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Modern Life Redefining Beauty of Women in Mauritania  - 2004-09-17

Large women have long been appreciated in Africa, but nowhere has size been more sought after than in Mauritania. Affluent nomadic families living in this West African country have traditionally force fed their girls into obesity. Being fat was not only beautiful, it was a sign of wealth and social status. But force feeding and super-sized women are going out of style.

Fatma Sidi Mohammed didn't eat western-style Big Macs and french fries when she was a little girl, living in a tiny village in southeastern Mauritania. But she did drink milk. Lots of it.

At the age of nine, Mrs. Mohamed says, her family made her to drink milk from morning until night. Later, she was forced to eat mountains of lamb and other solid food. Sometimes, she would throw up, or try to avoid eating altogether. But by the time she was a teenager, Mrs. Mohamed says, she was so enormous that even walking slowly was an effort.

Mrs. Mohamed is hardly the only Mauritanian woman who was force fed as a child. Arab girls in this country have long been fattened up to be beautiful and to bring glory to their families.

Mrs. Mohamed says most families start fattening their girls at age nine or 10. Fatter girls look older, she says - old enough to marry. But as far as Mrs. Mohammed is concerned, it's the families who benefited from these early marriages, not the girls, who were sometimes wed as early as 12 years old.

For years, force feeding girls was an unquestioned part of life in this desert nation. Just a few decades ago, most Mauritanians were nomadic. The country's affluent moors, or ethnic Arabs, owned slaves. That meant women like Mrs. Mohamed had little to do besides eat and lie around. As one Moorish saying goes: The glory of a man is measured by the fatness of his woman.

But the Mauritanian society has changed dramatically in recent years.

Drought and desertification have forced many Mauritanians to move to cities like Nouakchott, to find work. Here, women like 29-year-old Aishitu Mint Sid Ahmed can't afford to sit around and eat. Ms. Sid Ahmed is a single mother, who sells clothes at Nouakchott's main market. She's a big woman, but she's not obese.

Being too fat, Mrs. Moubarek says, would make it difficult to work. She says many women now want to do sports, and trim down.

Poverty is only one reason for Mauritania's changing weight standards. And glossy women's magazines and satellite television have arrived in Africa, bringing with them a new, skinnier definition of beauty.

So today men like 35-year-old Kante Omar Harouna don't view obesity as a top criteria in finding a wife.

Mr. Harouna said thinner women are more active, and more cool. That's what makes a good wife. But Mr. Harouna, who is still single, says he doesn't want his future wife to be too thin. If so, he says, people will think her husband doesn't care for her.

Obesity among Mauritanian women has also led to soaring cases of heart disease and other health problems. Just as importantly, says Salek Ould Jereib, spokesman for the Mauritanian women's ministry, force feeding is one of many examples of discrimination against women in this Muslim society.

Mr. Jereib says many people mistakenly assume that traditional practices like force feeding, genital mutilation and early marriage are sanctified by Islam.

A few years ago, the Mauritanian government launched a major campaign against force feeding girls, and other forms of gender discrimination.

They convinced imams, or Muslim preachers, to spread the word that these practices were not condoned in the Koran.

Today, there are signs of progress. A few decades ago, some 70 percent of Mauritanian girls were force fed. Now, only about one in 10 are force fed. Still, a recent United Nations study found that the majority of women still believe that force feeding makes girls more beautiful, and improves their social standing. Some women take medications to fatten up quickly.

Non-governmental organizations here are also campaigning against force feeding, and for greater women's rights. That includes the group Espoire, or hope. The NGO offers literacy classes, health sessions and micro credit for poor women in Nouakchott. It's run by Fatma Sidi Mohamed, who doesn't want this generation of Mauritanian girls to be force fed like she was.

Mrs. Mohamed says women who earn incomes are much more likely to send their girls to school than to keep them at home, and fatten them up for early marriage.

Now in her 40s, Mrs. Mohamed is still an attractive woman. She's big, but certainly not obese. Her 22-year-old daughter, Wafaa, works as an accountant. She's average size, and unmarried.

Mrs. Mohamed says she constantly warns her daughter against overeating. She doesn't want her to suffer as she did. Mrs. Mohamed also says she exercises regularly and watches her diet. She'd still like to lose a few more pounds. But she has no interest in being super skinny. That may the dream of western women, she says, but not of Mauritanian ones.