Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Forced to be fat in Islamic Mauritania


Fat women are traditionally seen as more desirable in Mauritania

A younger woman in the obstetrics ward smiles in protest when Dr Sid Ahmed Ould Megeya, Mauritania’s surgeon general, explains that she has just lost her fourth consecutive baby in childbirth because of obesity. ‘I’m not fat,’ she says. ‘I’m just swollen because of heart disease.’ He smiles back and shakes his head.

‘You won’t see the really severe cases,’ he tells me. ‘They cannot get on to a camel or into a car. I have had women carried in on a blanket and rolled along the floor into my consulting room.’

What has brought this on? Not the junk foods that have fattened Westerners, though they are on their way and will compound the problem once Mauritania’s off-shore oil receipts start flowing this December. Here chronic obesity starts with the tradition of gavage — the force-feeding of girls from seven years old.

‘I was force-fed as a child,’ one woman tells me. ‘We all were. We thought it was good, that we would marry well. Now fashions have changed.’ Why do they do it? Force-feeding in this highly stratified, tribal, Islamic society comes from a mixture of cultural legacies which have conspired to fatten, immobilise and disable the women of Mauritania’s ruling tribes, the White Moors.

This is a country the size of France with fewer than three million people. Mostly desert, it’s where the Arabs once came to trade in the region’s most lucrative commodity: African slaves. Long after the rest of the world had banned the trade, Mauritania’s White Moors refused to give it up. It’s now been officially abolished at least three times, the last in 1980. Old habits die hard and although the word ‘slavery’ is now taboo, little black housemaids still grace many homes. For the women of the ruling tribes, to be fat is still a sign of being rich enough to be indolent and own slaves...

There’s a logic to it. It’s a society of camel breeders, so stocking up in times of plenty seems efficient. But add a little conservative Islam, which confines women to the home, plus the indolence that marks out the slave-traders from the traded, and you have a problem.

Like slavery, it’s all officially in the past, but one in ten Mauritanian girls are still force-fed according to independent estimates. Getting fat without Western food is long, hard work. A small child has to be forced to drink vast, unnatural quantities of milk — three or four litres of cow or camel milk — every night for years. The milk is mixed with couscous and water to swell the stomach. She is given marbles to play with to keep her still, she cannot play sports, ride a bike or run around, and older women supervise, ensuring the milk stays down. They clamp the child’s fingers and toes between sticks to stem the vomiting reflex by distracting the child with a little local pain. Often the girls vomit violently...

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