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Haratins: Slavery in Mauritania Yesterday and Today

Historical Background of the Issue

The toponym “Mauritania” dates back to the 3rd millennium BC, when the Phoenician seafarers gave the name Mauharim – “Western Territory” to the territory lying in the extreme West of Africa. During the colonial period, the name “Mauritania” was applied for one of the territories of French West Africa, which in 1960 declared independence under the same name (Pazzanita 8). Arabization and Islamization of the population began in the 11th century; the Arabs assumed a dominant position in the country, establishing power over the Berbers and black Africans, who adopted the language and family structure from the Arabs. In the 14th century, the Arab tribe Bani Hassan took the dominant position among the Berber tribes (Blauer and Laure 42-43). Those tribes who helped the Bani Hasan in their wars took a position equal to that of the Arab military clans; those who did not resist became Marabout tribes (that is, peaceful tribes that did not have the right to carry weapons); those who resisted received the status of tributaries – “zenaga” (Blauer and Laure 46). As a result, a complex hierarchy of clans developed in Mauritania, where the Arabs Hassans were at the very top, followed by the Berbers-warriors, then the peaceful Berbers-Marabouts, then the Berbers-tributaries and, finally, the black Africans conquered by the Berbers (slaves and Haratins-freedmen).

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From the middle of the 19th century, the French began to develop the valley of the Senegal River (the southern border of modern Mauritania). In 1904, the area north of the Senegal River was declared a French possession – the civilian territory of Mauritania. The conquest of Mauritania was a long and difficult process for the colonialists (Pazzanita 29). Only in 1920 did France officially declare Mauritania as its colony within French West Africa. In 1946, Mauritania received the status of an overseas territory of France, and in 1958 – the status of an autonomous republic of the French Community. On November 28, 1960, the country gained independence from France, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was proclaimed (CIA 7). The state and government were headed by a president, a unicameral National Assembly was created and a constitution was adopted. However, despite the status of a European colony in the 20th century, and its current independent status, the country continues to maintain the shameful phenomenon of discrimination and slavery. Also known as the Black Moors, the Haratins are people of African descent, but their culture is Arab. Traditionally, the Haratins were slaves, and although the government outlawed slavery in 1981 and criminalized it in 2007, the practice has still not been eradicated.

State of the Art

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery. However, today about 20% of the country’s population are slaves (Rutti 50). In 2007, the Mauritanian authorities made a second attempt to prohibit slavery and have since denied its existence in the country; however, realities say the opposite. Slavery in Mauritania is the result of historical events: over the centuries, Arabic-speaking Moors have raided African villages, resulting in a rigid caste system that still exists today, and dark-skinned slaves (Haratins) still serve Arabs (McDougall 961-962). The Haratins do jobs that the Arabs find dirty or degrading, such as tending livestock, farming, and trading in markets. Children of slaves automatically become the property of their parent’s masters.

Meanwhile, the owners of the enslaved Mauritanians treat them as property: they do not pay them for labor, often beat them, can give or lease them. At birth, the descendants of slaves to this day often do not receive a civil passport, do not go to school, and do not enjoy access to health care (Stille). The exception is residents of the capital and the surrounding area: many receive documents and primary education. However, the changes do not reach the inhabitants of remote provinces, that is, half of the country’s population.

There is no reliable statistical data on how many people are enslaved in Mauritania because the government does not take them into account during the census and denies the very fact of their existence. However, according to the Global Slavery Index, as of 2016, 45.8 million people were in some form of slavery in 167 countries around the world and Mauritania has one of the highest rates (United States Congress 3). Although slavery is officially prohibited, having a slave is the norm in the country; the same applies to forced labor.

The police are receiving reports of complicity in slavery, and the authorities have prohibited the use of the word “slave” in the media, but nothing has changed. Recently, only a few slaveowners had criminal responsibility for their actions. It cannot be said that over the past decades, any practical steps have been taken to end the existence of such a shameful practice in a country that calls itself an Islamic republic, standing in the way of democracy and change (Bullard 754). According to numerous reports of organizations directly involved in the investigation and suppression of human rights violations in the modern world, slavery in Mauritania not only persists but, moreover, is encouraged to some extent by both the overwhelming majority of the country’s population and its government (Rutti 54). Such a point of view invariably causes irritation and outright anger among the representatives of the Mauritanian authorities, because, if to rely on their statements, then this problem as such does not exist at all. “Slavery was abolished over twenty years ago” – they emphasize. “But, unfortunately, and we cannot help but admit it, it could not but leave its mark both in the economic and in the social and cultural spheres of our society” (Abeid). The country’s authorities prefer to speak openly about the blatant poverty of the population, the lack of sufficient housing, lack of medical supplies, unsanitary conditions, insufficient number of primary and secondary educational institutions, and so on, but slavery is not mentioned anywhere and by anyone.

The problem of slavery latency in Mauritania is aggravated by the fact that it has many faces. There are three main forms of slavery in Mauritania, and they are called differently: home, administrative, and modern. The first is mainly in rural areas, this is the so-called traditional form. A domestic slave is obliged to do all the laborious work for his/her master to earn money for “decent housing and food,” as the similarity of a barn and a bowl of soup is usually called here. Most domestic slaves are illiterate and have no documents or property (Wiley 39). The second form of slavery flourishes among the Muslim elite in the cities, the largest of which are the capital Nouakchott and the port Nouadhibou. This means that the master arranges the workplace for the slave on a simple, unskilled job in a government agency, but transfers most of the wages to his account (Wiley 41). The third form of slavery – modern – is also difficult to recognize immediately. This is an ordinary-looking chauffeur, mechanic, or factory worker who is de facto dependent on his master (Wiley 43). These slaves have their documents, some education, but financially they are as powerless as their fellow home slaves.

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Indeed, as in the United States of the era of the Jim Crow laws, which deprived formally liberated African Americans of full civil rights for a century, “legal” slavery left a deep imprint on the economic, social, and cultural spheres of the life of Mauritanian society. Most of the Haratins after liberation, and then their children and grandchildren, remain economically dependent on the family of their old masters. Some slaves would like to find freedom, however, knowing that in Mauritania they will be deprived of economic freedom, they prefer slavery. Others are forced into this life through threats and violence.

The most remarkable thing is that slaves do not fight for their freedom, because for whole generations slaves worked for the same family. Slaves firmly believe that if they are obedient to their masters, then after death their souls will go to heaven (McDougall 975). However, they are stopped from craving for freedom also for purely economic reasons – there is no work, and another unlikely will hire them, as he has enough of his slaves; the country’s unemployment rate is 30% and poverty is 40% (Garcia and MacBeth 9). Thus, freedom can be set equal to death from hunger. Thus, in Mauritania, which abolished slavery de jure, every fifth inhabitant remains a slave, a person without a passport and education, working for shelter and food for the owner and not ready to comprehend the psychology of a free person.

Slavery is deeply rooted in the culture and economy of Mauritania, so legislative prohibitions and repressive measures alone are not enough, they will not work to the fullest. Systematic work is needed to change social attitudes, which in turn requires measures of social protection of freed slaves, their adaptation in society, professional and personal self-realization, raising the level of education, and promoting the assimilation of the life-long learning paradigm. The best mechanism for this seems to be a public-private partnership.

Social and Cultural Environment and Potential for Democratic Development

In general, social life in Mauritania is arranged in such a way that it does not occur to the philistine to condemn slavery. The police and courts in some cases even support the slave owners. According to the Sharia, slavery is permissible even if Muslims have co-religionists as slaves. Some slave owners, wishing to be recognized as adherents of modern mores, at the same time do not forget about old commercial habits: they expect to receive compensation before they release their slaves. Slavery in Mauritania has been legalized in the minds of many generations: it is, according to researchers, at least eight centuries (Bales 20-22). Therefore, despite multiple legislative prohibitions on slavery, the legal procedure has invariably proved helpless in the face of social tradition. Moreover, in the Arab-Berber clans of the country, almost half of the population lives in conditions similar to slavery (Cheikhou 8). Since these clans control the entire political situation in the country, they have not the slightest interest in making such facts public, and all the more so making attempts of fighting a phenomenon that the inhabitants of the modern world qualify as shameful.

Too big interests are involved in Mauritanian politics to practically eliminate slavery once and for all. Slavery here is not a term, but a phenomenon; it is associated with the tribal structure, and this is a special mentality that may take more than one decade to change. President Moktar Ould Daddah in 1978, three months before his overthrow in a military coup, said that the problem of slavery in Mauritania could be solved in two ways: either through a bloody revolution that the country cannot afford or through the slow evolution of society through economic development (Wiley 59). It is difficult to disagree with this opinion – the evolution of society is urgently needed.

Everywhere pervasive slavery also means that the slave has no choice. A slave who leaves his master is unlikely to find another job, as was mentioned above. White Moorish families do not feel the need for hired labor, as they have their slaves. The poorer white Moors, shepherds, and farmers from the Zenaga caste, related with families from the Hasan caste by vassal obligations, also will not (and cannot because of their poverty) hire an escaped slave. Free non-Moors in Mauritania do not have slaves, but they usually have a large number of members of their own family whom they would rather hire before turning to a stranger. When slaves leave the master, they leave with nothing; with no place to live, with no guarantees of food or clothing, they quickly fall into complete poverty. Some freed female slaves become prostitutes, while men eke out a miserable existence in cities, but for most liberation means hunger (ASI, IRA, MRG, SOS-Esclaves, STP, and UNPO). In a society organized into huge multigenerational families, the emancipated slave is a pariah.

In such a situation, the masters do not need to keep the slaves by force. It is very easy for them to say, “Leave if you want,” because they know that slaves have nowhere to go and have nothing to make a living. Violence is rarely required to obtain obedience from a slave, as the entire social system maintains a culture of order and obedience.

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Mauritania is a land of paradoxes, contradictions, antilogisms, and unrealized opportunities. The Mauritanian controversies are difficult to comprehend; to understand this slavery, one needs to remember the cultural context of this country. Mauritania is not part of the modern world – its culture exists in isolation: sources of information are few, most of them controlled by the government. International news on television and in the press is about the Arab world, focuses on the international struggle for the purity of Islam, and never touches on human rights. The times of the Cold War practically did not affect Mauritania, since the country’s authorities could not decide which “camp” to join, although the Soviet leader Khrushchev actively sought to extend Soviet influence to the countries of Asia and Africa, which in those years were liberated from colonial dependence. Mauritania ruling circles were equally afraid of both the atheistic foundations of communism and the market practices of capitalism and especially the American post-war state-monopoly capitalism and capitalism ‘with a human face.’

It is important to note, however, that in the situation with Mauritania, it is necessary to treat in great detail the very essence of the institution of slavery in this country, considering the problem from different angles. For such an analysis, it is necessary to identify the ethnic and religious composition of the population of Mauritania, and, without a doubt, it is necessary to have a fairly accurate idea of the social structure that has been formed over the centuries. The social structure of Mauritania can be characterized as tribal; however, it equally combines elements of racial and caste systems, due in part to the fact that this country is located at the junction of Arab-Berber North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

Several international organizations, whose goals are to protect human rights, try to actively fight against the institution of slavery deeply rooted in Mauritania. Such well-known groups and organizations as SOS Esclaves, SOS Slaves, Unauthorized Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and even its Mauritanian human rights organization, Association Mauritanienne des Droits de l’Homme (AMDH), conduct almost illegal activity on the territory of this country, since the government completely suppresses any attempts not only to combat slavery in Mauritania. Slavery in Mauritania today is primarily a self-regulating system of relationships that have been formed over more than eight centuries, a kind of way of thinking of the people inhabiting this country. The Mauritanian authorities are unlikely to be able to change the mentality of their population, even with the greatest desire. Organizations whose activities are directed against slavery underestimate the specificity of the traditions and customs of Moorish society. One of the possible ways to gradually improve the current situation is the adoption of the concept and program of the Mauritanian Vision for the country’s socio-economic development, which also implies the development of human capital – for example, like the document adopted in Saudi Arabia Saudi Vision-2030. Experience shows that Saudi Arabia has already achieved significant success following the path outlined in this document. Given that Saudi Arabia is also a “stronghold” of Islam, like Mauritania, the country’s experience in formulating a national vision could be very useful for Mauritania.

Works Cited

Abeid, Biram Dah. “Moving Beyond Traditional Practices in Mauritania: Prospects for the Eradication of Slavery.” Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2016. Web.

ASI, IRA, MRG, SOS-Esclaves, STP and UNPO. Enforcing Mauritania’s Anti-Slavery Legislation: The Continued Failure of the Justice System to Prevent, Protect and Punish, 2015. Web.

Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Updated with a New Preface. University of California Press, 2012.

Blauer, Ettagale and Jason Laure. Mauritania. Benchmark Books, 2010.

Bullard, Alice. “From Colonization to Globalization: The Vicissitudes of Slavery in Mauritania.” Cahiers d’Études Africaines, vol. 45, no. 179/180, 2005, pp. 751-769.

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Cheikhou, Salamata Ouédrago. Lessons Learned from Socio-economic Interventions in Mauritania. Anti-Slavery International, 2019.

CIA. Country Studies: A brief, comprehensive study of Mauritania. Zay’s Place, 2012.

Garcia, Shannon and Samantha MacBeth (eds.). A Roadmap to Where: The Haratin and the Mauritanian Roadmap to Combat the Aftermath of Slavery. Lewis & Clark Law School, 2014.

McDougall, Ann. “Living the Legacy of Slavery: Between Discourse and Reality.” Cahiers D Études Africaines, vol. 45, no. 3, 2005, pp. 957-986.

Pazzanita, Anthony G. Historical Dictionary of Mauritania. Scarecrow Press, 2008.

Rütti, André. “Constructing a Human Rights Campaign: Contemporary Slavery in Mauritania.” Global Societies Journal, no. 5, 2017, pp. 49-58.

Stille, Alexander. “The Last Slaves in Mauritania.” The New York Review, 2017. Web.

United States Congress. Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, Vol. 1. Forgotten Books, 2012.

United States Congress. Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan: Joint Hearing Before the Subcommitteess on International Operations and Human Rights and Africa. Palala Press, 2018.

Wiley, Katherine A. Work, Social Status, and Gender in Post-Slavery Mauritania. Indiana University Press, 2018.

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