Reproductive Justice In Western Sahara Between Patriarchal And Nationalist Discourse And The Right To Self-Determination

Women in a protest. The border of the image is filled with illustrations of contraceptives.
@FeministConsciousness, Original photo by Alain RAFFESTIN

The reproductive reality in Western Sahara collides with many constraints, including those related to the colonial context and the reality of exile under which the Saharawi people have lived since the Spanish invasion at the beginning of the last century, up to the Moroccan invasion in 1975. Another aspect is related to the patriarchal tribal system on which society is based and its values ​​which are made by those who are capable and able to procreate, which imposes motherhood as an inevitable role. The policies and discourses produced on this subject are limited to two dimensions: one of motherhood as a feminine nature and one of motherhood as a revolutionary duty, in a complete absence of any approaches that put women and birthing persons in the picture and enable them to have the right to choose.

Saharawi patriarchy and reproductive exploitation

Tracing the impact of policies and discourses on reproductive issues in the Saharawi context through popular memory and intergenerational narration as an epistemological and historical source takes us towards a patriarchal rule, which is linking women and those with childbearing ability to motherhood as a duty and an inevitable role. Society has been prepared, both morally and institutionally, through the family, the community, and the tribe, to establish this rule and prepare women to play it since childhood.

The tribe as a political and social leader of the Saharawi society forced the consolidation of this exploitation by assigning women to increase the number of members of the tribe which led to increasing the social and economic power of the tribe. 

Furthermore, the Saharawi tribe in the past two centuries, according to the stories transmitted down among women, penetrated into patriarchal authoritarianism over the fate and bodies of women and non-binary persons, and set strict rules on the sexual and reproductive lives of individuals. As a result, it produced social discourses and policies that imposed a reproductive reality that runs in one line, which is to give birth to the largest possible number, despite the high rates of child and maternal mortality as a result of the absence of health care institutions and the hard Bedouin lifestyle.

Despite the important and transformative role played by Saharawi women in building refugee camps and state institutions in exile… the revolutionary regime’s discourse could not escape the cycle of reproductive exploitation and patriarchal authoritarianism over women’s destinies and bodies.

The situation for Saharawi women did not change much after the Polisario Front began its armed revolution against Spanish colonialism. The front was founded on the values ​​of socialism and liberation in 1973. After three years of armed resistance against Spanish colonialism, a tripartite agreement between the neighbours (Morocco, Mauritania) and Spain was established which required them to hand over the land of the Saharawis to their neighbours in return for preserving the interests of Spain. 

Following the displacement of half of the Saharawi population in exile and entering a new era of invasion and colonization and this time from the neighbours, Saharawi women found themselves in front of a new reproductive reality, which is to provide the people and the revolution with the numbers necessary to continue, especially with the reality of the systematic genocide the Saharawi people lived through during the years of invasion and war.

The revolutionary discourse of the Polisario Front during the four decades 1970-2000 of the revolution was dominated by a stereotypical patriarchal discourse that saw women as a human production machine and confined them to the role of social reproduction, by mobilizing institutional and social forces to facilitate this task and using revolutionary and nationalist discourses to persuade more women to engage in the reproductive process.

Despite the important and transformative role played by Saharawi women in building refugee camps and state institutions in exile, transforming society and adapting it to emerging conditions such as displacement, war, asylum and the harsh conditions they imposed, the revolutionary regime’s discourse could not escape the cycle of reproductive exploitation and patriarchal authoritarianism over women’s destinies and bodies.

Reproductive justice in Western Sahara is still a question far from the lived reality and from the movements aimed at changing the reality of the Saharawi people.

Certainly, imposing a certain reproductive reality on women and those with childbearing abilities does not negate the fact that a number of them engaged in this process voluntarily, especially since it was related to the process of decolonization and liberation. But the reproductive policies that are enacted from the head of a system dominated by patriarchy, whether it comes to the policies of limiting the population or increasing it for national, class, or even revolutionary reasons in the end is a violent and patriarchal power that doesn’t take into account the right of the people to decide for themselves, nor the reproductive justice that emphasize the importance of people’s choices.

Reproductive justice in Western Sahara and the horizon of formation

Reproductive justice in Western Sahara is still a question far from the lived reality and from the movements aimed at changing the reality of the Saharawi people. And with the fact that the Saharawi feminist and queer movement is still in its early stages of formation, issues such as justice and reproductive health remain far from the collective discussions despite the presence of its signs.

Reproductive health and justice for Saharawi women remain a far reality. Whether it is related to providing the necessary, safe and sustainable conditions for childbearing, or with regard to abortion, contraceptives, health and sexual education, or the necessary political discussions and education on the subject. Factors such as asylum, occupation, religious and tribal fundamentalism, and patriarchy are rooted in all institutions and values ​​exacerbated the poor health of women and the absence of safe options to exercise the right to sexual and reproductive choices or to have alternative options.

The establishment of Reproductive Justice in the Saharawi context and the ability to enable women and birthing persons to the right to reproductive self-determination in maternity, abortion, contraceptives and sexual health cannot happen without the evacuation of Moroccan colonialism, and the return of women refugees and refugees to their land, and popular sovereignty over economic resources that facilitate the achievement of such necessary conditions. And it can’t happen without purifying society of the patriarchal system and its values and ridding it of tribal, racist and patriarchal hierarchies. Until then, we need to illuminate the reproductive issues in Western Sahara more and their intersections with colonialism, patriarchy and asylum.

BY FEMINIST CONSCIOUSNESS نحو وعي نسوي