EL-MELHFA: A Symbol of Beauty and Resistance

El-melhfa is a four-meter long by one-meter wide piece of fabric. It is not any ordinary piece of cloth; it is the symbol of the Saharawi heritage, beauty, and resistance.

Many people may view it as a religious, specifically Muslim symbol. But El-melhfa, above all, is cultural and unique to the Saharawi people, used by every ethnic and religious groups within the Saharawi population. It comes in variety of colors, patterns and materials. It can be one color, three or ten. It may be simple or with artistic shapes and patterns or even with the flag of Western Sahara. El-melhfa has different names depending on the colors and the material it is made of. Sometimes, it gets its name from the age group of women.

El-melhfa, when you think about, holds a very practical role in the life of people like the Saharawis. A country like Western Sahara is mostly desert with a weather that is dry, hot and characterized with sand-storms. And so, El-melhfa can serve as a means of protection from the harsh environmental and natural conditions of the desert. Not only that, but also El-melhfa makes the Saharawi women exceptional and different from the rest of women elsewhere in the world. For decades, El-melhfa has served as a symbol of national identity and struggle against colonial oppression. It is the mirror for strong, determined and revolutionary women who have combated the oppressive Moroccan regime to gain freedom and independence. Today, the Saharawi women continue to use the El-Melhfa as a means of resistance and identity survival, especially for the women who live under the occupation of Morocco.

Usually, Lemlahef (the plural of El-melhfa) comes in light colors such as white, light green and blue are for young women, whereas the darker colors such as black, brown and dark navy are for older women. The thickness of the material can vary as well. ‘Etalab,’ which literarily means youth, is a thin and more transparent fabric. Etalab is mostly worn by young girls when they first start wearing El-melhfa. On the contrary, there is ‘el-galith’, which means thick, which is for the elder women. In between etalab and e-galith, there is the ‘esheegaa.’ In addition, there is ‘swesra’ and ‘sarou,’ which are somewhat similar in material to that of the Indian Sari. The most important type is called ‘nilla’, and is the most traditional type of Lemlahef, this kind of el-melfa has existed since the emerge of the Saharawi identity and culture. The nilla is made of a very thick material, and it releases a navy-blue paint also called ‘enilla.’ This paint is believed to be very good for the skin and helps against the sun radiation and sand storms.

The most traditional way of wearing El-melhfa is called ‘etaglidee’; or ‘traditional’ in our language Hassaniya. It is basically part nilla and part white melhfa worn together. The woman would wear the nilla part on the upper body and the white piece, which is called ‘le-zaar,’ around the waist. Etaglidee is usually worn in special occasions and celebrations, but nowadays it is mostly worn for weddings. The bride would wear etaglidee on the first day of the wedding.

This special and unique display of culture has made the Saharawi woman both a source of beauty, admiration, and a target of oppression. Today, many Saharawis still live under the repressive Moroccan regime in the occupied territories of our homeland. Since women are visibly distinguished as Saharawis, they are picked on during peaceful demonstrations. They experience daily and systematic discrimination for being proud and outspoken defenders of freedom for their homeland. It is not only Saharawi women living in the occupied territories who use El-melhfa as a method of resistance. Saharawis living abroad are always proud to share that symbol. A good example of such use abroad is that of one of our famous female human rights activists, Aminatou Haidar, who is sometimes called by the media ‘Saharawi Gandhi’. She always wears her melhfa in her efforts to share the peaceful voice of her people around the globe.

It’s important to mention that it is not very easy to learn how to wear it and even more difficult to do certain daily activities while wearing it for those who are not used to it. However, this beautiful fabric and cultural creation is a great symbol of the Saharawi identity, and most importantly a testament to our people’s struggle for independence.