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The Amazigh women of North Africa: from marginalisation to empowerment

“Raise your head up high, you are Amazigh and free”

Who are the Free People of North Africa?

The Amazigh or Imazighen people, translated ‘Free people’, are an indigenous group that originate from North Africa and share a rich history and culture dating back thousands of years. Despite this long-lasting presence in the region, for centuries, they have faced various forms of discrimination and marginalisation and, ironically enough, their battle to obtain recognition as Free People has not been an easy one.

The situation is especially worse for Amazigh women. Though they’ve always played significant roles within Amazigh societies, these indigenous women have faced gender-based discrimination and oppression throughout history. Till today, Amazigh women continue to face numerous challenges and forms of discrimination, including gender inequality, poverty, illiteracy, violence, and racism. However, there is a growing movement that empowers and uplifts Amazigh women by promoting their rights and leadership within their respective communities. This article will provide a more detailed exploration of the historical and cultural context of Amazigh women's experiences, the challenges they face, and certain efforts that are working to support their rights and well-being.

Amazigh history

Historically speaking, women have traditionally had a great impact within the culturally diverse Amazigh society, serving as spiritual leaders, healers, and even warriors. However, the arrival of colonialism and the spread of dominant religions led to a shift in the status and roles of Amazigh women within their communities. Patriarchal norms and gender inequality became more prevalent, which led to more women being relegated to domestic roles and denied access to education and other opportunities.

Despite these challenges, Amazigh women have persisted and they continue to occupy important positions in their communities, particularly in Morocco, where they have been active participants in the Amazigh cultural renaissance. This renaissance aims to promote and preserve Amazigh culture, such as the language, music, and art. Amazigh women have played an instrumental role in this movement, with many contributing to cultural festivals, creating political art and music, and advocating for the recognition of Amazigh culture and rights.

However, despite their important contributions to Amazigh culture, these women continue to face numerous challenges and discrimination. The traditional, patriarchal nature of Amazigh societies can limit women's access to leadership roles and decision-making processes, since their voices and perspectives are often ignored. Furthermore, Amazigh women also face broader societal discrimination and racism against Amazigh people.

What challenges do Amazigh women endure?

According to a report by the United Nations, Amazigh women in North Africa are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in the region. Gender inequality is a pressing challenge for these women, as they have limited access to education, employment, healthcare, and political participation. In Morocco, for example, a country with a large population of Amazigh people, women have always faced discrimination in areas such as employment and access to healthcare. According to UNESCO, Amazigh women in North Africa have one of the lowest rates of education in the region, with only 37% being literate. This compares to a literacy rate of 61% for the rest of North African women. In terms of political participation, Amazigh women are significantly underrepresented in decision-making processes. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) shows that women make up only 24% of the Moroccan parliament, with an even smaller percentage of those being Amazigh women.

Amazigh women are also subject to violence, like domestic violence and sexual assault, which often goes unreported and unpunished due to social and cultural norms that prioritise family honor and reputation over women's safety and well-being. A survey by the Moroccan High Commission for Planning found that 63% of Amazigh women had experienced forms of violence at some point in their lives. Additionally, only 5% of these women reported any violent incidents to the authorities.

In addition, Amazigh women in North Africa experience more extensive societal discrimination and racism from dominant Arab and European cultures, which further exacerbates the challenges they face. Minority Rights Group International's report indicates that Amazigh people in Morocco, especially women, face discriminatory barriers to employment, with only 33% of Amazigh people employed compared to 52% of non-Amazigh people. Furthermore, Amazigh women are underrepresented in government and public institutions, limiting their access to resources and opportunities.

The challenges faced by Amazigh women are complex and intersectional, with patriarchal norms and gender inequality pervasive in Amazigh society. They are often expected to prioritise their housewives roles above all else, limiting their access to education and decision-making processes. In Morocco, Amazigh women have a lower life expectancy than women of other ethnicities, with an average life expectancy of 72 years compared to 74 years for non-Amazigh women. In addition, Amazigh people have historically been denied recognition and support from the government in Morocco, further marginalising Amazigh women and exacerbating ageism.

Addressing the challenges faced by Amazigh women requires a comprehensive approach that tackles gender inequality, societal discrimination, and violence against women. This includes promoting access to education, employment, and political participation, as well as combating cultural norms that perpetuate discrimination and violence. It also requires recognising and supporting the Amazigh people and their culture as well as ensuring that the women have equal access to resources and opportunities in North Africa.

Empowering Amazigh women

Efforts to empower and uplift Amazigh women have emerged in response to these challenges. Among these efforts is the Tamounte Women's Cooperative in Morocco, which provides economic empowerment and leadership development opportunities for Amazigh women. Through training and support, the cooperative enables women to start and grow their own businesses and participate in community development projects which enhances leadership skills. This approach has contributed to breaking down some of the traditional barriers that have historically prevented Amazigh women from fully participating in their communities.

Grassroots organisations and movements are also advocating for Amazigh women's rights and well-being. The Tawiza Foundation in Morocco, for example, promotes Amazigh women's rights through education, advocacy, and community-building. Meanwhile, the l’Association Tunisienne de la Femme Amazighe (ATFA) promotes women's leadership and provides support and resources for women experiencing violence or discrimination. AFAT's advocacy has contributed significantly to promoting gender equality and Amazigh women's rights in Tunisia, including the right to freely use their language and participate in politics.

Furthermore, some positive steps have been taken by governments and international organisations to support Amazigh women's rights. In 2011, for instance, Morocco adopted a new constitution that recognized Tamazight (the Amazigh language) as an official language and pledged to promote Amazigh culture and rights. This consequently opened up new opportunities for Amazigh women to advocate more for their rights. The recognition of Tamazight as an official language has also enabled Amazigh women to access educational and employment opportunities that were previously unavailable to them.

While Amazigh women in North Africa still face significant challenges, various efforts are underway to address them and in turn, promote their rights and well-being. These efforts include grassroots initiatives and positive steps taken by governments and international organisations to recognise and support Amazigh culture and language.

Hope for Imazighen women

The adoption of the new constitution by Morocco was a significant step towards progress. The constitution's recognisation of Tamazight gave Amazigh women better political opportunities. The government's pledge to promote Amazigh culture and rights also encompassed access education and employment.

Tunisia has also made an effort to promote Amazigh rights, by ratifying their constitution in 2014. The constitution also recognised the Amazigh language and culture as a crucial part of the country's heritage, and the government has taken steps to promote Amazigh representation in politics and public life.

In addition, Algeria's government has made significant strides in promoting Amazigh women's rights. The 2016 law recognised Tamazight as a national language and made it a mandatory subject in public schools, aiming to empower identity more confidently.

Alongside these government initiatives, there has been a positive shift in mentality towards Amazigh women in North Africa. People are increasingly recognising the vital role Amazigh women play in society and are now advocating for their empowerment. This is reflected in the growing number of grassroots organisations and movements focused on promoting Amazigh women's rights and well-being.

The progress so far made by governments in North Africa, combined with the positive shift in mentality, provides hope for a brighter future for Amazigh women in the region. The recognition of Tamazight as an official language and the promotion of Amazigh culture and representation in politics are crucial steps to breaking down the barriers that have prevented Amazigh women from participating fully in their communities. With continued efforts, we can look forward to a future where Amazigh women are fully empowered, and their rights and identities are fully celebrated.

Chaimae Haddoumi is a Master’s student studying MA International Relations, specialising in Politics, Sociology, Culture and how they intersect. She’s particularly passionate about women’s rights, African studies, migration and decolonisation. She’s also keen on advocating for a better understanding of oneself and how different geopolitical, social and cultural issues shape our individual and collective identities.

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