Gender-Based Violence in Sahrawi Society

Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women. These have led to domination over, and discrimination against, women by men. When it comes to the prevention of the full advancement of women,  violence against women is one of the most crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared to men.

According to Article 1 of the General Assembly’s declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, gender-based violence is defined:

 The term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

According to Article 2 of the same declaration gender based violence includes, but is not limited to:

Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation.

Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;

Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.

In addition, the term gender-based violence refers to “any acts or threats of acts intended to hurt or make women suffer physically, sexually or psychologically, and which affect women because they are women or affect women disproportionately“.

As stated by the U.N. Women statistics of 2018, it is estimated that there are 650 million women and girls in the world today who were married before age 18. During the past decade, the global rate of child marriage has declined—from one in four young women (aged 20-24) being married as children, to almost one in five. Still, in West and Central Africa—where this harmful practice is most common—over four out of 10 young women were married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage often results in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupts schooling, limits the girl’s opportunities and increases her risk of experiencing domestic violence

At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in the 30 countries with representative data on prevalence. In most of these countries, the majority of girls were cut before age five. With population movement, female genital mutilation is becoming a practice with global dimensions, in particular among migrant and refugee women and girls.

Approximately 15 million adolescent girls (aged 15 to 19) worldwide have experienced forced sex (forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts) at some point in their life. Out of these, 9 million adolescent girls were victimized within the past year. In the vast majority of countries, adolescent girls are most at risk of forced sex by a current/former husband, partner or boyfriend. Based on data from 30 countries, only one per cent ever sought professional help.

In a multi-country study from the Middle East and North Africa, between 40 and 60 per cent of women said they had experienced street-based sexual harassment (mainly sexual comments, stalking/following, or staring/ogling).

Furthermore, there’s one specific type of violence that is wildly spread throughout the MENA region, that is symbolic violence. Bourdieu uses symbolic violence as an analytical perspective to describe how differences are built, acted on and reproduced. This perspective considers not only the difference of power between women and men but also the mechanisms of production and reproduction of the practices involved in the re-negotiation of asymmetry. The socially legitimate patterns of identity and behavior are social constructions, which are adopted as temporary representations, even though they seem natural and immutable.

Symbolic violence coexists with other forms of violence, and because it sustains them, other patterns of violence are legitimized. It consists mainly of male guardianship that interfere in women’s lives and choices and bans them from simple basic rights such as education, work, self care, how they dress, who they befriend….etc

In all of the Middle East and North Africa, the nature of the patriarchal society gives the right to control and monitor women to the males of the family. It’s about the ownership of the female body and the female mind.

Contrary to popular belief, gender based violence does exist in the Saharawi society. It’s a patriarchal tribal religious society built on a culture full of male centralization and on the strong belief that women are inferior to men, with inevitable gender roles for women: to give birth and raise children.

The obstacles we face when we try to study gender based violence are unlimited. Due to the nature of our society and the fear of shame and scandals, victims of violence rarely speak up or report to the authorities. This makes it harder to have precise information and statistics on violence in all its forms. We can detect symbolic violence in the discrimination against women and their upbringing, in the juridical system, in the lack of female political representation, in economic rights, in the social status of women, everything down to the views about women in culture & religious heritage, and our image in media.

And, most importantly, in the unfair tribal system that controls us.

It’s by far the most complex form of patriarchy that enforces the position of subordination of women. I spoke above about the rarity of female testimonies of violence; tribal laws play a big role in the silencing of victims.

In the case of rape, for example, the tribes of the victim and the rapist will announce a meeting that resolves the case without reporting it to the authorities. The resolving, or the Tribal Reconciliation:  “Amsegri” “Serba”, often comes down to two choices: either an arranged marriage that forces the victim to marry her rapist, or the rapist’s family present a financial gift to the victim’s family.

Tribal reconciliations stands as a wall between the victims of violence and their right to justice. It’s an unfair system built on constraining and oppressing women, silencing them with endless excuses and shaming.

Through participant observation, we can affirm that our society is built on the normalization of domestic violence. It’s legalized and agreed upon as disciplining and educating. Even victims of violence don’t look at it as a crime or an abuse or an unfair treatment to them. It’s prohibited to talk about, and surprising to people when we define violence as it truly is: a crime. This normalizing of violence puts everyone at risk, especially women. It enhances their acceptance of it and enforces the the silence that surrounds it.

A little while ago I was trying to collect testimonies from victims of violence I know, only few had the courage to speak up.  

(O.B) recounts her experience with an abusing uncle:

“I remember this time when I was really young at my grandmother’s house and she was telling funny stories and I was laughing along and out of nowhere my uncle yelled at me to lower my voice, for women who are loud lack morals. I said I wouldn’t and he kept yelling so I tried to leave.

I accidentally dropped my keys and bent to lift them when suddenly I was hit in the face. My uncle had punched me and broken my nose. He left me bleeding, with my grandmother screaming for help. He has abused me multiple times and still interferes with my life, threatening me from time to time”

(A.M)  talks about her relationship with her strict mother:

“I was forbidden to let my hair loose when I was a child.

When I was in sixth grade, I used to wait until I was far away from home and release my hair. One time, my mother followed me and saw me, she waited until I got out and followed me home. I wasn’t aware until I was hit on the head from behind I looked back and I saw her. When we got home she beat me hard and pulled my hair, it was unbearable. There are other accidents of violence but this one I recall vividly.”

“One of the girls I went with to high school lived with her mother’s family, she was an orphan raised by her grandmother. Her uncles were all controlling and abusing, once we were on the way home with one of our male classmates and we encountered her uncle, he glared at us and shoved her into their home. I didn’t see or hear from her until a week after when she came back to class with fading bruises on her legs and forearms.”

Gender violence is a multifactorial phenomenon, containing political, social, cultural and interpersonal conflicts. All these tensions are played in the field of gender relations, both implicitly and explicitly. The research on men’s VAW requires us to analyze the fields of difference and power relations as well as those patterns of inequality which refer to symbolic constructions. Such as our tribal patriarchal society.

As feminists, we must do everything we can to dismantle patriarchal constructs, and focus on issues that are well hidden behind the veil of taboos. We must highlight the unequal social beliefs forcibly fed to women and the harsh oppressive environments they live in at home, and around the globe.

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