Young women claiming their future - and one woman's chilling dilemma.
I hear it again and again before I set out for the Sahara: 'The Saharawi women are remarkable - quite different from the women in the other Muslim countries of the region.' The stories are legion of how they have run the refugee camps more or less without men for two decades, of their outspokenness and their education.
Yet whenever I meet anyone in an official position - the wali or governor of a camp, for example, or the person in charge of a hospital, I find I am talking to a man. After a couple of days of being ferried around by a male driver in the company of a male interpreter interviewing mainly men I am feeling frustrated. Where is this legendary 'community of women'?
The answer is: 'all around'. As soon as I step off the treadmill of official interviews and spend time with ordinary families, women come into their own. One such family in Aoserd camp adopts me as 'their own' - they put up my interpreter, Fadel, and me in their mud-brick building while they sleep in their tent (every family has one of each, blending nomadic tradition with functional modernity). Of the ten people (sisters, aunts, cousins) who chat to and around me in this friendly circle only one is male (Muhammad Ali, at 14, is not yet of an age to join the other menfolk at the front).
There is an evident divide between the middle-aged and the young women. The older women have had a tough life: they have been through the difficulties of war and exile, then been responsible not only for their own families but for the day-to-day running of the refugee communities. They have had responsibility in plenty but never had the chance to benefit from education - and perhaps as a result have not assumed positions of power.
The young women are entirely different. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, who received no schooling at all in Saharawi traditional society nor in Spanish colonial schools, they have been well educated and have the perspectives to match.
Metou Ehel Never by Chris Brazier.
Metou, who is pictured both right and on the front cover, is a case in point. In a way she is a prototypical Saharawi New Woman - educated at the higher levels in Algeria, she speaks English, has already spent time in Sweden, Greece and Spain and now works in the social-services section of one of the camps, helping women in particular to resolve family disputes. She says her favourite country is Sweden because it is so miraculously green in comparison with the desert.
But it is clear enough that she has also enjoyed the freedom from woman's traditional role that she found while staying in Europe: the photos she shows me see her without any hair covering, which rather shocks Fadel, the interpreter. While Saharawi women do not have to cover their faces they are generally expected to wear something over their hair. Metou says she would actively prefer to dress in the Western way and hopes this will be possible in Saharawi society as women gain more confidence and power in their new role.
'There is certainly no going back to the old ways,' she says determinedly. 'When we get our independence there is no way women are going to accept a return to the old traditions.' Metou's own mother was a victim of the old ways - married off at 10, she gave birth to Metou at 14. But even she has found a new life of her own: at 19 she persuaded her husband to give her a divorce and has since remarried and had children with a new partner of more similar age.
Metou, meanwhile, was brought up by her aunt, who fled into exile after the Moroccan invasion. When she talks of her homeland it is of a land of which she has no memory but about which she speaks with startling vehemence.
'I am 23 years old and I've never seen my country, never seen my father, who was one of the first people arrested after the Moroccan invasion. We've never had any news - he just disappeared. It makes me so angry to think of it. Of course I want the talks to work out but I don't hold out much hope. And I would prefer to go back to war than to live in safety without honour.'
One of the people taking the decision about whether or not to go back to war will be the most powerful woman in the country. Moma Sidi Abdehadi is the President of the Union of Women and the only female member of Polisario's National Secretariat - effectively the government of this nascent nation. We meet in her tent as the sun sets over the 27 February Women's School. She does her best to make me welcome, pouring tea in the normal, hospitable, demonstrative way. But her manner is brisk and businesslike and she is clearly pressed, her mind elsewhere. In her face you can almost see the burden of responsibility she feels.
She talks to me about the achievements of the Union of Women and about the remarkable transformation in women's condition, of which she is justly proud.
'We formed the Union of Women in 1974 to help liberate the country from Spanish colonization. Yes, we were interested in the rights of women but national liberation was the key. We organized ourselves in secret cells. But really women didn't come into their own until after we had been forced into exile.
'It was women who had to take primary responsibility for building the camps: in a sense we were at the front, but just a different front from the men and we had to take responsibility for health, education, water, sanitation, everything.
'We have not yet achieved our full rights and there is a lot of work to do - rights will never be given, they have to be taken - but we have come a long way. This society is run very much by women: the staff of the nurseries are 100-per-cent female, administration is 85-per-cent female and education 70-per-cent female.'
But, I point out, all the positions of power are still filled by men - of the 33 people on the National Secretariat, 32 are men.
'I told you we were illiterate not long ago and we still have a mindset that derives from that to some extent. It seems quite natural to me, given this, that women tend to vote for men rather than for other women. We do have outstanding women figures. But it's perfectly true that we have to fight against the old mentality.'
The formal interview is over - Moma has run through the structure of the women's movement in detail that need not detain us here. But I ask her if she could tell me a little about her personal history. I have asked this of everyone I have interviewed and up to now everyone has been refreshingly ready to tell something of their own story.
Moma, though, is reluctant. She says she wants to talk about the issues rather than herself. I think this is just reticence. So I push a little, explaining that people in the outside world need to hear people's personal stories if they are to understand and feel for the tragedy of Western Sahara.
She concedes that she will tell me a little about her life but once she starts her story it takes on a momentum of its own. The darkened tent, lit by a single gaslamp, fills with the terrible picture she paints. Her words falter sometimes as tears well up, overwhelming them. I soon understand why she is loath to revisit her past at the whim of a passing journalist.
'I was active in a secret cell of the resistance movement at the time of the Moroccan invasion. In 1976 I was arrested and imprisoned along with 70 other women from Smara who were active in the Polisario cause. It was a terrible time - a time of massacre, when there was an attempt to exterminate the Saharawi race. None of us had any chance to tell our families what had happened to us - as far as they were concerned we just disappeared.
'No words can describe the situation there. We went on hunger strike for better conditions and 25 men died as a result. Torture was absolutely routine and Moroccan soldiers had licence to do whatever they pleased. They used to give us electric shocks in the hands, feet or ears. They used to beat us over tables. They would soak material in acid and then put it on people's faces. People were hung up by their feet and had their heads hit.
'My friend Barka was hung up by her hands and because she was then fat this did great damage she cannot use her hands any more. She was not released until 1991, after 15 years of these conditions. When she was imprisoned she had only been married for three months and by the time she was released she was too old to have children.' Moma cries as she recalls a recent letter smuggled out from her friend in which she expressed her misery at being deprived of the chance to have children.
She considers herself lucky - she was released after two years without being given a reason while friends, who were no more active in the resistance than she, were left inside. She tried to resume a normal existence. But she found life in the Occupied Territories intolerable and there was always the danger that she would be taken in for more torture or imprisonment. So she decided she had to try to escape across the desert to the liberated zones. The journey was bound to be desperately dangerous and arduous. She knew that she would never make it if she had both her children with her.
So she had to make the most terrible choice of all - between her two children. She decided to take her son, who was older and would be able to walk at least part of the way, and to leave behind her daughter, who was just two, in the care of her aunt.
Her eyes filled with tears, she passes me the last photo of them together, on her daughter's second birthday. The joy of the celebration in the picture seems unbearably poignant: there have been 12 empty, desolate birthdays since.
I feel humbled by her pain and her sacrifice. No human being should have to make such a choice. She invites me to stay longer and talk of happier things but it seems indecent to do so. I say instead that I'll make a point of visiting her and her daughter together when her country is liberated. And as we drive away into the dark of the desert leaving her solitary figure, I feel that for once I have found the right thing to say.
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