By Jasmine Bager, Reporter
Historically, a healthy, marriage-ready girl in West Africa had a figure made of delicate wrists and large puddles of skin at the waist, with layered rolls that spilled onto the chair in which she sat in. Intricate stretch marks adorned the body of a young woman, as it symbolized the health and wealth of her family, and ultimately of her husband, who could visually envision her readiness to be childbearing. Older Mauritanian women prepared these girls, as young as five, in a tradition named “leblouh.” During their annual school break, the women would force the girls to swallow large quantities of milk and butter and asked them to remain stationary in order to create the weight that most Mauritians proclaimed to be ideal.
It stayed that way for decades.
Mauritania experienced turbulence in a number of coups since the country’s 1960 independence from France. Gradually, females were able to participate in the government, and at a point, held 20 percent in the parliamentary quota. As a result of this renewed power, women became less likely to participate in binge eating and, in fact, actively exercised and ate less to maintain a “slim” weight, as a result of the Western influence. That all changed once General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz seized power and the female diplomats and governors were no longer allowed to take part in the government. Women’s rights campaigner Aminetou Mint Ely attributed the new ruling with the revival of leblouh. “The military have set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles,” she said.
Before the military takeover, the government raised awareness against the practice, outlining the health risks of force-feeding the girls. Risks such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes were illustrated and the direct consequences of force-fed binges were made known. However, things shifted back to the way they once were, with the uncertainty and instability of the new military regime takeover. Leblouhs once again became a regular part of a young girl’s routine.
Now, a new round of Mauritian women are actively reviving this old tradition, despite the flyers with information instructing women to discontinue this practice to avoid the possibilities of health problems.
“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,” said Alex Duval Smith, an African correspondent from The Observer. Mohamed Yahya Abdel Wedoud, who has reported for CNN, had more to bite into (pun-intended). Abed Wedoud’s piece, “Women fight Mauritania’s fattening tradition” interviewed a married woman who gave more specific details about the punishments girls would need to endure if they refused the feedings, as she personally suffered from that penalty as a child. Also, a lady was quoted who agreed with the practice and her reasons for choosing to fatten up her daughters. That mother proudly explained that she did so to secure the marriage of her daughters so that they could raise their own children at a young age—the ultimate goal, in her view. She force-fed both of her daughters who each became mothers before the age of 17. Abdel Wedoud quotes a woman who led the gender program for the U.N. Population Fund in Mauritius and quoted her as saying, “the tradition is regressing amongst the younger generation as they see the consequences.” In her view, the older women are growing larger with more health ailments due to their increased obesity, which is sometimes maintained by swallowing hormones designed for animals. He also mentioned the heavy weight of those older ladies prevented them from being able to walk or move. Deaths have been reported as a result of those severely obese immobile women.
Dr. Vadel Lemine, who works in the National Hospital in the capital city in Mauritius, feels that the warnings that doctors give against leblouh are not listened to as widely as they should be in the rural areas. There are no official figures available for the number of hospitalized women in the country. A social analyst named Lemrabott Brahim, who worked with a local organization that fights poverty and illiteracy, explained that the tradition would be difficult for females to let go of. “It’s hard to eradicate the culture of force-feeding in Mauritania. It’s something deeply-rooted in the minds and hearts of Mauritanian mothers, particularly in the remote areas where the uneducated villagers still strongly believe blindly in the tradition,” Brahim said.
While Mauritian society struggles to continue to perform their tradition of leblouh in their young female members in a way that does not compromise health or perception of beauty, the two pieces sum up with the general view of the practice. How will Mauritian women (and men) move forward in 2014 and beyond? Only time will tell.