POPULATION: 3.3 million (2007 est.)
LANGUAGE: Hassaniyya Arabic; French; Azayr; Fulfulde; Mande-kan;Wolof
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Wolof
Mauritania is located in the western Sahara region of Africa, which also includes Algeria, Mali, and Morocco. Archaeological evidence, oral history, and legends indicate that the western Sahara supported a flourishing culture during the millennia preceding Christianity. There is archaeological evidence of copper mining and refining in west-central Mauritania dating back to 500 bc to 1000 bc. An early Berber group called the Bafour inhabited the area that is now known as Mauritania. The Bafour engaged in fishing, hunting, and rural livestock herding. The ancestors of two modern-day ethnic groups—the Toucouleur and the Wolof black Africans—engaged in valley cultivation. Changes in Mauritania's climate and the desertification of the Sahara caused these early Mauritanians to move southward.
Waves of immigrants began to flow into Mauritania from both the north and south during the 3rd century ad. The first group to immigrate to the country were the Berbers of North Africa. Berbers first settled in Mauritania during the 3rd and 4th centuries; a second wave of immigrants settled there during the 7th and 8th centuries. Some indigenous Mauritanians became vassals to the Berbers; others migrated to the south.
Between the 8th and 10th centuries, a loose association of states known as the Sanhadja Confederation served as a decentralized political system linking the major Berber groups. The Sanhadja Confederation was controlled by the politically dominant Berber group, the Lemtuna. During this time, caravan trade routes linked Mauritania with neighboring peoples in North Africa, the empire of Ghana (which included all of present-day southeastern Mauritania in its territory), and the empire of Mali. Gold, ivory, slaves, salt, copper, and cloth were carried by caravan. Important towns developed along the trade routes, becoming commercial and political centers.
By the 11th century ad, Berber and Arab traders had spread the Islamic religion throughout the western Sahara. Early in that century, the Sanhadja Confederation broke up, and a group known as the Almoravids conquered the entire region of the western Sahara. The group was established around 1041 when 'Abdallah ibn Yassin, a Sanhadja theologian, and his followers built a religious center known as a ribat. The men of the ribat were called marabouts, or murabitun, and they became known as the Almoravids. In 1042, the Almoravids launched a war to establish a purer form of Islam in the western Sahara region. The Almoravid empire spread from Spain to Senegal and replaced Ghana's hegemony over southeastern Mauritania. The Almoravids ruled Mauritania until the 12th century.
Between the 12th and 17th centuries, black Africans from Ghana, Mali, and Songhai immigrated to Mauritania. By the late 17th century, a wave of Yemeni Arabs had penetrated Mauritania from the north, and a Yemeni group known as the Bani Hassan dominated the area. As the Arabs moved southward, the Berbers and blacks migrated further south as well. The Berbers tried to fight Arab domination during the unsuccessful Thirty Years' War of 1644–74. When they failed to achieve liberation from the Arab forces, the Berbers became vassals to the Arabs.
By the late 17th century, Mauritanian society comprised four social groups. Three of these—the Arabs, the Berbers, and the black slaves—spoke Hassaniyya Arabic and became known as the Maures. The fourth social group was composed of free black Africans who settled in the Senegal River basin in the south.
Early European interest in Mauritania was limited. In the mid-15th century, about 1,000 slaves per year were exported to Europe. The Dutch and French purchased gum arabic from producers in southern Mauritania during the second half of the 16th century. Interest became more intense in the mid-19th century, when French forces briefly occupied two of Mauritania's southern regions—Brakna and Trarza. Early in the 20th century, French forces occupied and set up a colonial administration in Mauritania. France ruled Mauritania indirectly through its existing institutions and made little attempt to develop the region's economy. After World War II (1939–45), France granted some administrative and political freedoms to Mauritania, touching off disputes between the Maures (Arabs and Berbers) and the black Africans. Some Arabs and Berbers wanted to unite with Morocco to the north, whereas many southern (non-Maure) black Africans wanted to join with Senegal and Mali.
Mauritania became fully independent on 28 November 1960. The nation's first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, ruled until a coup ousted him from power in 1978. Divisions between the Maures and the non-Maure black Africans continued after independence, as the non-Maure blacks resented Maure domination of the Mauritanian political system and armed forces.
By 1975, Mauritania had become embroiled in a military conflict over the Western Sahara—territory then known as the Spanish Sahara—with the Polisario guerrillas of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Polisario is a group seeking national self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara, Mauritania's neighbor to the northwest. It is the military wing of the SADR, the government in exile of the Western Sahara. Mauritania occupied a southern province in the Western Sahara, partly to prevent Morocco (which also had claims to the country) from occupying the entire territory. In 1976, Spain relinquished control of the Western Sahara, dividing the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario guerrillas then waged a war against Morocco, and Mauritania allied itself with Morocco against them. The result was a costly war and resentment of the ruling Maures among black Mauritanians.
Rising political dissension led to a military coup in July 1978 that made Colonel Mustafa Ould Salek the prime minister. Salek was replaced in April 1979 by Colonel Ahmed Ould Bouceif and Colonel Muhammad Khouna Ould Haidalla. Bouceif died soon afterward in an airplane crash, and Haidalla became Mauritania's prime minister. Haidalla ended Mauritania's military involvement in the Western Sahara and gave diplomatic recognition to the SADR. In 1984, Haidalla was replaced in yet another coup by Colonel Ma'ouya Ould Sidi Ahmad Taya, who established a military government. Taya began to reform the political system, holding local elections and releasing some political prisoners. In the area of foreign relations, Taya strengthened relations with the Soviet Union and China and with the wealthy Middle Eastern states. His objectives were to gain access to trade and financial assistance and to rid Mauritania of its dependence on the West. In May 1987, Taya named three women to cabinet-level positions in the government. One was appointed minister of mines and industries; another became associate director of the presidential cabinet; and a third was named general secretary of the health and social affairs ministry. In July 1991, Mauritania drafted a new constitution, which, importantly, legalized a multiparty system in place of the former one-party system. As soon as the restrictions were lifted, 16 political parties were formed. The constitution stresses equality and individual freedoms (article 10). It makes Islam the state religion (article 5) and decrees that the president must be a Muslim (article 23).
A bloodless coup in 2005 ended Taya's 21-year autocratic rule. A council of military leaders took control of the country, promising democratic reforms. The 2007 elections, deemed free and fair by observers from both the United States and the European Union, brought to power Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdullahi, a former finance minister in the Taya government. He won 52.8% of the vote. Abdullahi campaigned on promises to redress Mauritania's serious problems of human trafficking and slavery. Although slavery was explicitly outlawed in 1981, many black Maures continue to serve their former masters as household servants and farmhands. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that slavery continued to be a serious problem.
Mauritania's government comprises three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The president, who is elected to a five-year term, heads the executive branch. The prime minister (Zeine Ould Zeidane since 2007) is appointed by the president. The legislative branch has two houses: a National Assembly consisting of 95 members who are elected by the people to five-year terms, and a Senate consisting of 56 members who are elected by municipal councilors to six-year terms. The judicial branch safeguards individual freedoms and ensures enforcement of the laws of the country.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Mauritania is located in Africa at the intersection of North Africa (a region known as the Maghrib) and West Africa. Its neighbors to the north are Morocco and Algeria; to the northwest lies the Western Sahara; to the east and southeast lies Mali; and to the southwest lies Senegal. The Atlantic Ocean borders Mauritania to the west.
Mauritania's official name is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Its capital is Nouakchott. The country is roughly 1.5 times the size of Texas. It spans an area of 1,031,000 sq km (398,069 sq mi), about two-thirds of which is desert, with an occasional oasis. The topography is generally flat, arid plains, and only 400 sq km (150 sq mi) of the area is water. There is very little rain in the northern 75% of the country, which is desert or semidesert, and in the far south, the yearly rainfall averages 40–60 cm (16–24 in). Most of this falls between the months of July and September.
About 40% of the country is covered with sand. Some of the sand sits in fixed dunes; other dunes are carried about by the wind. Mauritania has four geographic zones: the Saharan, theSahelian, the Senegal River valley, and the coastal zone. The Saharan zone covers the northern two-thirds of the country. Temperatures in this zone fluctuate widely between the morning and afternoon. It has very little vegetation. The Sahelian zone, south of the Saharan zone, extends to within 30 km (20 mi) of the Senegal River to the south. Temperatures here have much smaller daily variations. More vegetation grows in the Sahelian zone, including grasslands, acacia trees, and date palm trees. The Senegal River valley is a belt of land extending north of the Senegal River. It is vital to Mauritania's agricultural production, though it has suffered much desertification during severe and prolonged droughts since the 1960s and into the 21st century. Nevertheless, it experiences more rainfall than the rest of the country, and the river floods annually. The coastal zone is made up of the western section of the country along the Atlantic coast. It has minimal rainfall and moderate temperatures.
The census of 2007 determined that Mauritania had a population of about 3.3 million people. The annual population growth rate is almost 2.9%. The number of Mauritanians who can be considered urban dwellers is difficult to calculate because of the country's nomadic culture and sporadic industry. Among Mauritanian urban migrants, by far the most live in the capital city of Nouakchott and in Nouadhibou. The remainder live on farms or in small towns. Almost half of the population, more than 45%, is under the age of 15.
The Maures, descendants of both the Arabs and Berbers, are the largest ethnic group in Mauritania. They live mainly in the northern and central regions. Over the centuries, there has been much intermarriage between those of Arab-Berber origin and the black African population. The Maures are thus a group that includes both blacks and whites. The other major ethnic groups are racially black African; these are the Bambara, Fulbe, Soninke, Toucouleur, and Wolof groups. Black Mauritanians are traditionally farmers, livestock herders, and fishers and live mainly in the south. According to government figures, Maures constitute 70% of the population. This figure is disputed by black Africans, who argue that the Maures manipulate the figures to maintain dominance over the blacks.
Mauritania's largest city is the capital, Nouakchott, now home to thousands of former farmers and livestock herders who lost their farms and herds after drought and desertification began to plague the country in the 1970s. These Mauritanians flocked to Nouakchott and other cities in search of new jobs. The result was overcrowded living conditions and diffi-culty finding enough jobs for the influx of migrants. In 1960, Nouakchott had 5,000 inhabitants. By 1985, the number had reached 500,000. In 2005, the population was reported to be between 900,000 and 1.1 million. The discrepancy can be attributed to the migratory nature of Mauritanian culture and traditions.
Since 1968, Mauritania's official language has been Hassaniyya Arabic, which is spoken mainly by the Maures. The study of Hassaniyya in secondary schools was made compulsory in 1966. Hassaniyya is a largely Arabic language with many Berber loan words, and it reflects the both Arab and Berber ancestry of the Maures. Many people in the larger cities and villages speak French, which is also an official language. Mauritania's other official languages are Arabic, Poular, Soninke, and Wolof. These have many similarities, and most are rooted in the Niger-Congo language family.
Common boys' names are Ahmad, Hamadi, Muhammad, and 'Uthman. Common girls' names are Fatima, Bana, Hadia, and Safiya.
It is common in Mauritania to believe in divination and supernatural powers associated with holy men who lead Islamic Sufi brotherhoods (mystical associations). These religious leaders are venerated among West Africans and North Africans and are considered well educated. They are called marabouts, or murabitun, and it is believed that their baraka, or divine grace, allows them to perform miracles. They make and administer amulets and talismans. These are believed to have mystical powers that give them protection from illness and injury.
Most Mauritanians are Sunni Muslims. The region's inhabitants have adhered to Islam since the 9th century ad. Mauritania's Constitution Charter of 1991 declared Islam to be the state religion and requires that the president be a Muslim.
In Mauritania, as in much of West Africa, Islamic Sufibrotherhoods known as tariqas gained importance around the 13th century. Sufism is a religious movement that stresses mysticism and the needs of the human spirit. The brotherhoods transcended ethnic and tribal lines, thus helping to develop a broad national identity going beyond that of individual clans and ethnic groups. Mauritania has two major and several minor brotherhoods. The major brotherhoods are the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya orders. The Qadiriyya brotherhood stresses Islamic learning, humility, generosity, and respect for one's neighbors. The Tijaniyya brotherhood places less stress on learning. It is a missionary order that denounces theft, lying, cheating, and killing and emphasizes continual reflection on God.
Mauritania's major national holiday is Independence Day (November 28). It is celebrated with a military exhibition in which soldiers, tanks, and citizens parade in front of a stage on which the president and his entourage sit. The president delivers a speech to the nation addressing political and economic developments. The secular New Year (as opposed to the New Year on the Islamic calendar) is celebrated among the younger generation. They organize parties and have a New Year's Eve countdown, though without the traditional champagne, as Islamic countries forbid the consumption of alcohol.
Two major Islamic holidays are observed in Mauritania. One is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the holy month of fasting called Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, or having sexual relations during the daytime in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate who do not have enough food. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) and his son to obey God's command in all things, even as Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son. The holiday signals the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, which every Muslim must undertake at least once during his or her lifetime. Traditionally, Islamic holidays are celebrated by wearing new clothes and cooking grilled meat. Girls color their hands with henna.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Every Mauritanian is expected to marry and have children. A wedding ceremony consists of an ‘aqd, the Islamic contractual commitment in which the bride and groom pledge themselves to the marriage. This ceremony is followed by a party. The next step in the wedding is the marwah party, which is a reception to see the bride off to her new family. The marwah is bigger, noisier, and has more entertainment and dancing than the ‘aqd party.
Like most Arabs, Mauritanians are known to be friendly people. Even in the capital city of Nouakchott, which suffers from poverty and overpopulation as a result of urbanization, people are friendly. Elders, even outside one's family, are respected by the young. This practice, known as essahwa, requires the young to respect social customs in the presence of an elderly person. For example, a young Mauritanian would not smoke in front of an elderly Mauritanian. Also, the young must be careful to use appropriate language (no swearing), to avoid displays of affection (e.g., kissing) with an intimate friend, and to avoid talking too loudly in the presence of the elderly.
Mauritanians, for the most part, are very poor. Those who are wealthy have incomes comparable to those of middle-class Europeans. The unemployment rate is 24%. The per capita gross national product in 2007 was estimated at $1,800, although income derived from barter is not reflected in this estimate. The capital, though a desperately poor city by most measures, has modern appliances such as mobile phones, televisions with DVD players, and Internet cafés. Estimates suggest that the country has about 100,000 Internet users; its domain is.mr. There were two satellite television providers as of 2008. The national telecommunications company was privatized in 2001. Mobile phone penetration was 35 per 100 persons in 2008.
In the desert valleys of the countryside, known as the badiya, people live in tents made of cotton. These are light-colored on the outside so that they do not absorb sunlight and have brightly colored fabrics draping the inside of the tent walls. The floor of the tent is sandy, but it is covered with large woven mats known as hasiras. Furniture in the tents is made of wood and leather, and it can be folded to be transported on camels through the desert. Because they have no plumbing, desert dwellers get their water from an outside well. Containers made of animal skins, called guerbas, are used to carry water from the well to the tent. Cooking is done over an outdoor fire.
In the southern regions, homes are built of cement. They are rectangular with flat roofs and small windows. City homes are furnished with carpets, mattresses, and floor pillows. The villages have public faucets, from which people fill large buckets or tubs with water to carry back to their homes. There, the water is poured into a clay pot to keep it cool and clean. Stoves fueled by gas tanks are used for cooking in the villages.
The drought that has afflicted Mauritania since the 1970s has forced the northern population to migrate southward. The result has been a major housing crisis in the towns of southern Mauritania. Shantytowns, known as kebes, were erected around the towns and along the major streets. The migrants set up homes of wood and scrap metal, sun-dried bricks, or tents. In the capital of Nouakchott, more than half of the population lived in shantytowns and slums in the early years of the 21st century.
Health care and medical facilities do not meet the needs of the population, especially in rural areas. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a life expectancy among Mauritanians of 55 for males and 60 for females. In all, 125 Mauritanian children per 1,000 can expect to die before the age of five. In 2004, total expenditures on health care totaled 2.9% of gross domestic product. In that year, the WHO also reported that that were 0.11 physicians for every 1,000 people. Many diseases are common, such as measles, tuberculosis, and cholera in the north and malaria and schistosomiasis in the south. Hepatitis, bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, and Rift Valley fever also are problems. It is reported that child malnutrition is a major problem. For example, in rural areas, 38% of children under five suffer to such an extent their development is stunted. The figure for urban areas, 30.2%, is hardly better. In 2008, HIV/AIDS prevalence was low at 0.6%.
Mauritania has two major airports—at Nouakchott and Nouadhibou—that are capable of handling international air traffic. In 2008, the country also had 25 smaller airports (8 with paved runaways, 17 without) for internal domestic flights between Mauritania's cities. Nouakchott and Nouadhibou are also major seaports. Although some roads are paved, most are not, especially in the desert, where roads consist simply of tracks in the sand.
Mauritania's traditional social unit is the family and its descent, or lineage, group. A family's lineage is traced back five or six generations. The lineage serves as a basis of socialization for the young, wiThelder members of the lineage guiding younger members to conform to social norms. A group of related lineages that maintain social ties is known as a clan. The smallest unit within the clan is the extended family, which consists of related males with their wives, sons, and unmarried daughters. Marriage within the clan is preferred. First cousins are traditional marriage partners.
There is great emphasis on homemaking skills for girls, and so most daughters are given training in raising a family and taking care of the house. Often, girls are educated at home instead of at school. Mothers are expected to prepare their daughters for their future careers as homemakers, and fathers are expected to provide well for their daughters so that they can grow up to be healthy and physically attractive. Thin girls are not considered beautiful, and preteen girls are encouraged to eat well, and especially to drink milk, in order to ensure their physical beauty. Traditionally, girls became engaged or married by the time they were 8 or 10 years of age, but today many girls wait until they graduate from high school or college.
Mauritanian men are permitted to marry more than one wife. Though some choose to do so, most do not. Often, however, they marry in succession, divorcing one wife and then marrying a second. In 2008, the country had a very high fertility rate of 5.78.
Mauritanian attire is influenced by the desert heat and Islamic practice. Islam dictates that women should cover all the body except the hands and face, and men should cover the area from the navel to the knees. Both men and women in Mauritania often wear attire that covers the entire body, commonly with the face, hands, feet, and arms showing. Women wear a malaffa, which is a long cloak wrapped loosely around the body from head to toe. The men wear a dar'a, which is a long, loose robe worn over baggy pants known as sirwal. Some men wear head coverings, predominantly turbans or hawli, for protection from the winter cold and summer heat. Typical office attire for men is Western-style pants and shirts. Southern women wear dresses or skirts and blouses. They also wear long robes called boubous.
Lunch is the largest meal of the day in Mauritania. Commonly, villagers eat a spicy fish and vegetable stew with rice for lunch. Another popular Mauritanian lunch that is common in the northern desert is spicy rice mixed with tishtar, or small pieces of dried meat. A common dish served at dinnertime is couscous; it is semolina wheat sprinkled with oil and water and rolled into tiny grains. The grains are then steamed and ready for use in a favorite recipe. The couscous can be mixed with a number of sauces and vegetables. In some parts of Mauritania, couscous is known as lachiri.
After washing their hands, members of the family gather around a large platter of food placed on the floor. They scoop up small portions of food from the platter with either their hands or utensils. Each person eats only from his or her side of the platter. Many households use a central serving platter but provide diners with individual plates. In some households, men and women eat separately.
A favorite drink is zrig, a cool beverage made from goat's milk, water, and sugar. Despite the heat of the desert, tea is consumed throughout the country. Mauritanians drink imported green tea (from China). It is made with fresh mint and served in small glasses a few times per day. Alcoholic beverages are forbidden in Islam, and in 1986 the government banned their import, purchase, and consumption.
It is not mandatory that children attend school, and attendance is far from universal. Only 35% of young children attend elementary schools, while even fewer older children—only 8% to 19%—attend secondary school. Though girls often attend elementary school (25% of girls under the age of 11 attended elementary school in 2003), once this education is complete, it is common for girls to stay home. The French colonial administration established public schools, mainly in the Senegal River valley, where black Africans constituted most of the population. Black Africans thus came to have a primarily secular education. After independence from colonial rule, the Mauritanian government also stressed secular education. Elementary school lasts for six years, followed by two cycles of secondary school. The lower secondary cycle lasts for four years, and the upper secondary cycle lasts for three years.
Schools that provide Islamic education are common throughout the country. These traditional schools are often centered around a learned Islamic leader known as a marabout. Parents encourage their children to learn from these men. Boys generally attend religious schools for seven years, and girls attend for two years. Though emphasis is placed on religious learning—that is, memorizing passages from the Quran—language, arithmetic, logic, and other subjects are also taught.
Mauritania has one major secular university, one Islamic institute of higher education, and some vocational institutes. The Mauritania Institute for Scientific Research (founded in 1974) and the Advanced Center for Technical Education (founded in 1980) are perhaps the nation's oldest. According to the nation's 2005 census, the literacy rate was 52%, though this figure is believed to be inflated.
Arabic is taught in all schools. Other local ethnic languages are also taught in elementary schools. French is taught throughout the public school system.
Much of the literary work of Mauritanian writers focuses on Islamic and legal affairs. Islamic jurists pen elaborate discussions of Islamic norms. In addition to the focus on religion, there is also a love of literature and poetry. Stories and poems are passed down through the generations in musical form, recited by storytellers known as ighyuwn. As the ighyuwn tells his tale, he is accompanied by a drum, by the music of the Mauritanian guitar (tidinit), or by women playing a harplike instrument (ardin). The stories told are often short fables. Poetry is sung by minstrels and ballad singers. At social events, poetry praising the host or the guests is commonly sung.
Until a devastating drought struck Mauritania beginning in the 1970s, 80% to 90% of Mauritanians led a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, raising cattle, sheep, and goats. Tens of thousands of animals have died in the drought, which encroaches on previously fertile land by about 6.5 km (4 mi) per year. By the early 21st century, about 85% of herders had moved to the cities to find other employment.
The largest employer of Mauritanians outside the public sector is the mining industry. Iron and copper ores, both discovered in the 1950s, together accounted for 40% of the nation's exports in 2007. Another major employer is the fishing and fish-processing industry; the country's national waters are some of the richest in the world. Unfortunately, although some Mauritanians are employed by the fishing companies, Koreans, Japanese, and Russians have attained major fishing rights off the Atlantic coast, depriving Mauritanians of income that could improve the economy.
Football (called soccer in the United States) is by far the most popular sport in Mauritania. In 2008, the national team was ranked one-hundred-fourteenth in the world by FIFA (International Federation of Association Football).
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Because of the desert heat during the afternoon, desert dwellers rest after lunch, waiting for the sun to descend. In the evenings, families gather outside the tent, sitting on a light mat called a hasira.
Children are creative and make many of their toys, such as cars and airplanes made of wire and tin cans. They also play games requiring no toys. One of these games is a variation of tug-of-war known as ligum.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The products of skilled craftspeople and artisans are valued among the elite in Mauritanian society. They are known for their woodwork, jewelry, leatherwork, pottery, weaving, tailoring, and ironwork. Handwoven rugs and handcrafted silver and gold jewelry and cutlery are popular with tourists.
One of the major problems facing Mauritania is the extent of desertification of the land. By 2006, more than 90% of once-arable land had become desert. Other major problems are low standards of health care and shortages of medical equipment and professionals. Infectious diseases such as malaria are prevalent.
A political problem has arisen as a result of the low social status accorded to non-Maure black Africans in Mauritania. The Maures, who comprise both black and white members, dominate the political and social system, government bureaucracy, education, and land ownership. They openly discriminate against the non-Maure black Africans. The non-Maure black population has been a source of slaves, a problem that continued into the early 21st century. Maure domination of the country has spurred opposition among some black groups. The requirement that all secondary school students learn Arabic has also created dissent among the black Africans. The Toucouleur, also called the Halpularen, are the largest black African ethnic group in Mauritania, and it has challenged the domination of the Maures. The Toucouleur lead an illegal antigovernment organization based south of Mauritania, in Senegal—the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania, or the Forces de Libération Africaine de Mauritanie (FLAM). Anti-government activities by the FLAM have, according to the government, included attempts to overthrow the government. The government has executed some FLAM members for these activities, resulting in demonstrations against racism and violent clashes between supporters and opponents of the government. Following the 2005 coup, a FLAM splinter group renounced violence for political ends and engaged in tentative political negotiations with the government of President Abdullahi. As of 2008, few outstanding issues had been resolved.
Of the total Mauritanian workforce, the United Nations has calculated that 44% are female and, of these women, 53% work in agriculture. Human slavery and the trafficking of women remain serious concerns.
In response to these issues, the government enacted several laws and policies regarding the rights of women and children. The United Nations reports that in the early 21st century, the president issued decrees that changed domestic laws to bring them into line with international norms. The minimum age for marriage, for example, was raised to 18—high for a Muslim country. In 2003, the country implemented the Act on the Suppression of Trafficking in Persons, prohibiting all forms of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Additionally, Mauritania initiated reforms to increase female access to education beginning in 2002.
Handloff, Robert E., ed. Mauritania: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990.
Miles, William F. S., ed. Political Islam in West Africa: State-Society Relations Transformed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007.
Weekes, Richard. Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.
—revised by J. Henry