Advertisement Close

Mauritania, the Maghreb's Divided Slave Society

posted on: Jul 13, 2021

By Lyric Ludwig / Arab America Contributing Writer

The Arab ethnic identity is unique throughout the world, not only for its diversity in terms of various religions and other cultural facets, but for its long lasting history and spread throughout the globe. The initial expansion of Islamic Empires from the Arabian peninsula is one such series of events that continues to have a major cultural impact across the world to this day. One such region that produced a unique mixture of Arab and indigenous is the Maghreb. The Maghreb (referring to “west” in Arabic: مغرب) is the region consisting of all lands west of Egypt, and it is the ancient home of the Amazigh or “free peoples”, known to the ancient Greeks as Berbers (originating from the word for Barbarian). In the early middle ages, under the Umayyad Caliphate, Arabs expanded their cultural influence into this region and even into the Iberian peninsula. Culturally, this left an impact in not only Spain (the Caliphate of Cordoba), but the Maghreb as well, resulting in dynasties such as the Almoravids and the Amazigh Almohads. While this settlement in the region produced a unique cultural dynamic between Arab conquerors and African tribes, there are still many negative vestiges of the medieval era that remain to this day. Mauritania is one such example, being an Arab and African country that continues to suffer from centuries of slavery and inequality.

Aminetou Mint Yarg poses with family members in the commune of Dar El Barka, Mauritania, Oct. 20, 2018.

     As stated, slavery was very much a factor in Africa many hundred years ago, and in Mauritania, it still remains a bleak fact of life to this day. To understand this, one must understand the ethnic makeup of Mauritania’s caste system. Mauritania’s ruling caste is known as the Bidan or “White Moors”, white referring to not only the skin color in this case, but societal status. The Bidan are descendents of Arab Beni Hassan tribe that migrated to the region during the middle ages, being a military or clerical elite. The second class is known as the Haratin or “Black Moors”, they are the sub saharan African population of the country, many of whom are enslaved to this day.

Descent-based slavery in Mauritania - Anti-Slavery International

     The Haratin have made tremendous progress in Mauritanian society over the years, with some having enough freedom to run for public office. Currently, the government is even making efforts to grant a substantial stimulus to the poorest citizens. However, the situation in Mauritania is still one of slow and continual progress. Although slavery was banned in 1981 and criminalized in 2007, this institution of servitude continues in a myriad of other ways. Both slavery and owership of land continue along the family lines of the Haratin and Bidan respectively, so with freedom, there is still the existence of poverty. Though freedom exists in theory, many Haratin families continue to work the land of their masters and are still treated as slaves. In the current economy, a staggering 90,000 Haratines are still living in slavery, on the farms and households of Bidan masters. For example, as the economy advances, so does the manner in which slavery persists, as workers are enslaved by new businesses established by the Bidan.

The abolitionist fighting to free Mauritania's slaves | CNN

     The Bidan also run a very oppressive society, in which many activists and abolitionists are jailed for openly advocating emancipation. The government frequently engages in deflectional rhetoric, and the Bidan often use corruption or coercion to keep slaves and the entire issue of slavery completely silent. Even in a system where people are free to speak out, they are often jailed on trumped up charges while the Bidan continue to use the Haratin for their own gain. However, not all hope is lost, as local NGOs continue to promote literacy and employment among the Haratine.

Slavery in Mauritania: Differentiating between facts and fiction | Middle  East Eye

     Although the case of Mauritania is certainly grim within the greater context of Arab identity around the globe, it is one that warrants discussion, so that more people can be aware of this issue. Slavery is a remnant of a bygone era and it should stay that way. Hopefully, with a mixture of international pressure and internal movements, Mauritania will have a free and open society.