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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 16:36 GMT
Sahara women relish their rights
Pascale Harter
By Pascale Harter
BBC correspondent in Tifariti

Fatma Maulud is a Saharawi from the Western Sahara.

Like most Saharawis she is a Muslim. But unlike most Muslim women, Fatma has been divorced twice and is now on her third husband.

Fatma Maulud
Divorce is not normally acrimonious, says Fatma

Fatma is not a pioneer in Saharawi society.

Compared to many of her friends, her tally of two divorces and three husbands is paltry. Some Saharawi women divorce and re-marry eight times or more.

In most Muslim cultures, a divorced woman becomes a social pariah. But in Saharawi culture she is both more respected than an unmarried virgin, and more alluring.

With a shy smile at his wife, Fatma's third husband Mohamed explains the benefits of having an experienced wife.

"Clearly, a woman who already has experience is better than a woman who you have to train in matters of relations with men," he said.

"A woman with experience is much more highly-regarded than a woman who is just taking her first steps in relationships."

Saharan split

Divorce is not usually acrimonious in the Sahara, says Fatma.

"The couple usually agree it is no longer working and the husband will leave. No fuss, no alimony and no shame," she explains.

Three months after the divorce, the ex-wife will hold a party to celebrate her new-found single status. But it does not last for long.

Fatma Maulud and husband, Mohamed
Fatma is with Mohamed... for the time being
A new suitor usually presents himself at the party.

To Saharawi women the right to marry and divorce as many times as they like is inalienable.

It is not something new says Fatma, but the result of years of nomad life, when men went off to wander and women assumed responsibility for the camps.

Neighbouring differences

It is this sort of freedom that Saharawi women say sets their culture apart from Moroccan culture, and one of the reasons why they are prepared to continue their fight for an independent Western Sahara.

"There is a big difference between Saharawi women and Moroccan women," says Fatma.

"They don't have the same culture for their children," she explains.

Saharawi women
Saharawi women are keen to defend their traditions
"In Saharawi culture we don't regard there as being any difference between girls and boys in childhood.

"Where Saharawi women participate in the development of their children's education, women in neighbouring countries do not.

"There is a lot of pressure and aggression against women there and they don't take part in political life so they don't have a big role in social life."

Saharawi women certainly take an active role in their political struggle. Fatma is a councillor in the Polisario Front.

Before this congress she says she and other female politicians in the Polisario Women Politicians group formed a strategy to defend the role of women in the Polisario Front.

"We had many disagreements with some male politicians who have taken on the mindset of Spain, our colonising power" she explained.

"But we will defend the role of women, the tradition of Saharawi society. In old Saharawi tradition it is women who take responsibility. We can be ministers and ambassadors.

"We have many women in these roles but we demand more."

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