Islamic slavery suffers defeat during court ruling in Niger

Former slave girl’s lawsuit leads to banning Muslim practice of 'fifth wife'

After a ten year battle, a top court in the Republic of Niger, a West African country, ruled earlier this year against the Muslim practice of taking a 'fifth wife,' also called 'wahaya.'

This brings a legal end to a barbaric form of slavery in Niger, in which thousands of young girls have long and cruelly suffered as sex and domestic slaves.

'This custom is contrary to the laws of the republic and the international conventions regularly ratified by Niger, the Court of Appeals ruled. 

While Muslim men are legally allowed under Islamic law to have four wives, many in Niger buy slave girls, most under fifteen years of age, as non-legal 'fifth wives.'

These men may have also multiple 'fifth wives.' Wealthy men, it was reported, buy such 'wives' as a sign of prestige. And although the exact number of 'fifth wives' is unknown, it is 'very common' in some areas of Niger.

Besides 'wahaya,' there are also two other kinds of slavery in Niger. One is 'chattel slavery', whose numbers are estimated between 43,000 and 133,000.

The other is called 'soft' or 'passive' slavery, in which former slaves remain in a kind of 'tributary and forced labor situation' with their former masters. Their 'individual freedoms are still controlled' and a violation of this arrangement by a former slave could lead to his being severely beaten.

It is estimated there are approximately 870,000 'passive' slaves in Niger, which has been called the country’s 'most prominent' form of slavery.

Slave children also work in Niger’s gold mines. Boys are also sometimes castrated, an old Islamic practice. Slave masters are also reported to sometimes separate slave children from their parents at a young age to break the parent-child bond.

The 'fifth wife' slave girls are made to work long hours in the fields, herd animals perform domestic chores and forced to have sex with their masters in a form of concubinage. Masters can also arrange the girls’ marriages without their consent.

As non-legal wives, these young girls are also subservient to the legal wives and made to perform domestic chores for them. And perhaps most terrible of all, any children these slave girls bear belong to their masters who can dispose of them as he wishes.

Slavery exists among Niger’s Arabs, Tuaregs (a Berber people in Niger) Hausa and nomadic Fulanis. All slaves are black Africans, whose ancestors were captured in slave raids and who 'remain trapped in hereditary slavery.' Black African slaves among the Tuaregs are called 'black Tumacheqs' (after the language spoken by the Tuaregs.)

Slavery had been abolished when Niger was a French colony. But an independent Niger only abolished and criminalized it in 2003. One anti-slavery activist said this was only a 'charm offensive to please westerners'. Everything, apparently, stayed the same on the ground.

An indication of government reluctance to enforce the new anti-slavery law is that despite the possible thousands of 'fifth wife' girls in Niger, the first conviction for the now illegal practice only occurred 11 years later in 2014, where a 62-year-old slave master was sentenced to four years in jail.

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