Resident Expert: Social Activism in Mauritania

Erin Pettigrew, assistant professor of history, talks to a woman in Mauritania for research into the country's political history.

When she visited Mauritania in January, Erin Pettigrew was surprised to note a revival of interest in the history of the Kadehiin, an underground leftist movement active in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Surprised and pleased, since the movement is the subject of her current research.

Pettigrew, assistant professor of history and Arab Crossroads Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, specializes in Mauritania, in the southwestern Sahara. She first went to the country of just under four million people in 2003-05, "right after undergrad, when I was in the Peace Corps," she says. That's when she learned Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect, which has been essential to her scholarly work. Her previous research there dealt with the social history of the Islamic esoteric sciences and spiritual mediators in Mauritania during the colonial and postcolonial periods. Now, she has moved to focus on postcolonial social and political history.

The Kadehiin Movement

"Kadehiin" is an Arabic word for "workers" or “laborers” and Pettigrew says that although the movement lasted for barely a decade, she is finding that many former activists, now aging, "are wanting to speak out about the movement for posterity's sake … People are wanting to remember and talk about the movement." Likewise, public media discussions of the history of the movement have picked up because of political changes in the country, with many former members actively a part of opposition groups.

The Kadehiin movement emerged during the Cold War, and "some of its members identified as Communist, but of course that's problematic in a country that defines itself as an Islamic republic … and there don't seem to have been any direct connections with the Soviet Union, although many of those who became members studied abroad in France, Tunisia, and Algeria. The Kadehiin were much more focused on internal social and educational reforms."

As long ago as the 14th century, Pettigrew notes, the renowned Arab traveller Ibn Battutu observed that women in Saharan societies had more social freedom than other Arab Muslim women at the time, openly engaging in mixed gendered company and conversations.

She will be investigating the degree of female leadership in the Kadehiin, but knows already that many women did participate. She hopes to explore "what social messaging they had, if any, about gender roles." Pettigrew says the Kadehiin seem to have combined "forces from different sides of Mauritanian society" – those considered “Arab” and speaking Arabic but also those speaking sub-Saharan languages, women, and those of lower social status.

There's growing discontent among some sectors of the population who feel socially and politically marginalized.

Erin Pettigrew, assistant professor of history

"A Growing Voice"

If Mauritania was somewhat ignored politically during the Cold War – "an interstitial place" as Pettigrew calls it – it is becoming less so nowadays. The long borders with Mali and Algeria make kidnapping and terrorism daily concerns for its residents. Even if Mauritania did not experience a change in political power because of the Arab Spring, she says, " there's definitely a growing frequency in street protests and public criticism of the government."

After her most recent visit, "I did say 'I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to go'. Not because I'm sensing or have experienced anything directly hostile to me, but I think politics in Mauritania are changing … there's growing discontent among some sectors of the population who feel socially and politically marginalized. And what's happening in Mali means my own movement in Mauritania has been limited; there are parts of the country I haven't been able to go to" in the past five years, she says. She stays only with Mauritanian friends, and travels prudently.

Erin Pettigrew, NYUAD assistant professor of history, talks to a man in Mauritania for research into the country's political history.

Still, she's eager to get on with her new research. "I try to test out my topics on my Mauritanian colleagues," Pettigrew says, and about the Kadehiin "people had strong opinions, they're willing and excited to talk about them. That means it will be easier to research, and that the subject has relevance for the people who live there."