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An ethnographic exploration of Saharawi informal representation in Italy

href="">cc C P [/urlThe Saharawi case represents a unique example of women’s inclusion in state-building for an Islamic government-in-exile.

Palestinian activist Randa Farah suggests that Saharawi women have traditionally possessed great autonomy despite being Muslim:

[…] Islam, as practiced by the Sahrawis, is tolerant and liberal. One of several examples of how SADR [Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic] has been able to draw upon local traditions is its institutionalization of women’s rights. Traditionally, women have total autonomy in managing the daily activities in and around the tent. Any form of violence against women, verbal or physical, is condemned and the man is usually ostracized by society. Consequently, these incidents are so rare that the issue of domestic violence against women or children is almost non-existent (Farah, 2003).

It is this mix of a traditional sense of equality and religious tolerance that has helped institutionalise Saharawi women’s rights in a deliberate process that has been acknowledged and supported by various agencies of the United Nations. For instance, a report published by the Women War Peace website for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), notes that: ‘the National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW) is a powerful force that has successfully brought together thousands of Sahrawi women to advocate for their involvement in political and economic processes in the search for peace’ (2010).

It was 1975 when the Saharawi liberation movement, Polisario, renounced its tribal kinship to proclaim national unity and express its desire for independence. The new Saharawi state-in-exile was proclaimed while under Moroccan invasion just before Spain’s withdrawal from the Western Sahara colony. Since the 1976 constitution, SADR has welcomed women in all its ranks of politics. As mothers, teachers, mayors, ministers, political representatives and doctors, Saharawi women have kept their religious and traditional identity, which has enhanced their agency in avoiding illiteracy and promoting political action within the Polisario. They are today represented at all societal levels, both in the refugee camps and overseas. Their participation at international fora is highly regarded and often gives governments and international activists a new angle of discussion on the situation of people in the refugee camps and on possible solutions of the Western Sahara conflict. Despite some allegations against the Polisario’s instrumental use of gender mainstreaming to gain support from the international community (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2009; San Martin, 2009), it is a matter of fact that Saharawi women have a great say within the SADR, and that such policies commenced well before they became norms and benchmarks in foreign policy literature.

The gender mainstreaming process of SADR has been widely discussed in the literature (Lippert, 1992; Olmi, 1998; Baines, 2001; Fiddian-Mendez, 2002; Armstrong, 2008) but what is certain is that their work has been under international scrutiny for over 30 years. Every five years, in the refugee camps of Tindouf, the National Union of Saharawi Women (NUSW) holds the Saharawi Women’s Congress with hundreds of international observers. In 2008 they were invited to visit the European Parliament (Mujeresaharauis blogspot, 2008), and the Pan African Women’s Organisation (PAWO) chose them to represent African women at the UN (Sahara Press Service, 2008).

Literature on the role of political representatives abroad from ‘states-in-waiting’ is limited. The job of a political representative abroad is to develop political, economic and solidarity revenues with the hosting country and for a ‘state-in-waiting’ this means foreign aid and political exposure in the international arena. For example, Amanda Wise looking at the East Timorese Diaspora in Sydney, argued that well-established transnational connections cultivated over twenty-five years by East Timorese representative Ramos Horta, helped this ‘state-in-waiting’ gain significant international support from Australia and eventually its independence (2004: 171). Saharawi representatives have been sent abroad for over thirty-six years and have used their informal ‘diplomatic’ alliances to keep their voice heard by international governments and organisations. United Nation’s Security Council Resolution 1325 reminds us that women’s participation in this area of foreign relations is considered vital. What this case study of gender mainstreaming of Saharawi informal representatives abroad in Italy shows is that women’s participation in the area of diplomacy is also uniquely effective.

Twenty years after Saharawi established a Polisario headquarter in Rome (Rappresentanza) Mariam [2] was posted to Italy as informal representative of the SADR. In an interview conducted in Rome she told how she was recruited in 1994 by the Polisario while she was still studying in Cuba:

‘You see, even during University I was already part of young Saharawi’s organizations, with those … university students in Cuba. I was involved then. I really loved being involved in political action, in the work done there at the Youth Association. Something happened though; in 1991 the referendum came, and it came with a call to the youth to be involved, especially in the bureaucratic jobs of organizing the referendum. I ended up working for the Saharawi commission for the referendum, it was called COSAR, something like the Saharawi MINURSO; well, let’s say, it had relations with MINURSO which was obviously organizing the referendum. The determination act. Some of us were involved with the population’s census, others in translations, other in collecting…Well, we were a true commission which was working only on the referendum. I was working down there, at the refugee camps. Afterwards, in 1993, the referendum was not going ahead; there was this group of youth more or less prepared, let’s say, to help increase awareness abroad about the Saharawi problem. I was sent here in Italy first in 1994, to help the representative that was already here […]. [I stayed] In Italy till ’99. Then I went to Switzerland, to help the representative there who was a woman […] then I was appointed to work in Sweden, and then I came back to Italy again’ (Mariam B., 2007).

Today, Rome’s Rappresentanza has four official [3] foreign representatives, one of whom is a woman. The life of a representative was initially filled with frustrations; often people did not know who the Saharawi were, so it was hard to set up a mission and talk about their role:

‘In the past, you had to always explain who the Saharawi are, were they come from, and this was always very difficult […] now they know who we are, even in a parliament like the Italian parliament, resolutions were passed which favor the diplomatic recognition of the Polisario Front’ (Mariam B., 2007).

Difference in language and culture took their toll, especially when the time spent in one country was never enough to adapt:

‘Maybe in the past people were not ready to live in Western countries. There were limitations of language, the limited ability to learn about that place’s culture. I think that that was one of the three most difficult factors for someone who is taken from a refugee camp and has to fill a very difficult role with very limited resources. […] Almost all the Saharawi representatives know about the West and Western culture. They lived together, they have learnt a lot, and almost all of them speak various languages. They have also learnt, you know, to use their time better, you know, to manage priorities and so on. Something that at the beginning we did not have because we were coming from a completely different world; you were coming from a world entering into another where you had to learn everything, absolutely everything and lots of time was wasted in learning. Once it was learnt, it was already time to change and move into another different culture, another place again, totally different’ (Mariam B., 2007).

Italy is now one of the foremost Saharawi’s supporters in Europe, promoting political debate, humanitarian aid, human rights watch, and containers with any sort of material. Italian NGOs such as the Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli (CISP), Africa ’70, the Cooperazione per lo Sviluppo di Paesi Emergenti (COSPE) and the Centro di Educazione Sanitaria e Tecnologie Appropiate Sanitarie (CESTAS) were the first organizations to set up projects in the Saharawi refugee camps and liaise with Rome’s Rappresentaza:

‘Here the job is primarily to lobby, to make people aware, to get contacts […]. This is a very complicated job, very difficult, but it is also very appealing. In the refugee camps the job is, you know, there it is about surviving, because it is a desert’ (Mariam B., 2007)

The two worlds could not be further apart, but the bridge between them was the work of the political representatives:

‘A solidarity network, with the Saharawi, which is spread out, this is what helps the representative, have lots of support, lots of friendships, lots…with lots of political support, and also strength from all different social groups, of different political backgrounds. With regard to the Saharawi problem, here in Italy for example, it is almost unanimous. Solidarity with the Saharawi people it is not restricted to one political ally, or one political group; from Right to Left for the Saharawi.’ (Hasan C., 2008).

The work done by the Polisario political representatives in Italy made it easier for locals to approach the Saharawi people and support their cause. Mariam B. showed satisfaction in talking about the work done by Italian associations in the camps:

‘Satisfaction is when you see the realization of... the projects. The fact that you are able to find people who are willing to help the Saharawi people. The problems in the camps get solved, in part. When you arrive at the camps you see that in ten years the camps have totally changed. The Saharawi people, from ’75 till now, are the most literate people in Africa, with more than 95-93 percent literacy; this is crazy for a refugee camp. It is a great satisfaction when children go to school every morning, anyone can go at the hospital. Every year, there are more than 9,744 children going overseas with escorting adults, to have their problems solved.’ (Mariam B., 2007).

In 2007, the Italian government discussed the possibility of granting: ‘the Polisario Front’s delegation in Italy a full diplomatic status, as has been done in the past for other liberation’s movements recognized by the UN as official mediators in a peace process’ (Camera dei Deputati, 2007, July 12). After thirty years of lobbying across all political parties, the Polisario had finally obtained from the Italian lower house a motion in support of their political cause. This resolution was bipartisan (Communist parties – PCRC and PRC, Lega Nord - right wing, Italia dei Valori - liberals and Alleanza Nazionale - extreme right wing) and was celebrated as an: ‘important element of foreign policy because it was sympathetic to numerous UN Resolutions, and because it asked for the recognition of a diplomatic status to those [Saharawi] representatives in Italy’ (RaiNews24 - Stampa, 2007).

Today, the job of Saharawi political representatives in Italy is to liaise with many Italian associations created to support the Saharawi right for independence, denounce Moroccan human rights’ violations, and provide relief and material support for the refugee population. According to the official Saharawi website there are thirteen official associations in Italy (ARSO, 2009). Some started as a small committee and later became registered associations or NGO. A representative of the Emilia-Romagna Regional Coordination of all the Saharawi support associations reports that working together has reduced waste of resources and increased the quality of service, but has maintained the associations’ distinctive aims. Generally, the associations’ goals are shaped by two principal factors: solidarity and political action:

‘It is important to try to have a common organization to put our strengths and our ideas together, to plan in a common direction. With regard to Human Rights, in the past we organized seminars and discussion forums, inviting Saharawi activists such as Ali Salem Tamek and Hamineatou Haidar. When we get a hold of such important people we try to organize, as a Regional Coordinative Committee, debates throughout the region. These are just a few days, but very intensive for them, and for us. On our website we constantly update news about occupied territories, refugee camps, and all the other initiatives organized at national level. There is also a mailing-list from which we send out the latest updates. Every day we receive and post news on Saharawi who are arrested. Recently, a member of the CGIL union, who went to the occupied territory with a delegation, was arrested while in a meeting at a Saharawi activist’s house. He was held for twenty-four hours and then released. There have been moments of tension’ (Luca G., 2008).

Rita L., who represents the Rio de Oro association in Marche region, has worked for more than ten years with disadvantaged Saharawi families in the refugee camps. For her, as for many others [4], it all started when Saharawi children arrived in her home town for the Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) programme. Rita’s first project for the Saharawi refugee population was drafted after her first visit to the camps:

‘[…]especially when […] I realized, what we wanted to do and for whom. Yes, we then started a project for the disabled, the population with disabilities, starting first with the school of Smara. With the school of the differently-able, the disabled, of Smara, which then led to a census of the whole refugee camps’ disabled population. This first project of distance-adoption has linked with other projects, again of disabilities and diseases, and somehow has led by the first project of hospitality. This year in Italy we will host disabled children, and perform surgery in the refugee camps (Rita L., 2008)’.

Anna M. was involved with the Saharawi National Association based in Rome which works more on the political situation. According to Anna, being headquartered in Rome gave the association more chances to contact local and international institutions and coordinate solidarity projects at a national level (2008). These associations’ representatives stressed the relevance of having direct Saharawi supervision to help draft their projects:

‘Our association and the Regional coordinating committee listen to his suggestions [Polisario representative from Rome] on projects, since we know that he is the most accredited in knowing the real needs of the Saharawi people. I believe that it is useless to make decision without consulting him.’ (Luca G., 2008)

Italian solidarity and political movements which support the Saharawi cause are now so complex that a new form of representation has emerged within the Saharawi delegation abroad: that of direct participation of young Saharawi studying in Italy just as with the first generation of representatives such as Mariam and Hasan, today’s Polisario Rappresentanza is recruiting young Saharawi in loco to help them build their information campaign. Labib is a Saharawi medical student who has helped the Polisario Rappresentanza since his arrival in 2003:

‘Every day, for example when students, professors and doctors ask me where do I come from, well, I feel...I have to tell all of them my story, tell my peoples story, well it is then when I feel that in a certain way I am a political representative’ (Labib E., 2008).

While Labib was confident of his informal role as Saharawi a representative, Jamila who had lived with an Italian family since she was ten years old, was at first resistant but then, despite the uncertainty of being considered a political representative for the Polisario, Jamila showed confidence in explaining her role as ‘lecturer’:

‘Technically, I do conference presentations, organized by pro-Saharawi’s associations, pro-Saharawi initiatives organized at a national level, and it is increasing. My role, then, is to spread the word about the cause. To inform those who do not know about Saharawi history, how did we get into this situation. [...] Lately, I talk more with the students, high school students. I am working on a project for the Roma Province; four hour conference for each institute, divided in two parts. Here we screen documentaries, photo exhibitions and we talk about the Saharawi cause’ (Jamila D., 2008).

Labib and Jamila were not afraid to show disappointment when they encountered ignorance from the Italians from the Italian people:

‘I felt some sort of rage, let’s say, when I am there, talking about my cause that’s unknown, no one knows who I am. A living people. Often the indifference, especially at political level, allows people to remain uninformed. Can you define this as a problem? I am not sure, to me it is, this situation makes me feel really uncomfortable because often I get asked “where do you come from?” “I am Saharawi” “and who are those Saharawi”. Frequently I feel like saying that I am Algerian, full stop, but, I don’t know, it also depends on the type of person in front of you’ (Jamila D., 2008).

On the other hand, they both express satisfaction and participation in any initiative organized by the Polisario or other associations in order to raise awareness. All Saharawi representatives interviewed in Italy, both formal and informal, agreed that the work carried out by Italian associations in the past ten years helped shape today’s Saharawi refugee camps’ profile:

‘Projects that work well, like the women’s agricultural cooperatives etc. Solidarity is now much more mature. Some strong ties have formed, even without the need for an intermediary, like us, you know. […] This is what is satisfying. When you go to the camps you see the results of many people’s efforts throughout these years’ (Mariam B., 2007).

The Polisario strategy to employ men and women, young and experienced Saharawi to promote their cause for independence is a great example of gender mainstreaming put into practice. This type of insight shows that these informal representatives abroad are practicing public diplomacy not only with the Italian Parliament, but also with the local community. This grassroots contact between the Saharawi people and the pro-Saharawi Italian community express a genuine appreciation of gender mainstreaming as an integral part of what work they perform. This inclusive approach to gender encompasses the Italian associations, the Saharawi representatives and the projects themselves. Saharawi’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict is both a product of and the result of independent gender mainstreaming practices. Saharawi refugees have come a long way to constitute a strong, gender conscious, Islamic democracy.
Thirty-four years after its constitution, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is today not only a name but it carries on a strong international tradition of global and local networking. Saharawi men and women sent overseas as political representatives have helped local people to understand the origin of the Western Sahara conflict and to establish local support. The work done by the joint effort of SADR’s political representatives and the support associations’ representatives has often been crucial in demonstrating the true strength and diversity of Muslim democratise states. This highlight the opportunity for regional peace achieved in part through long term broad based public diplomacy.

* Sonia Rossetti is a PhD candidate at The School of Political Science and International Studies, Queensland University, Australia. In 2011 she was conferred a Master of Research in History and Politics at the University of Wollongong looking at the case of Saharawi foreign representatives and gender mainstreaming. Her current research focus is on gender and public diplomacy.

[1] This article was extracted from a study conducted in 2008-2011 for the completion of a Master Research thesis which can be view in full at
[2] The name Rappresentanza is the exact translation of ‘delegation’ in Italian.
[3] The interviews quoted in this paper were conducted in Italy in February-March 2008. The identity of all the interviewees has been hidden and the names in italics correspond to pseudonyms.
[4] As explained in the introduction, “official representatives” refers to those listed as such by the Saharawi Foreign Department. Informal representatives, on the other hand are those who, while living overseas, were contacted by official Saharawi representatives to help in the Saharawi cause as civil representatives.

[5] I was also first in contact with the Saharawi children while I was in Italy volunteering for a local charity. I hosted Saharawi children in our premises for two consecutive summers then I want on to visit the refugee camps in Tindouf.


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