LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara — As dusk enveloped the salmon-pink houses of this capital city, the brightly colored robes of women stood out in a mass of protesters chanting for independence from Moroccan rule.While other colonies in Africa threw off occupiers one by one, this rocky desert expanse on the continent’s northwestern coast remains a disputed territory controlled primarily by next-door Morocco and locked in a nearly 40-year-old forgotten struggle for the right to choose its fate. And in a Muslim-majority region where women are often marginalized from politics, women have taken an unusually prominent role in Western Sahara’s independence movement.
Their involvement has spanned a guerrilla war with Morocco and, for the past two decades, a mostly peaceful protest movement. Female activists in the former Spanish colony attribute the phenomenon to a combination of the indigenous Sahrawi population’s moderate interpretation of Islam and the freedom they derived from their nomadic roots — but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to the prevalence of traditional gender roles, which they say give women the time to demonstrate . . .
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