Joanna Allan, Silenced Resistance: Women, Dictatorships, and Genderwashing in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea (University of Wisconsin Press, April 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Joanna Allan (JA): I unconsciously started to write this book thirteen years ago, when I first visited the Saharawi refugee camps/state-in-exile. I was struck, on that visit, by the high representation of women in the national parliament and local councils. My visit was shortly after the Saharawi 2005 intifada in the occupied zone, of which Aminatou Haidar was the figurehead.

From outside, it looked like women totally dominated the nonviolent resistance movement in occupied Western Sahara, and that intrigued me. Years later, when I started to follow what was going on in Equatorial Guinea, and to read histories of the country, I was struck that the gendered dynamics of resistance to authoritarian regimes there were, at first sight, strikingly different to those in Western Sahara. What made Equatorial Guinea’s anti-colonial, and later anti-dictator, resistance movements so “male”, and Western Sahara’s seemingly dominated by women? My book project began as a response to this question. What I found was—unsurprisingly—Equatoguinean women have always resisted Spanish colonialism and the postcolonial Macías and Obiang regimes, but their efforts have been silenced, or deemed unworthy of attention. In Western Sahara, Saharawi gendered roles, and Spanish and wider Western preconceptions about “African”, “Muslim” women, create various spaces and surprising possibilities for women’s resistance efforts.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JA: As well as charting the history of Equatoguinean and Saharawi women’s nonviolent resistance to dictatorships from the Spanish colonial period until now, I am interested in how various constructions of gender and so-called gender equality intersect and impact upon the gender of resistance movements. This leads me to make use of the concept of genderwashing. Through this, I show how US corporations and the US state back Equatoguinean dictator Obiang’s efforts to paint himself as a gender equality champion. This is a PR exercise, I argue, to detract attention from the fact that the United States is investing in one of the worst dictatorships in Africa in order to access oil. In occupied Western Sahara, the Moroccan regime is keen to avoid any embarrassment that might tarnish its attempt to brand King Mohammed VI as a women’s empowerment pioneer. Therefore, military trials and hefty prison sentences are today reserved for male activists, while women activists are quietly punished by torture in secret detention centers for short periods of time. For both regimes—the Equatoguinean and the Moroccan—the key is to silence women’s voices of dissent.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JA: My previous publications focused on Saharawi literature in Spanish, and gender politics in the Saharawi state-in-exile. In this project, I moved away from Cultural Studies and borrowed methods from the Social Sciences and Anthropology during fieldwork in Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Spain, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, and POLISARIO-controlled Western Sahara.

Also, whereas my previous work relied on the archives of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) national archives, for this project I also delved into the archives of the Spanish Falange Women’s Section, which attempted to transform Saharawi and Equatoguinean women into models of Spanish domestic womanhood.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JA: I hope policy makers will read it, specifically those working for state aid agencies in the realm of women’s empowerment, or gender and development, because my book illuminates how well-meaning, aspirational feminist campaigns and policies might face a risk of being co-opted by authoritarian regimes and their corporate partners.

Of course, I hope other academics specializing on Western Sahara, Morocco or Equatorial Guinea, or Resistance Studies will pick up a copy. But beyond that, I would be delighted if Hispanists engaged with the book. Despite Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea being Spain’s only former colonies in Africa, and despite the fact that Spanish is an official language in the SADR and in Equatorial Guinea, there is a lack of engagement with the two countries in Hispanic Studies in terms of research and teaching. One might also note the relative absence of research on Western Sahara in Middle East and North African Studies, or Equatorial Guinea in African Studies.

In terms of impact, and outside of academia, I hope my book will contribute to my wider work with other activists to hold Morocco accountable for human rights abuses against the Saharawi people, and, linked to this, to pressure corporations and groups of states (such as the European Union) to stop exploiting Saharawi peoples’ natural resources against their wishes.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JA: I am working on a project funded with a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, entitled “Powering Conflict, Fuelling Resistance.” Fossil fuels are notorious for their implication in neocolonialism, violence, and environmental degradation. Mainstream discourse envisages green energy as the unproblematic solution to “blood oil.” However, the green transition is replicating the violent, neocolonial models of the fossil fuels industry in some African contexts. My project seeks to establishhow this replication is occurring, and how it can be resisted. I critically interrogate the use of green energy by authoritarian regimes and their partners, and, through interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, and ecocritical analysis of resistance literatures, seek to understand the coping strategies and resistance of communities faced with energy injustices.

J: You mentioned above that Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara are generally missing from Hispanic Studies. Why is that? 

JA: The answer is complex but, in brief, I think it is partly due to Spanish (historical) politics. Upon Equatorial Guinea’s independence in 1968, the Spanish administration declared classified all information relating to its former colony. Spain never decolonised Western Sahara, and continues to exploit the country’s natural resources in ways that are legally and morally questionable. Therefore, it does not pay for the Spanish state’s cultural bodies to celebrate Hispanic legacies and links in Africa, which I think has a knock-on effect in academia.

It is also due to structural racism. To overlook all African contributions to Spanish-language cultural production risks reinforcing the white superiority complex, not to mention the concomitant potential effects on students of colour (and indeed on white students).


Excerpt from the Book

Imagine the air as Fatima felt it on her skin on 8 January 1976. Imagine the biting cold of winter near the sea, the eerie half-light that dusk casts on us, the dead quiet and paranoia of streets already invaded. Imagine the terror of a lonely car engine humming behind you, the eyes burning into your back as you gather pace, the car doors creaking open, the four men leaping out, their hands all over you, over your mouth—don’t bother screaming!—then the smallness and blackness and airlessness of a shut boot. Saharawis saw police bundle Fatima into the back of a black Renault 16. They didn’t see Fatima again for fifteen years.

As the Moroccan army descended on Western Sahara, it attempted to clear the southern regions of Morocco, which were once part of Spanish Sahara, of suspected POLISARIO sympathizers. Among the first to be taken was twenty-four-year-old Fatima Ghalia Leili. Fatima was well known in Tan Tan, her hometown. Despite her youth, she had a high-profile civil service job and was a leader of a local women’s group. Indeed, it was on the walk back from work that she disappeared.

Until her arrest, Fatima’s public façade was far from an activist one, yet she had been secretly proindependence for years. When the POLISARIO was formed, Fatima had become a double agent, collecting information from her place of work and passing it to the Saharawi nationalists. She also trained women and men in protest techniques. On top of this, she had a brother who was a POLISARIO founder. In other words, Fatima was dangerous. She had to go.

After Moroccan agents had disappeared her, they came back a month later to disappear most of Fatima’s extended family, which was common practice. “They also kidnapped her father, her sister, most of her brothers, her mother, her aunt, and her uncle,” Soukaina Yaya, who, when a small girl in Tan Tan, watched the events of 2 February 1976 from her window with dread, tells me. Police broke down the door of the Leili family home and took all who were there, pulling Fatima’s father, ill with asthma, from his bed. His crime was having relatives linked to the POLISARIO.

Yaya, now a human rights activist in El Aaiún, finishes her former neighbor’s story: “When [Fatima] came out of jail, she had suffered a lot. She married, but she wasn’t able to have children due to injuries inflicted through torture. They tortured her very, very badly.”

In her summary of Leili’s post-prison life, Yaya emphasizes her compatriot’s marital status and inability to procreate. In our interview, Yaya explains the fate of one other female friend, the novelist El Bataoul Mahjoub Lmdaimigh. El Bataoul, also known as “the woman with the black pen” because of her refusal to follow the conventions of the Moroccan education system by writing in black rather than blue ink, witnessed the kidnap of her father and other relatives. Says Yaya of El Bataoul: “When they took her father and other members of her family, her childhood stopped. This was in 1977. And she decided then that she would never marry, because the regime had taken all the male members of her family, so from then on she would accept males only as friends but not as a husband.”

Again, El Bataoul’s marital status is part of the primordial information given in the brief summary of her life. I have previously argued that the role of mother and caregiver in Saharawi society is constructed as feminine in hegemonic discourse and that marriage is a key aspiration for women. Yaya, indeed, has given motherhood and marriage central importance in her recounting of women activists’ life stories. While Leili is unable to pursue what is seen (in hegemonic Saharawi nationalist discourses) as her role as a woman owing to the torture inflicted on her, El Bataoul resists her gender role in the name of the nationalist cause. In this chapter, I further explore the relationship between marital status, compulsory heterosexuality, gender, and resistance in occupied Western Sahara.

I tell the story of Saharawi resistance to Moroccan colonialism chronologically, thereby setting the complicated and nuanced relationship between resistance and gender in its wider historical context. During the Moroccan and Mauritanian invasion, we see how Morocco made use of Saharawi constructions of gender to traumatize its victims. Focusing on the years of war, I illustrate how everyday resistance (the tool so important to Saharawi and Equatoguinean women resisting patriarchy and, for black Saharawis, slavery in the Spanish colonial period) resurfaces as the main arm of Saharawis opposing the Moroccan occupation.

The first major public protest in 1987 of Saharawi nationalists under Moroccan rule allows us to use and develop Scott’s theorization of when the hidden transcript becomes public. I then use a testimony of a former disappeared woman, captured in the 1987 demonstration, to argue that Morocco’s policy of targeting mothers backfires as women make their status as mothers a site of, and spiritual fuel for, resistance.

Moving to the time of the 1991 ceasefire, the nonviolent movement grew when hundreds of former disappeared emerge from Moroccan dungeons. I analyze the intifadas of the nineties as well as the bolder 2005 intifada. This section is largely narrative, but some knowledge of the diplomatic intrigues that helped provoke the intifadas is essential for understanding the wider story of gender and resistance. Furthermore, a look at the story of Embarka Hassan, whose first street protest was in 2005, helps us to understand why young women decide to become activists.

Next I move to the 2010 Gdeim Izik protest, by far the largest protest in Saharawi recent history. I build on arguments made in chapter 1 concerning the external ideological function of state constructions of gender equality in a world where the West is currently prioritizing women’s “emancipation” in “backward” countries. I look at how pressure from the West influences Moroccan oppression of resisters and how this, in turn, affects the gendered makeup of Saharawi public protest. I also explore how Saharawi femininities and masculinities affect who resists.

A look at how Morocco tortures Saharawi prisoners and detainees reveals how constructions of gendered sexuality are used not only to invoke trauma and horror but also to prevent the reproduction of Saharawi nationalism itself. However, I also argue that Saharawi women have found ways to resist even the most terrifying types of torture. The centrality of female chastity in Saharawi culture, and how Morocco darkly takes advantage of this in its prisons and secret detention centers, leads us to a discussion of Saharawi women’s reactions to current gender inequalities in Saharawi society. Finally, I conclude that while the relationship between gender and resistance is dependent on the idiosyncrasies of Saharawi gender norms, which affect greatly who resists, why, and how and which also determine Morocco’s response, the relationship is, as in Equatorial Guinea, inseparable from the globally hegemonic Western orientalism and its constructions of gender.