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Young Mauritanians reject forced fattening
Al Arabiya
February 23, 2009

Women and men exercise around a sports stadium in the city of Nouakchott, Mauritania. Husbands often get upset when their wives try to shed weight because the desert culture prizes corpulence.

The traditional practice of fattening for physical attraction in Mauritania has become a stigma for young adults who began to feel its negative consequences on health, the Magharebia web site reported earlier this week.

Women who practice what is called in Mauritania Leblouh eat large amounts of food, sometimes by force especially for girls preparing to get married. The more weight they gain the more chances of getting married they find. If one is slim, tough luck for her finding a husband. Slim women seen inferior

“Slim women are traditionally deemed inferior,” according to Magharebia

From an economic perspective, fat is a symbol of wealth, affluence, hence elevated family status.

“The slim girl brings shame to her family in some towns, especially in remote areas,” Vadel, a teacher, told the Web site.

“Some families find themselves forced to adhere to the customs of the society around them even if they are not convinced. Local norms don`t show any mercy, sometimes, to dissidents.”

The custom of Leblouh in Mauritania is practiced more among rural and low educated women who see it as an essential path to marriage.

“I practiced Leblouh with my daughter Leila when she was 10 years old because I wanted her to get married and give birth to children at an early age,” Khadija told Magharebia.

“This is the same thing that my mother, may God rest her soul, did with me.”

The demand for such practice led to the emergence of specialist fatteners who charge money for helping girls gain weight.

Some of these practitioners pay little attention to the young generation trying to change the custom.

Ache, a 45-year old fattener, told Magharebia, “I think that the custom of Leblouh is indispensable. Simply speaking, a fat woman will usually attract men`s looks, unlike the slim woman.”

Painful experience

But some women who underwent the fattening experience of Leblouh said it was painful and difficult.

Hoda, who grow up in the countryside, said her mother hired a fattener for her when she was 8 years old. “That woman fattener was very tough with me,” she said.

“She would hit me when I got tired of food and when I was about to throw up. She used to make me drink a huge container of milk, of about 5 liters (1.32 gallons). My stomach almost exploded each time.”

Selma, another girl, said she was forced to eat more than her stomach could stand and she would throw up several times.

“I gained weight quickly; I was almost 80 kilograms (176 lbs) at the age of 15.”

More than 70 percent of Mauritanian women over 40 years old think Leblouh is necessary for marriage, according to a 2007 study by the Social Solidarity Association.

The practice was generally practiced in rural areas, but as rural populations moved to urban centers they carried the tradition with them, according to the association. The study showed that 80 percent of girls were forcibly fattened in the rural areas compared to 10 percent urban cities.

History professor Mohamed Salem refers the practice of Leblouh to the days of the Almoravids, an Amazigh (Berber) dynasty that spread though Sahara in the 11th century.

“Leblouh is a negative phenomenon that has invaded our country since the era of Almoravids,” said.

Salem explained that because of harsh desert conditions women in the past were confined to tents, eating and gaining weight. Those who were slim sought conformity with the majority of women by eating a lot.

Change of perception

Today things have changed as the new generation of girls and boys view the traditional practice negatively, Salem said

“The age of the traditional `tent`, which symbolizes the desert, has long gone,” said Fatimetou, a 22-year old student. “Now that the era of globalization has come, the phenomenon of Leblouh has become meaningless and must disappear, exactly as its age has disappeared.”

For Mariem, another student, the practice of Leblouh leads to obesity and serious health problems.

“Today we are in need of thinness and gracefulness so that we may preserve our health. There are so many women who can`t leave home because of their excessive weight,” she told Magharebia.

Hospitals and private clinics today in the country receive hundreds of female patients every week with weight-related health problems such as heart disease, hypertension and atherosclerosis, according to the Web site.

“There are many chronic cases which we receive as a result of Leblouh,” Dr. Sidi Ahmed, a heart disease specialist at Nouakchott`s Sabah hospital, told Magharebia.

“We have launched several campaigns aimed at putting an end to this mentality that links beauty and fat, which brings some people to review their customs and traditions.”

© 2009 Provided by, an company

Desert culture battles to break `fat is beautiful` view of women
April 17, 2007

Zeinebou Mint Mohamed, 26, shows off her stretch marks, a major turn-on for Mauritanian men. Photo Credit: Joost De Raeymaeker.

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) - She struggles under her own weight, lumbering up the stairs, her thighs shaking with each step. Once she reaches the top, it will take several minutes for 50-year-old Mey Mint to catch her breath, the air hissing painfully in and out of her chest.

Her rippling flesh is not the result of careless overeating, but rather of a tradition of force-feeding girls in a desert nation where obesity has long been the ideal of beauty, signaling a family`s wealth in a land repeatedly wracked by drought.

To make a girl big and plump, the tradition of `gavage` -- a French word borrowed from the practice of fattening of geese for foie gras -- starts as early as 4, as it did for Mint, who was forced to drink 55 liters (14 gallons) of camel`s milk a day. When she vomited, she was beaten. If she refused to drink, her fingers were bent back until they touched her hand. Her stomach hurt so much she prayed all the animals in the world would die so that there would be no more milk to be had.

Now, she has trouble walking and suffers from a combination of weight-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.

“My mother thinks she made me beautiful. But she made me sick,” says Mint, who asked that her full last name not be disclosed because she feels embarrassed by her past.

To end the brutal practice, the government launched a TV and radio campaign highlighting the risks of obesity. Because most Mauritanian love songs describe the ideal woman as fat, the Health Ministry commissioned catchy odes to thin women.

These efforts, combined with the rising popularity of foreign soap operas featuring model-thin women, has helped stamp out the practice among the country`s urban elite.

Only one in 10 women under age 19 has been force-fed, compared to a third of women 40 or older, according to a survey by the National Office of Statistics in 2001, the most recent available. Those who were forced to eat were overwhelmingly from the country`s rural areas.

But although the canon of beauty is changing, entrenched values are hard to uproot.

“My husband thinks I`m not fat enough,” complained Zeinabou Mint Bilkhere, explaining that her husband found her pretty during the last months of her pregnancy. Since giving birth, the weight has dropped, however, and with it his desire for her.

Although force-feeding has decreased, many women feel pressured to be bigger-than-average and have turned to a more scientific method of weight gain, using foreign-made, appetite-inducing pills.

Wrapped in a floor-length veil, the 24-year-old who is roughly a size 8, opens her purse and pushes a fistful of change across the counter of a roadside pharmacy in exchange for a box of Anactine, a Moroccan-made antihistamine. The pills, commonly prescribed for hay fever, have as their side effect an unabated desire to eat.

A variety of appetite boosters are popular in Mauritania, including antihistamines made by the likes of Merck and Novartis. They replace a more blunt instrument, recently outlawed by the government -- animal steroids intended for fattening camels.

“When I was little my mother hit me to eat because I didn`t want to be fat. Now I want to be big because men like that,” said Bilkhere who hopes the antihistamines will help her gain 10 to 15 kilograms (22 to 33 pounds).

A common Moor saying holds that the place a woman occupies in a man`s heart is according to her volume. Even as infomercials tout the health benefits of being thin, many men say they prefer voluptuous women.

Isselmou Ould Mohamed says he loves his wife`s 90-kilogram (200-pound) body and was secretly pleased when she began putting on even more weight during pregnancy. When he learned that to shed the extra pounds she was walking around the soccer stadium in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, he was revolted.

“I don`t like skinny women. I want to be able to grab her love handles,” says the 32-year-old. “I told her that if she loses a lot of weight, I`ll divorce her.”

One Internet cafe owner says when he`s closing at night, he sometimes finds computer screens left open to porn sites dedicated to XL women.

Obesity is a tradition across much of the Arab world, where nomadic peoples struggling to survive the harshness of the desert came to prize fatness as a sign of health.

Forty-four percent of women over 30 in Saudi Arabia are obese, as are approximately a third of adult women in Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait, according to data from the International Obesity Task Force in London.

“A man`s goal is to marry a woman that fills his house. She needs to decorate it like an armoire or a TV set. If she`s big, she gives the house importance. If she`s thin, she disappears,” said Seif l`Islam, 48, curator of a library of ancient Islamic manuscripts, including numerous love poems to plump women.

Although the old idea of beauty is far from dead, one sign of change is the recent fitness trend. In the dying desert light, chubby women in head-to-toe veils walk around the capital`s dusty soccer stadium, visibly perspiring in a scene that would have been considered unseemly a decade ago.

When she first started walking laps six years ago, 40-year-old Ramla Mint Ahmed said she wrapped her orange veil tightly around her face hoping not to be recognized. Now she exercises openly. She is even on a diet hoping to lose the rings of fat encircling her stomach.

Her obese mother, who as a child was awakened in the night and forced to drink camel`s milk, says she doesn`t object to her daughter dieting. That doesn`t mean the older woman`s notion of beauty has changed.

Ahmed is the eldest of three daughters and the only overweight one. Her 22- and 26-year-old sisters are no larger than a size 4 and have long, gazelle-like legs. In America, they would be envied for their tiny waists, yet their mother sees them differently.

Asked which of her three daughters is the prettiest, she waves her hand dismissively toward the model-thin sisters, saying, “Definitely those two are not beautiful.”

Her oldest daughter, like her, has garlands of fat on her belly, voluminous thighs and deep, heaving breasts.

“This one,” says the mother, “has the face of a queen.”

© 2007. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Girls being force-fed for marriage as junta revives fattening farms
Alex Duval Smit, Africa Correspondent
The Observer
March 01, 2009


Campaigners in Mauritania accuse the new military regime of turning a blind eye to a cult of obesity among young girls being groomed for suitors

FEARS ARE growing for the fate of thousands of young girls in rural Mauritania, where campaigners say the cruel practice of force-feeding young girls for marriage is making a significant comeback since a military junta took over the West African country.

Aminetou Mint Ely, a women`s rights campaigner, said girls as young as five were still being subjected to the tradition of leblouh every year. The practice sees them tortured into swallowing gargantuan amounts of food and liquid - and consuming their vomit if they reject it.

“In Mauritania, a woman`s size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband`s heart,” said Mint Ely, head of the Association of Women Heads of Households. “We have gone backwards. We had a Ministry of Women`s Affairs. We had achieved a parliamentary quota of 20% of seats. We had female diplomats and governors. The military have set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles. We no longer even have a ministry to talk to.” Mauritania has suffered a series of coups since independence from France in 1960. The latest, in August last year, saw General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz seize power after the elected president tried to sack him.

A children`s rights lawyer, Fatimata M`baye, echoed Ely`s pessimism. “I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.” Yet, she said, Mauritania had signed both international and African treaties protecting the rights of the child.

Leblouh is intimately linked to early marriage and often involves a girl of five, seven or nine being obliged to eat excessively to achieve female roundness and corpulence, so that she can be married off as young as possible. Girls from rural families are taken for leblouh at special “fattening farms” where older women, or the children`s aunts or grandmothers, will administer pounded millet, camel`s milk and water in quantities that make them ill. A typical daily diet for a six-year-old will include two kilos of pounded millet, mixed with two cups of butter, as well as 20 litres of camel`s milk. “The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful,” said M`baye. “The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl`s thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process.”

Other leblouh practices include a subtle form of torture - zayar - using two sticks inserted each side of a toe. When a child refuses to drink or eat, the matron squeezes the sticks together, causing great pain. A successful fattening process will see a 12-year-old weigh 80kg. “If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30,” said M`baye.

Historians say the practice dates back to pre-colonial times when all Mauritania`s white Moor Arabs were nomads. The richer the man, the less his wife would do - the preference being for her to sit still all day in her tent while her black slaves saw to household chores. Ancient Berber quatrains laud tebtath (stretchmarks) as jewels. Even today lekhwassar (fat around the waist) is given lyrical pride of place and girls sent for fattening gain the stature of mbelha . They are taught to sit in the lotus position, speak softly, use utensils and to emulate the exemplary lives of the Prophet Muhammad`s wives. Fattening of girls is practised beyond Mauritania, in northern Mali and rural Niger - areas conquered, along with half of present-day Spain and Portugal, by the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century. The practice of fattening also continues in Nigeria`s Calabar state and north Cameroon.

The resurgence of the practice in rural Mauritania is a depressing setback for campaigners after previous education and awareness campaigns were apparently having a tangible effect. “The challenge we face is that these girls live in rural areas and do not have access to information,” said Ely. “Until the military coup last year, we had made strides. Ten years ago we ran information campaigns about the dangers of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The government even commissioned ballads condemning fattening.” Many middle-class Mauritanians, among a population estimated at three million, claim the practice of force-feeding no longer exists.

Political scientist Mohamed el-Mounir, 38, claimed western influence had wiped out the allure of feminine fat. “Fattening is something from the 1950s. These days girls watch fashion shows on television. Their role models are American actresses or Lebanese singers in sexy dresses. Girls do sport. Yes, Mauritanian men like slightly round women. But there is no way we want them obese.”

Health and development consultant Mounina Mint Abdellah, 51, said she was force-fed as a child by her mother`s family. “Things have changed tremendously. When I left school in 1980 it would have been unthinkable for me to go abroad to study. But now, 30 years later, my daughter is doing her master`s degree in France. We owe a great deal to the fact that all girls are now expected to go to school. These changes have had a tremendous impact on ancestral practices. Fattening just seems out of date to a large part of Mauritanian society.”

But Ely and M`baye insist the fat “ideal” is back. Ely cites the life-threatening weight-gain practices of some grown women. “To remain fat, as adults, they take animal hormones or buy prescription drugs with appetite-enhancing side-effects. A woman died in hospital in Nouakchott last week. I`m afraid this problem is still very much with us.”

Additional reporting by Manon Riviere

© Copyright 2009. The Observer. All rights reserved.

In Mauritania, Seeking to End an Overfed Ideal
The New York Times
Published: July 4, 2007

Nesseba, 14, left, was overfed to plump her up, but her sister Selma, 9, will be spared, says their mother, Fatma Mint Mohamed.

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — At the Olympic Sports Stadium here, a collection of dun-colored buildings rising mirage-like from the vast Sahara, about a dozen women clad in tennis shoes and sandals circled the grandstands one evening in late June, puffing with each step.

Between pants came brief explanations for their labors. “Because I am fat,” said one, a dark-eyed 34-year-old close to 200 pounds. Another, a 30-year-old in bright pink sneakers, said, “For myself, for my health and to be skinny.” It is a typically Western after-work scene. But this is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, the mirror opposite of the West on questions of women`s weight. To men here, fat is sexy. And in this patriarchal region, many Mauritanian women do everything possible — and have everything possible done to them — to put on pounds.

Now Mauritania`s government is out to change that. In recent years, television commercials and official pronouncements have promoted a new message: being fat leads to diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure and other woes. The joggers outside the Olympic stadium testify to their impact: Until lately, a Mauritanian woman in jogging shoes was roughly as common as a camel in stiletto heels.

But in other respects, the message faces an uphill run. A 2001 government survey of 68,000 women found that one in five between ages 15 and 49 had been deliberately overfed. And nearly 70 percent — and even more among teenagers — said they did not regret it.

“That is a bad sign, especially among the younger generation,” said Maye Mint Haidy, a government statistician who also runs a nongovernmental women`s organization.

Other cultures prize corpulent women. But Mauritania may be unique in the lengths it has gone to achieve its vision of female beauty. For decades, the Mauritanian version of a Western teenager`s crash diet was a crash feeding program, devised to create girls obese enough to display family wealth and epitomize the Mauritanian ideal. Centuries-old poems glorified women immobilized by fat, moving so slowly they seemed to stand still, unable to hoist themselves onto camels without the aid of men`s willing hands.

Girls as young as 5 and as old as 19 had to drink up to five gallons of fat-rich camel`s or cow`s milk daily, aiming for silvery stretch marks on their upper arms. If a girl refused or vomited, the village weight-gain specialist might squeeze her foot between sticks, pull her ear, pinch her inner thigh, bend her finger backward or force her to drink her own vomit. In extreme cases, girls died.

The practice was known as gavage, a French term for force-feeding geese to obtain foie gras. “There isn`t a woman close to my age who hasn`t gone through this, maybe not with the torture, but with the milk and other things,” said Yenserha Mint Mohamed Mahmoud, 47, a top government women`s affairs official.

Ms. Mahmoud insists that the use of torture has died out, though some say it lingers in remote areas. Still, Mauritania remains saddled with an alarming number of women weighing 220 to 330 pounds, according to the Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Family and Children.

The same 2001 survey that documented overfeeding estimated that two in five women were overweight — not high by American standards, where government surveys show nearly three in five women are overweight — but remarkable for sub-Saharan Africa. According to the International Obesity Task Force, a London-based research and advocacy group, Mauritania has the region`s fourth highest percentage of overweight women. Government officials blame a concerted effort by all but the poorest families to pump girls full of milk, cream, butter, couscous and other calorie-rich foods.

In 2003, the women`s ministry mounted a slim-down campaign, wielding messages that were anything but subtle. One television and radio skit depicted a husband carting his fat wife around in a wheelbarrow. Another featured houseguests raiding the refrigerator because their host was too obese to get up to feed them. Doctors were recruited to explain health risks.

But messages spread slowly in the desert. Nearly three-fourths of Mauritanian women do not watch television, and an even greater share do not listen to the radio, said Ms. Haidy, the statistician.

Nor is it easy, Ms. Mahmoud said, to change how the sexes view each other. “Men want women to be fat, and so they are fat,” she said. “Women want men to be skinny, and so they are skinny.” Indeed, according to Mauritanian stereotypes, porky men are womanish and lazy.

Mohamed el-Moktar Ould Salem, a 52-year-old procurement officer, blames the brightly colored, head-to-toe mulafas that hide all but the most voluptuous female curves for shaping the men`s preferences. A slender woman, he said, “just looks like a stick wrapped up.”

Fatma Mint Mohamed, 35, a mother of five living in a village south of Nouakchott, the capital, agrees. She carries nearly 200 pounds on her five-foot frame. Her weight makes her husband “very happy, of course,” she said, although her slimmer sister, 45 minutes away in the city, warns that it could kill her.

Mrs. Mohamed said she endured a comparatively mild form of gavage — “just enough so our family did not get criticized or be thought of as poor” — and was proud to emerge with a praiseworthy, roly-poly figure. Her 9-year-old daughter, Selma, with curly dark hair, wide-set eyes and what her mother considers a distressingly slim figure, has so far escaped the treatment, in hopes that she will gain weight on her own.

Selma`s sisters, now 20 and 14, were less fortunate. Mrs. Mohamed said she spared them the “old-fashioned” techniques that made girls she grew up with scream in pain. “But to tell the truth, I did take them to the cows and made them overdrink,” she acknowledged. “I did overfeed them, just a little bit, just so they could look like real Mauritanian girls. Forty days was enough to get them in the shape I wanted.”

Other Mauritanian women have replaced gavage with thoroughly modern prescription drug abuse. At the capital`s open-air market in late June last week, a male buyer easily secured a gold box of Indian-made dexamethasone tablets, a prescription steroid hormone that can cause sharp weight gain.

The black-turbaned seller, his wares displayed openly on a plastic sheet, warned that the drug was dangerous. But it would fatten up the man`s wife fast, he promised.

Nouredine François, a pharmacist, refuses to sell that drug. But he said he could not keep a particular prescription antihistamine on his shelves because women had heard it made them drowsy, thus less active and more likely to add pounds.

He considers himself one of the few Mauritanian men who understand obesity`s dangers. “Every day I see a woman come in here who has suffered from a stroke,” he said. He said he was trying to lose weight and did not push his wife to get fatter.

But his wife, an already-Rubenesque beauty-parlor worker, needs no pushing, he said. “She says, `Why don`t you bring me any pills? You give them to other women but you won`t give them to me.` “

“Women are very sensitive about their weight,” he said. “She just wants to keep up a good image.”

Goaded by her fattener, Tijanniya Mint Tijani, 14, drinks a large bowl of creamy camel`s milk. Photo Credit: Joost De Raeymaeker


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