Haratin, also referred to as Haratine, Harratin or Hartani, are a group of closely related North African peoples who are native to northwestern regions of Sahara, especially in the Maghreb. They are particularly found in modern Mauritania (where they form a plurality), Morocco, Western Sahara, and Algeria. In Tunisia and Libya they are referred to as Chouachin, Chouachine, or Chouchan.
They form the single largest defined ethnolinguistic group in Mauritania where they account for 40% of the population (~1.5 million). They have been called a socially distinct class of workers, or a caste that emerged from a legacy of slavery in Africa under the Arabs, the Berbers, and the Moors.
As a consequence of their ethnogenesis and history, the Haratin have been, and still commonly, are socially isolated throughout Maghreb, living in segregated, Haratin-only ghettos. They are commonly perceived as an endogamous group of former slaves or descendants of slaves. Most originated from Sahel and sub-Saharan region of West Africa. They adopted Islam under the Moors and were forcibly recruited into the Moroccan army by Ismail Ibn Sharif to consolidate power.
The word Haratin has been traced to two roots. The first root is from haratine, the Arabic word for "plowmen". The second etymology is based from the Berber word ahardan referring to skin color, more specifically "dark color".
The origins of the Haratin are in various Sub-Saharan African ethnic groups of Sahel in West Africa, such as Bambara, Soninke, and others. They were raided or captured during wartime and brought to the Arab world of North Africa as slaves. Earliest known enslaved predecessors of the Haratin worked on arable lands, particularly around the oases across the Sahara. They gradually adopted the language and culture of their slavedrivers, Arabs and Berbers of the region. In countries such as Morocco, they are sometimes classified either as Berber or Arab, depending on their language and society they are found in. In Mauritania, however, where there are nearly 1.5 million Haratin, they have developed a separate sense of ethnic identity.
They have historically inherited their slave status and family occupation, have been endogamous, and socially segregated. Some communities differentiated two types of slaves, one called `Abid or "slave" and Haratin or "freed slave". However, per anthropologist John Shoup, both 'Abid and Haratin were not free to own land or had equivalent property rights. Regardless of whether they were technically free or not, they were treated as socially inferior in the communities they lived in. Being denied the right and the ability to own any land, they historically survived by accepting a patron-client serf relationship either as domestic servant or as share-cropping labor (khammasin).
They became a common target of mandatory conscription by the Moroccan ruler Ismail Ibn Sharif as he sought to build a military who had no social or cultural attachment to any other Arab or Berber group in Maghreb. He conscripted majority of able-bodied male Haratin and 'Abid that were present in Morocco at the time. This army was then commonly coerced into a series of wars in order to consolidate Ibn Sharif's power.
In Mauritania, the Haratin form one of the largest ethnic groups and account for as much as 40% of the Mauritanians. They are sometimes referred to as "Black Moors", in contrast to Beidane, or "White Moors". The Haratin there are primarily Hassaniya Arabic. Most of them have origins in the ethnic groups such as the Bambara, Fulani, Soninké, and Wolof people.
The Haratin of Mauritania, according to anthropologist Joseph Hellweg who specializes in West African studies, were historically part of a social caste-like hierarchy that likely developed from a Bedouin legacy between the 14th and 16th century. The "Hassan" monopolized the occupations related to war and politics, the "Zwaya" (Zawaya) the religious roles, the "Bidan" (White Moors) owned property and held slaves (Haratins, Black Moors). Each of these were immovable castes, endogamous, with hereditary occupations and where the upper strata collected tribute (horma) from the lower strata of Mauritanian society, considered them socially inferior, and denied them the right to own land or weapons thereby creating a socio-economically closed system.
In 1960, Mauritania officially abolished slavery, and made another update to its slavery law in 1981. However, even after the formalities, abolishment, and new laws, discrimination against Haratin is still widespread, and many continue to be, for all practical purposes, enslaved, while large numbers live in other forms of informal dependence on their former masters.
Amnesty International reported that in 1994 90,000 Haratine still lived as "property" of their master, with the report indicating that "slavery in Mauritania is most dominant within the traditional upper class of the Moors." According to Mauritanian officials, any master-serf relationship is mutually consensual. This position has been questioned by the United Nations and human rights advocacy groups.
The Amnesty International report states that "[s]ocial attitudes have changed among most urban Moors, but in rural areas, the ancient divide is still very alive." There have been many attempts to assess the real extension of slavery in modern Mauritania, but these have mostly been frustrated by the Nouakchott government's official stance that the practice has been eliminated. Amnesty further estimated that some 300,000 freed slaves continued to be in service of their former masters.
On April 27, 2007 Messaoud Ould Boulkheir was elected speaker of the National Assembly, becoming the first black Haratine to hold the position.
Haratin have been the slave strata of the Moroccan society through its recorded history. They were owned in every town and farming centers before the time of Moroccan ruler Ismail Ibn Sharif. They provided domestic labor, farm labor, physical labor inside towns and markets, as well as were conscripted to fight wars.
According to Remco Ensel – a professor of Anthropology specializing in Maghreb studies, the word "Haratin" in Moroccan is a pejorative that connotes "subordination, disrepute" and in contemporary literature, it is often replaced with "Drawi", "Drawa", "Sahrawi", "Sahrawa", or other regional terms. The Moroccan Haritin, states Chouki El Hamel – a professor of History specializing in African Studies, are the diaspora of black West Africans who were forcefully transported across the Sahara and sold in Moroccan slave markets over centuries. They absorbed the "Arabo-centric values in the dominant interpretation of Islam", states El Hamel, over the generations and they see themselves as Muslim Moroccans, rather than by their ethnic or native group.
The Haratin strata, as slave workers, were a major institution of Moroccan society through the 19th century. Yet, there has been a general lack of historical records about their origins and ethnography, leading to several constructed proposals, and their mention in older Moroccan literature is generally limited to their status as slaves and more focussed on the rights on their owners. It is their contemporary economic and social marginalization that has awakened renewed interest in their history and their oral histories.
The Haratins remain indispensable workers in modern oases societies, states Ensel, and continue to be mistreated in contrast to the upper strata called the "Shurfa". According to Remco Ensel, Haratin along with Swasin in Morocco and other northern fringe societies of the Sahara, were a part of a social hierarchy that included the upper strata of nobles, religious specialists, and literati, followed by freemen, nomadic pastoral strata, and slaves. The Haratin were hierarchically higher than the `Abid (descendant of slaves) at the very bottom, but lower than Ahrar. This hierarchy, states Ensel, has been variously described as ethnic groups, estates, quasi-castes, castes, or classes.
The Haratins historically lived segregated from the main society, in a rural isolation. Their subjugation was sometimes ideologically justified by nobles and some religious scholars, even though others disagreed. The social stratification of Haratin and their inter-relationships with others members of the society varied by valley and oasis, but whether the Haratins were technically 'unfreed, semi-freed, or freed' slaves, they were considered as "inferior" by other strata of the society. The Haratin remain the marginalized population of Morocco, just like other similar groups around the world.
According to Human Rights Watch, Morocco alleges that slavery is widespread in the Tindouf refugee camps run by the Polisario Front in south-western Algeria; POLISARIO denies this and claims to have eradicated slavery through awareness campaigns. A 2009 investigative report by Human Rights Watch interviewed some dark-skinned Sahrawis, who are a small minority in the camps; they stated that some "blacks" are "owned" by "whites" but this ownership manifested only in "granting" marriage rights to girls. In other words, a dark-skinned girl must have an approval from her "white master". Without this the marriage can not be performed by a Qadi (Islamic Judge).
The report notes that POLISARIO claims to oppose any such discrimination, but raises questions about possible official collusion in, or indifference to, the practice. In addition, a case of an official document that grants freedom to a group of enslaved families has been found by HRW. The document in question dates as recently as 2007. The document was signed by a local judge or an official civil servant. Slavery is still engraved in memories due to historical and traditional reasons, and such cases are not as shocking as one might think to the society of the Sahrawi refugee camps. The Human Rights Watch concludes its chapter on slavery as follows, "In sum, credible sources testified to Human Rights Watch about vestiges of slavery that continue to affect the lives of a portion of the black minority in the Tindouf camps. The practices involve historical ties between families that involve certain rights and obligations that are not always clear. Being a slave does not necessarily preclude enjoying freedom of movement."
Responding to questions about slavery, the POLISARIO has acknowledged the survival "to a limited extent, of certain practices related to antiquated thinking" and said it was "determined to combat and eradicate them whenever they emerge and no matter what shape they take." "We welcome this statement and urge the POLISARIO to be vigilant in pursuing this objective," said HRW.