Black Women’s Resistance To The Legacy Of The Arab Slave Trade
Above: The caption for this illustration reads “Slave dealers and slave – a Street Scent in Zanzibar.” Source The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper (London, Vol. 7 (1973), p. 412.
Blackness and the Islamic Empire slave trade For the past fourteen centuries Arab, Turkish, Persian and some African nations and empires have conducted the Arab slave trade, also known as the “Islamic Empire slave trade” or “Eastern slave trade.” This slave trade was practiced primarily in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and in what is today known as the Middle East, as well as in southern Europe. People were captured from the interior of Africa and then sold in slave markets in the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Even though what the true numbers, a conservative estimate from some historians say that from the 8th century till present day, around 20 million people were taken from southern and central Africa and through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Sahara desert.
And while Islamic empires also at times enslaved Europeans, as Aurora Ellis, a journalist and researcher on African diaspora studies, said about how modern-day Arabs view the Islamic Empire slave trade, “One of the common apologist arguments for anti-black racism in the Middle East is that slavery was not color-based or racist as whites were also enslaved and that slavery was benign. Of course this is ludicrous, owning and forcing another human being into servitude can never be good or benign, but this is really a strong belief among a lot of people. The fact that color wasn’t the sole determination of whether or not someone was enslaved has nothing to do with how slavery is imagined in the contemporary Middle East, where it is still largely associated with blackness.”
One of the most common, street-level, manifestations of the anti-Black racism that is the legacy of the millennium and a half Arab slave trade is that, as Ellis points out, “Throughout Arabic-speaking Africa ‘abeed’ (slaves) is a term primarily used in a racist manner towards blacks. Thus, you’ll (be) unlikely to ever find the descendants of Circassian slaves in Egypt being called ‘abeed’ on the streets, but black citizens and foreigners alike are.”
In most parts of Africa, being of African descent does not mean one is “Black,” instead, to be Black means to be of African descent and to be dark-skinned. While Arab refers to the often lighter-skinned, transnational ethnic group, which speaks Arabic, identifies with Arabic culture and whose lineage is traced back to the Arabian peninsula.
Hyper-sexualization of Black women in northern Africa
In the social imagination of Arab dominated northern African societies, the dark-skinned or Black woman is seen as the “sex slave.” This comes in part from the fact for centuries, that unlike Western chattel slavery and plantation labor, was seen as the foundation of the slave societies, in the Islamic slave societies, slaves were expected to work intimately with the family, in the house. Because of this, the Arab slave trade dealt primarily in castrated male slaves and women. The eastern Arab slave trade maintained a ratio of about two women to each man.
The Egyptian-Sudanese novelist and poet, Kola Boof, described the effects on how the Arab slave trade still affects Black women in northern Africa. “The Arabs taught us that we are animals…livestock. And we completely believed them because we are taken as un-formed young girls … There is no love for a slave woman, no value, no respect. She is the same as a sheep.”
This history of the ways that Black women were treated for centuries by slaves and slave-owners manifests itself in popular culture in northern Africa today. Ellis said that Black women “that are marginalized are also seen by quite a few men within the Arabic-speaking world as particularly desirable because they are stereotyped as hyper-sexual beings by the media and in social circles.”
She added, “On the other hand, the desirability of African women and the perceived sensuality and sexuality of the ‘samara’ (a common word used to refer to black women) are celebrated in songs throughout the Arabic-speaking world … Fetishization for this perceived hyper-sexuality of blacks is not uncommon and reinforced by both Western and earlier Middle Eastern imperialist texts as well as by the contemporary Arabic media.”
Blackness and Egyptian nationality
Southern Egypt is the land of Nubia.The contemporary people of Nubia are the indigenous people of the land and still refer to themselves as Nubians, many of whom speak the language of Nubian as well as Arabic. They are, on whole, darker-skinned than Arab Egyptians and are a marginalized people in the modern state of Egypt.
In the 1960s, a dam was built in Aswan, the capital of Nubia. This dam, called the Nasser dam by the state, permanently flooded Nubian with a 500 mile long lake. Hundreds of modern Nubian villages as well as millennia-old Nubian tombs and temples were destroyed. Approximately 60,000 people were displaced by newly-created Lake Nasser. For decades they have fought to be able to return to their historic homeland in the south.
As Ellis said, “… all blacks are erased, made invisible, or are treated as ‘foreigners’ in common nationalist discourse in North Africa. Nubians in Egypt complain of a lack of positive media representation and that includes sidelining darker-skinned actresses and TV hosts.”
She added that the construction of North African national identity is racialized toward whiteness, “In Egypt, the government teaches the country’s children that they are “white” and “Arab” and not “African.” These classifications are found in national textbooks, which use Western-based racialist imagery and pseudo-anthropology, and reinforced through a racist media narratives … So from the start, black and dark women (and men) in Egypt are erased and quite literally are told they are not part of the country’s imagined demographics of whiteness.”
Nubians have resisted this erasure of their culture and their rights to a homeland in Egypt. Generations of Nubians have become more and more vocal of their right to their return to Nubia. They have pushed their music and visual art into public view, they have joined national political bodies to demand their right to return to Nubia and for Egyptian state to acknowledge the diversity within the Egyptian citizenry.
Ellis said, “In Egypt, I’ve been following the movements throughout the Nubian community to reclaim their ancestral rights to their homeland. This movement also includes encouraging the Egyptian state to embrace the indigenous African aspects of their culture as well as combating anti-blackness and anti-African sentiments, as evidenced in the latest changes in the Egyptian constitution.”
Black refugee women in Egypt
Refugee women from Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and other parts of Africa come to Egypt to escape civil war and torturous military service.
Even though Egypt signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government only provides little to no services for refugees. Egyptian society generally is against permitting basic rights to refugees. They have not been able to attend public schools, have legal employment or own property. They have no opportunity to acquire Egyptian citizenship because Egyptian nationality can only be gained if one’s parents are Egyptian citizens. There is barely any opportunity for refugees or their children to be able to be integrated into the society.
Black refugee women face further issues in Egyptian society. Single women and Black refugee mothers find it difficult to find housing because Egyptian landlords only want to rent to two-parent households. Furthermore, the common job for refugee in the informal economy is as a domestic workers, in which they often are subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse from their employers.
Ten years ago, a couple of thousand Sudanese asylum-seekers, created a protest camp in front of the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Cairo to demonstrate against the U.N.’s treatment of Black refugees in Egypt. After about three months, in the last days of the year 2005, police raided the camp. On national TV, the police pulled women from the camps by their hair and pushed to the ground old women carrying babies. The police killed about 100 people in the raid and arrested another 2,000 more.