as Arabic, and some attend universities in Spain, Cuba, and Algeria through the sponsorship of those countries' governments.

"In the camps, we had to be both sexes, because the men were all away fighting," says Mohammed. There is an old Saharawi saying, she says, that rings especially true today: "A tent is raised on two poles: a man and a woman." The Saharawis' traditionally tough, wandering lifestyle has always made them regard husband and wife as equal leaders of the household.


It has also begotten an individualistic approach to Islam. While most Muslims tend to stress the importance of the Islamic community, "the Saharawis believe that religion is a very personal issue," says Mouloud Said, the Polisario's representative in the United States. "It's a personal relationship between the human being and his Creator. This is the mentality of the nomadic society."