Degree Name

Master of Arts (Research)


School of History and Politics


Recent literature on peace and state-building highlights the need for women’s participation in post-conflict reconstruction to move from war and displacement, towards stability and future independence. This thesis analyses this ‘gender mainstreaming’ approach to statebuilding using the example of the Saharawi Popular Liberation Front (Polisario) and its long term struggle for independence, focussing specifically on gender representation in Polisario representatives abroad. Both the National Union of Saharawi Women and the Polisario liberation movement have been praised by academics and institutions alike for their achievements in gender mainstreaming. Despite living as refugees in Algeria, Saharawi women have led the camps’ administration for more than thirty years, and today constitute more than 35% of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic’s parliament. I argue that while women’s participation in refugee camp administration has always been a feature, a substantial female representation in high-level political office and in the state-in-waiting’s foreign relations is relatively new to the Polisario. Gender mainstreaming can thus be tested against the historical practice of the Polisario and the broader campaign to win international acceptance and support for independence for Western Sahara.

In a situation of political stalemate, where UN sponsored diplomatic discussions between the Polisario and Morocco on a peaceful solution for Western Sahara have been so-far inconclusive, the job done by Saharawi representatives abroad in lobbying host countries to their cause is invaluable. Yet exactly how has the presence of women as foreign representatives assisted the political cause of Western Sahara? This study draws on the work of Third World and Islamic feminist theorists in order to interpret gender relations in state-building with the Muslim Saharawi refugees, arguing that Saharawi were implementing gender mainstreaming approaches to social, political and administrative life in exile long before the international community began to promote a discourse of gender and statebuilding. A critical ethnographic approach is used in a bid to understand the interplay between gender and power, and analyse the relationship between Saharawi political representatives abroad and their supporters.