Mauritanian ideas of beauty and desirability for marriage have long been connected to body weight. For the younger generation, however, a stigma has developed around the traditional practice of fattening Leblouh which is viewed to be unhealthy.

By Mohamed Yahya Ould Abdel Wedoud for Magharebia in Nouakchott  20/02/09

[Wedoud] Mauritanian women historically engaged in forced-fattening practices to attract suitors.

The phenomenon of Leblouh is one of the oldest social values related to beauty in Mauritanian society. Under the practice, girls are made to eat huge quantities of food, sometimes by force, to make them fatter. The aim is to give them greater chances of marriage, beauty and social acceptance, as slim women are traditionally deemed inferior.

Leblouh is also seen from an economic perspective. A fat girl symbolises wealth and a refined social class. Vadel, a teacher, said: "The slim girl brings shame to her family in some towns, especially in remote areas. 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."

Most rural, uneducated mothers think Leblouh is the only way to find a husband.

"I practiced Leblouh with my daughter Leila when she was ten 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."

Some women are considered specialists in the fattening practice, even receiving payment for their work. These women do not care much for the new generation that is trying to put an end to the custom. Ache, a 45-year old fattener, said, "I think that the custom of Leblouh is indispensable. Simply speaking, a fat woman will usually attract men's looks, unlike the slim woman."

Other women look back unfavourably on the difficult days when they underwent Leblouh. Hoda's mother hired a fattener when she was eight years old, growing up in the countryside. "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 litres. My stomach almost exploded each time."

Selma was forced to overeat from the age of five. "At first, I used to throw up several times a day because of the excess of food and drink I was forced to intake. Women around me were saying that it was perfectly all right, while I had the feeling, though childish, that this condition couldn't have possibly been normal. I gained weight quickly; I was almost 80 kilograms at the age of 15," she said.

For Vayza, fattening was supposed to lead to an early marriage to a cousin, as size was more important than age in the eyes of society. "I was forced to marry at the age of 14, and I faced many difficulties in my married life," she said. "My dream of education was lost; I feel sorry when I see my friends having slim bodies and studying in high school."

More than 70% of Mauritanian women over 40 years old think Leblouh is necessary for marriage, according to a 2007 study by the Social Solidarity Association. The organisation ascribes this to the fact that women born and raised in the countryside before the population flowed to urban centres still carry traditional mentalities common to the rural population. Indeed, the same study found that while only 10% of city girls were forcibly fattened, the number in rural areas is closer to 80%.

"Leblouh is a negative phenomenon that has invaded our country since the era of Almoravides," said history professor Mohamed Salem.

He explained how it became rooted in Mauritanian history. "The woman used to be confined to a tent because of the harsh desert conditions. Men used to do everything in order to bring food, which was linked to the livestock, and women used to spend most of the time eating and sleeping; something that helped in increasing their weight."

[Getty Images] More than 70% of Mauritanian women over 40 years old think Leblouh is necessary for marriage.

To achieve social and cultural conformity, women engaged in Leblouh.

Salem said that today things have changed. It seems that the new generation of girls and even boys are fed up with traditional practices they do not see as sensible.

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

Mariem, another student, typifies the new generation of young women in big cities such as Nouakchott and Noudhibou which is becoming aware of the health risks associated with obesity.

She told Magharebia, "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."

Critics of the Leblouh custom are finding allies in modern medicine. Hospitals in Mauritania, as well as private clinics, receive hundreds of female patients every week with weight-related health problems such as heart disease, hypertension and atherosclerosis.

"There are many chronic cases which we receive as a result of Leblouh," said Dr. Sidi Ahmed, a heart disease specialist at Nouakchott's Sabah hospital. "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."

"Most of the cases we receive come from the countryside, which means that city women have started to understand the danger of Leblouh," he added.

Some activists are even demanding that legal action be taken against those who fatten girls as a profession.

Sayyid Aal Ould Ahmed, Secretary-General of the "Together for Social Welfare" organisation, said his group has launched awareness campaigns in the capital and some suburbs on "bad traditional practices, such as Leblouh and early marriage".

His NGO has also conducted surveys of popular opinion, with some surprising results.

"We found that 70% of young men today dislike fat women," Ould Ahmed said.

According to the survey, just 6% of fat women are married. Ould Ahmed said this is because "they are usually uneducated, and thus, are not desired by men".

Finally, he said, some 80% of urban mothers do not want their daughters to get fat.

Together for Social Welfare has produced films in everyday language to educate society about the risks of Leblouh.

Despite calls for legal action against Leblouh professionals, the government continues to tolerate the practice. Critics suggest that members of parliament have failed to address the issue because they are older and have little incentive to change customs they have lived with for so long.

"The government can't just change mentalities linked to culture especially the phenomenon of Leblouh," said one employee in the Ministry of Women's Affairs, who preferred to remain anonymous.

"It is deeply rooted in the rural areas where the influence of the administrative authority is weak and the spirit of heritage is strong."

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