Mauritania Table of Contents
Peul market in Nouakchott
Courtesy Larry Barrie
In the 1980s, Mauritanian society was a collection of distinct, stratified ethnic groups that showed little evidence of social cohesion or national identity. The process of creating national institutions or professional classes had hardly begun. For most Mauritanians, loyalty to family, lineage, and ethnic group far outweighed allegiance to the state or to national institutions. Ethnicity, social position, and caste identity remained strong, conditioning the processes of state formation and administration.
During the colonial period, Mauritania's social structure had come to reflect the impact of French administrative preferences. Individuals, families, and dominant clans attempted to use the colonial presence to maintain or improve their privileged status. Among the Maures, for example, the zawaya tribes at first used their control of religious education to dominate economically and politically. This was accomplished at the expense of the hassani, who had made the transition from warriors, raiders, and tribute collectors to pastoralists, traders, and low-level civil servants. However, the French generally employed Wolof and Toucouleur, rather than Maures, as low-level civil servants. By 1960 black Africans were the majority of the colonial administration's civil servants and played a much larger role in the modern employment sector than did either the hassani or the zawaya.
After independence was granted in 1960, Mauritanian society changed faster than it had during the colonial period. This era saw the beginnings of urbanization, the founding of a permanent capital, the establishment of national organizations such as trade unions, and the expansion of education facilities and literacy. It also brought a reorientation away from West Africa toward the Maghrib (see Glossary) as the number of white Maures in the government increased. Secular education, heretofore largely the preserve of black Africans, increased significantly among Maures. White Maures attempted to give Mauritania a distinct Arab-Berber character and in doing so often alienated the black population. At the same time, Maures developed a sense of ethnic identity and unity that had not existed before independence.
By the 1980s, the ranks of the bureaucracy and military included both white Maures and black Africans, but the distribution of professionals in these ranks varied widely (see Impediments to Change , ch. 4). In the late 1970s, studies indicated that black Africans generally formed a larger proportion of the salaried professional class than did white Maures, whereas the opposite was the case among wage earners and general laborers. Continuing the colonial pattern, the Toucouleur and the Wolof were well represented in higher and mid-level professional ranks, and the Soninké were beginning to penetrate the lower and mid-level ranks. White Maures and black Africans were almost equally represented at the highest bureaucratic levels.
Considerable tension existed between Maures and black Africans in the late 1980s. Many Maures still viewed black Africans as people who should be under Maure control, a perception especially evident among more traditional Maure tribes of the north. Many blacks, however, considered Maures (especially white Maures) to be ignorant, lazy, and inefficient. They also saw white Maures as slaveholders. Thus, they feared growing Maure political and social dominance.
These attitudes intensified during the 1980s. Despite official denials, many black Africans complained of widespread racial discrimination in political and economic areas. They pointed to the disproportionate number of Arab-Berbers at the top of the government bureaucracy and military command, to Mauritania's close ties with the Arab world, and to the emphasis on the use of Arabic in national life to support these complaints.
Another issue that exacerbated racial tensions during the 1980s was access to land along the Senegal River. As plans for economic development along the river valley progressed, blacks feared that wealthy white Maures would buy up productive land in areas traditionally claimed by blacks. Desertification of once- fertile lands farther north added to the competition for better watered land in southern Mauritania.
As in many newly independent countries with marked ethnic and linguistic diversity, the selection of national and official languages heightened intergroup tensions. At independence, Hassaniya Arabic was given "national" language status, while French remained an "official" language. In 1966, however, the government made Hassaniya Arabic an official language along with French and required that Arabic be taught in secondary schools, a requirement that brought protests from Mauritania's blacks (see Public Order and Internal Security , ch. 5).
In the late 1980s, blacks continued to protest against the compulsory study of Arabic and complained that their lack of proficiency in the language was used to block their advancement in the bureaucracy and military. Blacks could still choose to be educated in French, however, and French retained its status as an official language. The government also permitted primary-level instruction in several of Mauritania's African languages.
Economic development has altered traditional social organization, particularly among groups near centers of modernization. Rapid urbanization has accelerated these changes. The importance of lineage endogamy has declined among Maures, and customary marriage patterns have begun to change. By the late 1980s, urban Mauritanians paid less attention to distant segments of their lineages, and they seldom reckoned their kin-group membership back more than five generations.
Economic functions of the various black African and Maure caste groups were becoming less rigid; social patterns, therefore, also were becoming more fluid. An increasing number of Mauritanians were involved in work unrelated to traditional caste occupations. Although the customary social distinctions associated with traditional stratification patterns remained and individuals were still identified socially as members of particular castes, there were indications that caste designations were becoming less important socially and economically. In addition, government efforts to modernize and commercialize the activities of craftsmen and fishermen resulted in some rise in the social status of these groups.
If the pace of change was slow in Mauritanian society as a whole, it was even slower in the area of slavery. Slavery was abolished in 1960 and again in 1980. Mauritanian authorities acknowledged the continued existence of slavery and took limited steps to eradicate it, but in 1981 observers estimated that at least 100,000 people were still slaves and 300,000 were ex- slaves.
In 1974 a group of escaped slaves formed an emancipation movement known as El Hor (Freedom). By the late 1970s, El Hor began to achieve some notable successes; the 1980 decree abolishing slavery was owed at least in part to El Hor's agitation, as were fact-finding missions by the London Anti- Slavery Society (1981) and the UN (1984). Building on these achievements, El Hor continued to press for specific laws to ensure that emancipation became a reality and that former slaves enjoyed equal rights and treatment.
Factors that conditioned the role of women in Mauritanian society in the late 1980s included the impact of Islam and sharia (Islamic law); West African influences that allowed women substantial independence in some social and economic areas; economic modernization, which challenged customary behavior patterns in some areas; and Mauritania's rapid pace of urbanization, which subjected traditional nomadic customs to new scrutiny. Many women in such urban centers as Nouakchott, for example, were born in the rural interior of the country and found their childhood training challenged by changing urban social conditions.
Girls' education took place primarily at home and emphasized homemaking skills. Some girls attended Quranic schools, but their training was usually limited to learning verses from the Quran and attaining minimal literacy skills. A mother's responsibility toward her daughter traditionally included instruction in household and family affairs and childrearing. In recent decades, fathers were responsible for financing any formal education for their children, but a father's most important responsibility toward his daughters was to prepare them for marriage, primarily by ensuring their physical attractiveness. A widespread practice was forced feeding (gavage). Forced feeding usually involved psychological pressure, rather than physical force, but it often required a family to reserve substantial quantities of food--in most cases, milk--for consumption by its pre-teenage daughters, whose beauty was a measure of a father's commitment to the marriage alliances they would form. Many young women were betrothed or married by the age of eight or ten. Unmarried teenage girls were subjected to severe social criticism.
Divorce was fairly common in Mauritanian society in the 1980s, even among very traditional villagers. A divorced man suffered no social stigma, but a divorced woman could still become an outcast if her family or her former husband's family criticized her behavior. Women traditionally had cared for their homes and worked in limited agricultural pursuits; but by the 1980s, they were beginning to enter professions formerly closed to them, such as commerce, teaching, and a variety of skilled occupations.
By 1985 nearly one-fourth of all girls below the age of eleven attended primary school, a marked increase over enrollment figures just a decade earlier. More women were attending secondary schools and university, and in 1987 Khadijatou Bint Ahmed, Mauritania's minister of mines and industry, became the nation's first female cabinet official (see Women , ch. 4).
Data as of June 1988
Mauritania Table of Contents