The New Yorker ran a long piece on slavery in Mauritania last year, by Alexis Okeowo.
In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, while making no provision for punishing slave owners. In 2007, under international pressure, it passed a law that allowed slaveholders to be prosecuted. Yet slavery persists there, even as the government and religious leaders deny it. Although definitive numbers are difficult to find, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least a hundred and forty thousand people are enslaved in Mauritania, out of a population of 3.8 million. Bruce Hall, a professor of African history at Duke University, said that people endure slavelike conditions in other countries in the region, but that the problem in Mauritania is unusually severe: “Some proximate form of slavery has continued to be a foundation of the social structure and the division of labor within households, so there are many more people who are willing to support it as an institution.” While Abeid was travelling, a well-known imam had given a televised interview. A journalist asked whether slavery existed in Mauritania, and the imam said no. Then why, the journalist asked, had the imam recently given the journalist’s boss a slave girl as a gift? The imam simply smiled.
But isn’t Islam all about the brotherhood of all believers? That’s what we’re told, at least.
Many Mauritanian slaves, isolated by illiteracy, poverty, and geography, do not recognize the possibility of a life outside servitude, and part of Abeid’s mission is to make them aware. The job is complicated. Slaves are tied to their masters by tradition, by economic necessity, and, Abeid argues, by a misinterpretation of Islam.
Mauritania is an avowedly Muslim country, and though the constitution endorses both secular and religious law, in civic matters Islamic precepts dominate. But the Koran is ambiguous on the essential question of whether slavery should exist. In much of the world, Muslim scholars argue that the only Islamic basis for slavery is in jihad: after conquering unbelievers, Muslim warriors may take them as slaves, provided that they treat them well.
Wait. There’s no such thing as “treating them well” while keeping them as slaves.
Also, I get to be “an unbeliever” meaning not a Muslim without being conquered and enslaved. My not believing in Islam does not equal an acceptable reason to enslave me.
And that’s the more generous interpretation.
In Mauritania, there is little consensus. Imams who defend slavery often refer to a set of interpretive texts that date back as far as the eighth century. One prominent example is a mukhtasar, or handbook of Islamic law, written by the fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq. According to its precepts, a slave cannot marry without her master’s permission, nor does she have any right to her children; a free man who murders a slave will not be punished by death, but a slave who murders a free man will be; slaves are whipped for fornicating, though a master may have sex with his slave girl; and slaves may not inherit property or give testimony in court.
Nice stuff. Slaves are just about as worthless as women, which means that slave women are worthless squared.
Biram Dah Abeid is working to improve the situation.