The Tradition Of Leblouh In Africa: Force-feeding Girls For Marriage

Local women clean fish at the beach in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Local women clean fish at the beach in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Mauritania is a desert nation that has a population of about 4.42 million people. The country has experienced considerable improvements in various areas since gaining independence in 1960. However, Mauritania ranked 159th out of 189 countries in the 2018 Human Development Index of the United Nations Development program, which shows that the country still has significant challenges that need to be addressed. Harsh environmental conditions and poverty mean that most people live in isolated communities where rigid traditions and social stereotypes are prevalent. Practices such as slavery and child marriages continue to undermine the potential of the nation and its people. 

Leblouh In Mauritania

Leblouh is one of several internationally condemned practices that are still prevalent in Mauritania. It is an ancient custom in the country. The ritual involves force-feeding young girls to fatten them and make them seem large and more mature than they are. Leblouh is currently practiced and supported by many families who seek to gain stature and prestige in their communities. The practice is also done to make the girls attractive to eligible men. In the North African nation, women are expected to have large, voluptuous bodies to the point of morbid obesity. The tradition has been passed on over countless generations and is deeply rooted in the social fabric of most communities in the country. It is thought to have started centuries ago among the moors (an ethnic group of mixed Arab and Amazigh origins) who respected men who kept their women plump in the harsh environment. A "fat wife" was considered a sign of wealth as a man was seen to have enough wealth to generously feed his wife while others starved in the drought-prone region. Their size also meant that they were unable to move quickly, which gave the impression that their husbands' did not need an extra pair of hands for work. A man with a large wife and daughters, therefore, held an honorable status in society. 

The Relationship Between Leblouh And Underage Marriages

An increase in weight among young girls alters their reproductive lifespan significantly. Girls who attain significant weight hit puberty earlier. That is thought to be advantageous as it allows girls to bear children, appear "womanly" (fully developed) when they are married off typically during adolescence. Therefore, a woman with a large body not only boosts a man's social standing but also alters her ability to reproduce in his favor. The practice also encourages underage marriages, which families find desirable as marriages happen before the loss of virginity. Experts believe that the social pressure to have a wife with a large body, overtime forced men to desire marriage to girls/women who already had large bodies. Girls that went into a marriage while they were already large gave their husbands an idea of the amount of care they were accorded in their previous lifestyle. Unfortunately, underage marriages result in premature intercourse, which results in early motherhood and complications during pregnancy.

The Process Of Fattening

The main participants of the ritual are girls aged as young as five and as old as 19. The practice involves forcing the girls to take large quantities of fattening foods like couscous and millet mixed with two cups of butter and five gallons of camel milk which has a high-fat content. Currently, girls under pressure to gain weight are forced to ingest up to 16,000 calories per day to gratify their communities at the expense of their health. Their daily intake is up to 10 times greater than the recommended consumption for a 12-year-old girl, which is 1,500 calories. The consumption also surpasses the recommended intake for an adult male bodybuilder, which should be about 4,000 calories. It is an intensive process that demands a massive amount of energy and time. Girls who are forced to undergo the practice are often unable to engage in other community activities during the "fattening period." Most girls gain weight under the strict supervision of their families. Wealthy parents, however, opt to send their daughters to intensive "fattening camps" run by older women. Such camps charge about $155 per girl for a three-month course. During the force-feeding session, it is not uncommon for young girls to vomit and refuse to take more food when their stomachs are full. The matrons in the fattening camp meet such resistance by inflicting pain on the children using various torturous methods. One of the techniques is known as "zayar," and it involves a matron placing two sticks on either side of a child's toe and then squeezing to cause pain. Other methods include bending the child's finger backward, beating them with canes, and in some cases forcing them to eat their vomit. Sticks are also rolled on the thighs of the girls to break down the girl's muscle tissue to speed up the weight gaining process.

Perceptions Of Leblouh Among Women

A government survey conducted in 2001 found that every one in five women between 15 and 49 had undergone rituals similar to Leblouh. The study also found the 70% of them did not regret undergoing the ritual. That is because girls who are considered thin worry about their marital prospects. Today in Mauritania, a large body among women is not only considered desirable but is also a premarital requirement. 

Role Of Women In Society

In most Mauritanian communities, especially in rural areas, women are restricted to tasks such as household chores, having children, and satisfying their men. Therefore, women are required to be soft and fleshy for their husbands. The neck should have thick ripples of fat, the thighs should overlap, and the stomach should cascade. Silvery stretch marks on the arms are considered the ultimate sign of beauty. Some locals believe that the size of the woman indicates the amount of space she occupies in a man's heart.

Politics And The Resurgence Of Traditional Practices

Over the past few years, practices such as Leblouh have experienced a resurgence. Some believe that the current increase in the adoption of old practices is related to the nation's political environment. In 2008, the democratically elected president, Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghef, was overthrown by the current President Mohamed Ould Ahmed. The coup catalyzed the comeback of practices such as Leblouh. The coup also marked the beginning of the deterioration in women's development in the country. A Ministry of Women's Affairs and a parliamentary quota for women were all scrapped and female governors and diplomats were all dismissed to go assume their traditional roles at home. Before the coup, the practice was seen as dying out. The progress had been made mainly due to increased efforts by the government to increase awareness of the adverse effects of obesity. For example, in 2003, the Ministry of Women's Affairs introduced a campaign to address the problem of women's obesity. The government also made official statements and television commercials urging women to maintain healthy body weight. In one of the ads, a husband was shown carting his obese wife around in a wheelbarrow. Women were educated on the risks associated with obesity, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and depression. The campaign's success, especially in populated areas such as Nouakchott, was, however, short-lived due to the disruptive series of events that followed. In late 2007, three suspected members of al-Qaeda murdered four French tourists leading to a huge decrease in foreign investment and tourism. The government was overthrown the following year and was replaced by leadership that advocated a return to the old tradition. Before the military coup, the proportion of girls in rural areas subjected to Leblouh rituals was between 50% and 60%. According to research conducted in 2008, about 50% of all female cardiovascular problems in the country that require medical attention were related to Leblouh.

The Societal Pressure To Gain Weight

In Mauritania, men find women with molds of flesh both comforting and attractive. Some women have resorted to steroids and animal hormones to gain weight and improve their chances of getting married. Such products are sold secretly in the city, mainly to older women who want to maintain their size. Some women have expressed frustration with their bodies due to trouble in gaining weight. Lean women have also complained about getting teased in their teenage years. They have also had to deal with husbands who complain that they "do not like sleeping with a bag of bones." Some of the drugs that are taken include certain types of allergy of medication, which have a side effect of increased appetite. The drugs, when abused, can, however, lead to health complications, including kidney failure, low blood pressure, and blurred vision. Still, women would rather face the consequences of abusing such drugs rather than having to get ridiculed and, in some cases, rejected by their husbands. Experts have also found that every 12 in 148 cases of death related to force-feeding are associated with the consumption of bird steroids. The government has made purchasing of animal steroids more difficult. The measure has, in turn, led to an increase in the demand for antihistamine drugs.

Evolving Social Norms

Globalization, the internet, and technology are gradually helping Mauritanians change their view on the tradition of Leblouh. The younger generation, especially in urban areas, is increasingly finding women with a leaner appearance more attractive, thus reducing the pressure on women to gain more weight. Women are also becoming more independent-minded on the matter of their bodies and health. Experts believe that the practice can be eradicated through proper education and informing women of the health risks associated with the practice.


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