This Classic Fabric Symbolizes Beauty And Resistance For Saharawi Women

El-melhfa represents the continued struggle of colonial oppression the Saharawi people face.

Saharawi singer Aziza Brahim donned in El-melhfa. Photo by Guillem Moreno.

As a child of the Saharawi diaspora, I never fully understood the symbolism and meaning behind El-melhfa. As a teenager in Spain, I remember clearly the moment my mum handed me a colorful melhfa to wear. Walking outside was more than just difficult, it was embarrassing. I tripped and fell—making a complete mockery of myself in front of the neighbors. I handed the El-melhfa back to my mother fully intending never to wear it again.

My resentment changed when I had the experience of a lifetime and spoke at the United Nations. I wore El-melhfa to deliver a speech to hundreds of diplomats from all over the world, about the struggle that Saharawi people are enduring. The experience not only changed my outlook on wearing El-melhfa, but it also gave me a sense of pride.

El-melhfa is one of the strongest cultural weapons my people used against Spanish colonialism in the 19th century and continue to use against the Moroccan occupation today. It is what sets us apart, and is an important symbol of my Saharawi heritage and struggle. To understand the symbolism of El-melhfa, it is worth noting some facts surrounding its history.

A four-meter by one-meter piece of cloth, El-melhfa is a fabric that decorates Saharawi women and serves as a symbol of national identity and struggle against colonial oppression. It is considered by many as a mirror for strong, determined and revolutionary women who on daily bases combat the oppressive Moroccan regime to gain freedom and independence.

Many Saharawis still live under the repressive Moroccan regime in the occupied territories of our homeland. Women are picked up by security forces during peaceful demonstrations since they are visibly distinguished as Saharawis. They experience daily systematic discrimination for being proud and outspoken defenders of freedom for their homeland.

But, 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. An example of this is human rights activist, Aminatou Haidar. She always wears her melhfa in her efforts to share the peaceful voice of her people around the globe.

Although one may view El-melhfa as a religious, Muslim symbol, it is specifically cultural and unique to the Saharawi people; used by every ethnic and religious groups within the population. It comes in variety of colors, patterns and materials. It may be designed simply, 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 and sometimes, it gets its name from the age group of women wearing it.

El-melhfa holds a very practical role in the life of the Saharawi people. Western Sahara is mostly desert with dry and hot weather, characterized with sandstorms. El-melhfa can protect from the harsh environmental conditions of the desert.

Lemlahef, the plural word for El-melhfa in our language Hassaniya, usually comes in light colors such as white, light green and blue for young women, while dark colors such as black, brown and dark navy are for older women. The thickness of the material vary as well. Etalab, literally meaning youth, is a thin and more transparent fabric. Etalab is mostly worn by young girls when they first start wearing El-melhfa. El-galith, meaning thick, is for the elder women.

The most important and traditional type of Lemlahef, nilla, existed since the emergence of the Saharawi identity and culture. Nilla is made of a very thick material, and it releases a navy blue residue also called enilla. This residue is believed to be very good for the skin and helps against the sun radiation and sandstorms. The most traditional way of wearing El-melhfa is called etaglidee, where part of the nilla and part of a white melhfa are worn together. Women would wear the nilla on the upper body and the white piece, le-zaar, around the waist. Women usually wear etaglidee for special occasions and celebrations, but nowadays it is mostly worn for weddings. The bride would wear etaglidee on the first day of the festivities.

Despite the difficulty of wearing El-melhfas for those who are not used to it, 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.

Agaila Abba is a writer specializing in African, Middle Eastern and North African affairs. She tweets @agailita.


9 Must-Hear Songs From Ghana's Buzzing Drill Scene

We give you the rundown on Ghana's drill movement, Asakaa, and the most popular songs birthed by it.

Red bandanas, streetwear, security dogs, and gang signs. If you've been paying any attention to the music scene in Ghana over the past few months, then by now you would have noticed the rise of a special hip-hop movement. The movement is called Asakaa, and it's the Ghanaian take on the Chicago-born subgenre of hip-hop called drill music. It's fresh, it's hot, it's invigorating and it's nothing like anything you've seen before from this part of the world.

The pioneers of Asakaa are fondly referred to by the genre's patrons as the Kumerica boys, a set of budding young rappers based in the city of Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. They came into the limelight towards the end of 2020, and have been dropping banger after banger since then, topping several charts and racking up millions of views collectively. The rap is charismatic, the visuals are captivating, and their swag is urban. Characterized by Twi lyrics, infectious hooks, and sinister beats, the allure and appeal of both their art and their culture is overflowing.

"Sore," one of the benchmark songs of the movement, is a monster hit that exploded into the limelight, earning Kumerican rapper Yaw Tog a feature on Billboard Italy and a recent remix that featured Stormzy. "Ekorso" by Kofi Jamar is the song that took over Ghana's December 2020, with the video currently sitting at 1.3 million views on YouTube. "Off White Flow" is the song that earned rapper Kwaku DMC and his peers a feature on Virgil Abloh's Apple Music show Televised Radio. These are just a few examples of the numerous accolades that the songs birthed from the Asakaa movement have earned. Ghana's drill scene is the new cool, but it isn't just a trend. It's an entire movement, and it's here to stay.

Want to get familiar? Here we highlight the most prominent songs of the Asakaa movement that you need to know. Here's our rundown of Ghana's drill songs that are making waves right now. Check them out below.

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