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Confusion Reigns as Mauritanian Men Straddle Tradition, Modern Pursuits in Marriage


Men in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, say they are finding it harder to find a wife or stay married if they do. Mauritanian men say their lives and those of women around them are on a difficult straddle between traditional rules and more modern pursuits. VOA's Nico Colombant has more, with reporting by Ebrima Sillah, in this the fourth part of a series of life in post-election Mauritania, after decades of military-dominated rule.

When asked if he is married yet, Muhammed Yahya Abdul Radud breaks out in laughter.

As a journalist, he says he does not make enough money to support a wife. He says women who are married are getting needier in terms of wanting commercial products like the latest cell phone, while still wanting traditional rules to be applied.

"Here, a marriage is not only a contract, a relationship between two people," Radud explained. "It is rather between two families, if not two tribes. So if you are marrying a Mauritanian woman, you have to put in your consideration, that you are obliged by traditions to satisfy all the desires of her family."

He says this explains why many men are asking for divorce. He says in the city where people have more expensive needs, it becomes much harder to take care of an extended group.

Newspapers in Mauritania have been full of stories recently about evidence of rising divorce rates.

Nouakchott University English Professor Sayied Ould Sayied is one man who recently divorced. He said first traditional rules applied, whereby he had to write a letter to his former wife's family. To make matters less complicated, he says, it is better not to blame the wife.

"If this is 'A' the reason, I will put the blame on 'B'. And then I will have to put that letter in an envelope and put some money with it," he explained. "It depends on how much money I can provide. For example, for a middle class man, it should not be less than 60,000, or maybe 70,000 (Ouguiya), say 400 U.S. dollars, even if she was the reason of this failure of my marriage, I have to pay her for that failure too. So you see how great women are doing here?"

Then, he said, he had to abide by new divorce laws, which he feels are also geared against men.

"Now, there is the money that is dictated by the law, now because of the new regulations, and what they call this family code," he noted. "Now, if you divorce, it is very expensive. [The husband] has to pay, has to take care of her children and maybe has to sacrifice even his house. There is no relationship, but because you are my former wife and I have divorced you, I have to leave the house for you, and I am the man who has to go, with my sweet case, and leave everything in my house for you and the children. I have to be a refugee somewhere else."

He says outside bigger cities, women are often forced to marry when they are teenagers, to become a second, third or fourth wife, or become victims of beatings at the hands of their husbands. He says in rural areas women definitely get the worst end of marriage. But he says in Nouakchott it really does feel like men are at a disadvantage.

Radud says he once met a man who decided it was time for men to fight for their rights.

"Last year, while I was roaming in the city, I came across a man sweating, and he seemed to be so tired," Radud recalled. "He was carrying a lot of papers. He asked me 'please, are you a journalist?' I told him 'yes, of course.' I told him, 'please what is up?' He told me, 'I have been trying to pass an authorization of an association which is defending the men's rights and finally I got it.'"

The man then explained he needed publicity.

"I asked him please what are the main reasons behind this? He told me 'first of all, I was sent out of my house. My wife and her mother insisted that I go out of the house and leave my house to the wife.' At the same time, many other men like me also have the same fate. So I said, now it is time to defend ourselves. And he said that, by the way, while he was trying to get the authorization, some women in the ministry blocked his file. So he spent about five months trying to get the receipt or the agreement and finally he could go with it," Radud said.

A writer who is hosting this living room gripe about women, Internet blogger and social critic, Abass Braham says he is also very afraid of getting married.

"I would like to say that the social norms are very sympathizing with women. When a man goes out with a woman for a date, it is only he who pays, concerning coffee, concerning anything," Braham said. "It will be shameful, indeed, for a woman to spend on a man even if she has a bigger salary than him. It will be even shameful for a woman to spend on her house while she has a husband. Her money is by norms reserved for her own habits. So this will be very prejudicious to the man economically. So, so far as this is concerned, I am afraid indeed of marriage. When I think of marriage, I think of it in a very rational way."

But the three men say they all still hope to find a woman who will love them for who they are, and not for what they can bring financially. They also say they hope that groups defending men's or for that matter even women's rights will one day not be needed anymore.

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