Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

MAURITANIA: Taking the Weight of Tradition Off Women

Amina Barakat

NOUAKCHOTT, May 24 2007 (IPS) - Excess weight on women has long been considered something to aspire to in Mauritania, where it serves as a symbol of beauty and wealth. But, it appears these views are being called into question as awareness spreads of the health risks they entail for girls who are force fed to make them gain the desired weight.

Women “risk developing serious cardiovascular problems, hypertension and diabetes. In instances of pregnancy, they suffer still more, and their babies with them,” Fall Ould Abri, who heads up a medical practice in the capital of Nouakchott, told IPS.

“Fortunately, this practice is in the process of disappearing.”

Sociologist Aoua Ly-Tall reaches similar conclusions in her publication ‘Force Feeding, a Practice Detrimental to the Health of Girls and Women’. She notes that over feeding of girls is no longer considered a good thing in Mauritanian society, especially by educated young women, and that the country has seen the emergence of an anti-force feeding movement.

In recent years, women’s civil society groups have held several conferences and workshops on the matter.

Aminata Mint Moud, a female journalist, is leading a campaign against force feeding in the monthly Arabic newspaper ‘Attahsis’ (‘Sensitisation’), while lobbying her colleagues in national radio and television to do the same.

Notes Houriya Mint Chérif, a well-known news presenter on Mauritanian television, “Force feeding is ancient history, a bad memory…If a woman prefers to be chubby, it’s only to wear her M’lahfa well.” (A “M’lahfa” is a traditional Mauritanian woman’s outfit.)

Previously, efforts to make girls gain weight were sometimes carried out with factory line efficiency.

In the southern valley of Nema, writes Italian researcher Attilo Gaudio in ‘Women and Islam, or the Banned Sex’, there were establishments that undertook a collective fattening up of young women on behalf of families which would have struggled to marry off less voluptuous daughters. It has been said that the glory of a man is measured by the weight of his wife.

Girls aged barely ten years old were fed kilogrammes of fine couscous or millet mixed with generous helpings of butter; they were also required to drink up to 20 litres of milk daily with the aid of a funnel placed in their mouths.

Certain women have even resorted to drugs for increasing animal weight in a bid to adhere to the feminine ideal.

Now, increasing numbers of women are taking up sport to attain a normal weight – while young girls of medium or even petite size have become a frequent sight in secondary schools, or in upmarket cafes of the capital.

Force feeding persists in rural areas where women are less educated and aware than their urban counterparts – and consequently less knowledgeable about how dangerous this practice can prove.

But while no definite figures are available on the extent of force feeding, certain analyses indicate that only one or two girls out of ten are still subjected to the practice in present day Mauritania.

Certain men, too, are abandoning stereotypes of what constitutes beauty on the part of women.

“Our women do not need kilos any more to seduce us,” Mokhtar Ould Babana, a hotel manager in Nouakchott, told IPS.

“There are other standards/for beauty, such as openness of spirit.”

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