By Kelsie Bond, University of Southern Mississippi
The country of Mauritania is one of the most rural and tribal in the northernmost part of Africa. Though they are urbanizing at a rapid rate, there are several tribal customs that have not yet faded. One of the largest of these, in more ways than one, is the body image of the women in their society. For decades, obese women have been considered beautiful and valued in their culture. But is it the image that is valuable, or the wealth implied by it, that is the draw for the bachelors seeking a wife? The women are used as bargaining chips by the men, not only symbolically, but in their very appearance as well.
The women are forced to rates of obesity that are called “life threatening” by the local governments, not because they are valued but because they bring status and pleasure to their fathers and husbands in that state. The goal weight of a daughter is somewhere around 260 lbs. Incidentally, that is only slightly over the average weight of Americans. The girls are fattened for two reasons. The first and most important is that obese women increase their husbands’ and fathers’ social status.
A well-fed woman means a rich father, which means an opportunity for escalated social status for the prospective bridegroom. In this case, obesity, is a testament to the commitment of her father to the marriage alliances they would form.
Status is extremely important in this society, valued more than money and material possessions. The act of finding and gaining a wife is one of the first ways for a man to climb the social ladder. In many cultures a dowry is paid to the bride’s family by the groom. Mauritania’s social system requires the opposite form of payment. The Economics of Brideprice and Dowry states that in Sub-Saharan cultures grooms are required to pay the bride’s family a certain price to be allowed to marry into that family. The price is often a certain number of cattle or other livestock. The fatter a man’s daughter is, the higher her brideprice is because her size is a direct reflection of her father’s economic and social success. Therefore, a prospective groom will gladly pay whatever price is named to gain a wife, and through her, a social status similar to her father. A wife is not valued for her physical beauty, but for the dazzling prize she represents which is the social success of the men in her life. In effect, a man is buying another man’s social success and gains a wife as a mere perk. Throughout their marriage, a wife continues to give her husband the gift of social status as he must be financially able to allow her to maintain, or possibly increase her weight. When the people in their tribe see that she loses no weight when she leaves her father’s house, they know that her husband is successful enough to provide for her needs.
The second reason the girls are force-fed is the medical fact that obesity speeds up puberty. The practice of force-feeding begins when the girls are as young as six or seven. This allows the girl’s father to marry her at the youngest age possible, often as early as eight. This is socially acceptable and even encouraged because unmarried teenage girls are subject to severe social criticism. According Marriage in the Arab World, “a women’s status is mainly defined by their roles as mothers and wives. By ‘failing’ to meet these expectations, single women do not have an easily defined or comfortable niche in society.”
There is also a problem with the sexual exploitation of young girls in this region. Thus it is a good thing for parents to marry off their girls while they are young in order to ensure their virginity will be intact by the time they get married. Mauritania is 100% practicing Muslim so the people of the country are held to the moral standards outlined by that religion. Premarital sex is an abominable thing and results in the woman involved being put to death. But more than the death of the girl is the concern for the reputation of the family. An analysis of sexual exploitation in Mauritania states that “The primary motivating factor for parents, besides any dowry considerations, is the desire to marry their daughters while they are still virgins, since the loss of virginity before marriage is seen as a dishonor for the family.”
The girls are sent to places called “fat farms” where they are forced-fed for three to six months, or as long as it takes for them to achieve the desired weight, at least 260 lbs. An article written by the British Broadcasting Company cited a lady in her sixties by the name of Fatematou explaining the way that she runs her “fat farm.” “I make them eat and eat and eat. And then drink lots of water. I make them do this all morning. Then they have a rest. In the afternoon we start again. We do this three times a day – the morning, the afternoon and the evening.” Many times the girls refuse to eat. They start coercing them sweetly and asking them nicely. If the refusal continues then they make the girls eat; by any means necessary.
Often a girl refuses to eat because her stomach aches due to the mass amount of food she is being forced to consume. When this occurs, localized pain is applied to some part of her body, usually the hands, fingers or toes, to take her mind off of the ache in her stomach. This torture has been known to go as far as the breaking of fingers and other extremities. If a girl throws up after eating, she is made to eat the throw up. This is a punishment as well as a deterrent from making the same mistake again. In isolated cases, girls gain weight at such rapid rates that the skin of their arms and stomachs stretch to the breaking point. This is not common, but is also not unheard of. It is written off as sacrificing for beauty. The women in charge of the girls say that one day the girls will understand and will thank them.
Today this practice only affects one in ten girls in Mauritania. It is also only practiced among the “White Maures,” the most elite ethnic group in the country. The socially inferior “Black Maures” and the sub-Saharan people groups are not financially able to support this habit among their peoples and thus do not share the same cultural views.
It is obvious then that marriages do not take place for love, but for financial and social gain. This is proved by a country study of Mauritania by the Library of Congress that said divorce has always been common, particularly since the 1980’s, even among the more traditional villagers. A man can divorce his wife with little to no social repercussions. A woman, on the other hand, is completely at the mercy of her father and/or her previous husband’s family. She is taken in to either her father’s house or her former husband’s house if she is shown to have been productive during her time as a wife. On the other hand, she is outcast if her father’s house, former husband or her former husband’s family speaks against her in any way, particularly concerning her housekeeping. The divorce rate has always been high because the men were not marrying for love, but social status. As the idea of ways to achieve social status is changing, so is the divorce rate. It is increasing exponentially. Men are realizing that they no longer need their fat wives to remain in good social standing. So they are divorcing them, and replacing them with a newer, better looking model that suits their new mindset and lifestyle.
The people of Mauritania are urbanizing and advancing technologically and socially everyday. This is in part the reason that they are seeing a decrease in the practice of force-feeding. But just because their views of society are changing, their views of women are not. In fact, women are under the microscope more than ever. Men in Mauritania are no longer very keen on the idea of fat wives. “‘We’re fed up of fat women here,’ said 19-year-old shop owner Yusuf. ‘Always fat women! Now we want thin women.’” This attitude, which is now a common thing among young men in Mauritania, shows that there is a change taking place in old-fashioned mindsets. Now women are being encouraged to achieve an actual “beautiful” body image, rather than a symbolic one, or else.
Urbanization in this country is allowing for other ways for men to show their wealth. In the eyes of many men, they no longer need fat wives and daughters to gain social status. Because the economic staple of the country is agriculture new irrigation systems, farm equipment and other technological and mechanical advances boost men to the top of the social ladder. Thus, women are losing their place in society all together. Now, they are no longer prized possessions that show success, but are simply another thing to be owned by the man that paid the price for them. The practice of force-feeding is dying out. But the age of a new way of forcing women into a certain man-pleasing body image is on the horizon.
1. Rashad, Hoda, Magued Osman and Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi. Marriage in the Arab World 4. 2005 Population Reference Bureau. April 23, 2008. http://www.prb.org/pdf05/MarriageInArabWorld_Eng.pdf
2. Tertilt, Michele. The Economics of Brideprice and Dowry. June 2, 2002. University of Minnesota. April 23, 2008. http://www.economia.uniroma2.it/sefemeq/professori/peracchi/workshop/second_edition/Papers/tertilt.pdf
3. Haidy, May Mint. A Situational Analysis of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Mauritania. March 2003. ECPAT International. April 24, 2008. http://www.childtrafficking.com/Docs/ecpat_2003%20_situational_analysis_studies_cse_children_maurita_3.pdf
4. Harter, Pascale. Mauritania’s ‘wife-fattening’ farm. January 2004. Park Tribune. April 20, 2008. http://www.paktribune.com/pforums/posts.php?t=1297
5. Handloff, Robert E. Mauritania: A Country Study. 1998. Library of Congress. April 20, 2008. http://countrystudies.us/mauritania/40.htm