According to a study conducted in 2008 by the Mauritanian Minister of Social Affairs, about 20% of Mauritanian women either voluntarily participate, or are forced to participate in the practice of force-feeding. Leblouh refers to the practice of force-feeding in Hassaniya, the main Arabic dialect spoken in Mauritania. Leblouh is one of the oldest practices in the country, which originally began among the Bidan, an ethnic group who call themselves “the white men of the desert.” Soon after, the practice spread among all groups found in the country. Even though the practice has decreased in the last few years, it still practiced in many rural areas where a woman’s beauty is measured by her body size.
Before the colonial period, the Bidan were nomads whose survival was dependent on moving constantly in order to chase the rain. On the social level, bigger women were not only a sign of wealth, but also of beauty. Therefore, the size of a woman was positively influential on the reputation of her husband if she was married. If she was not married, her size offered her a higher chance of becoming so. Since most families depended on their daughter’s marriage, Leblouh became a popular practice.
When the practice of Leblouh became socially accepted, it typically consisted of young girls beginning at age five being sent to places often called “fattening farms” as a holiday vacation. At the fatting farms, the girls were fed all kinds of fatty foods and up to 20 liters of milk per day. Girls were forced to eat and drink all day until they showed stretch marks on their abdomens, arms, and thighs. Due to the force-feeding ‘holiday’, the girls’ sizes extremely changed, resulting in them weighing around 80 kg, making them look twice their age. The girls’ heavy weight then became not only a sign of their beauty, but also that they were ready for marriage.
The Leblouh practice is forced mostly by either the girl’s mother or grandmother. When women become older, they continue to practice Leblouh to follow the social standards for beauty. When older women continue to follow the practice, younger girls see such practice as acceptable, spurring this dysfunctional cultural practice. Many of the adults who encourage Leblouh see it as a part of their culture. Instead of seeing this practice as detrimental to the younger generations, they believe it will better their lives.
The practice has many major effects on health, including obesity. The rate of obesity has increased and has become a major problem for a country that lacks the necessary resources to battle such an issue. Due to this, girls who experienced Leblouh and who are affected by obesity are kept away from participating in any activities, especially sports. Other health issues that women and young girls often experience include high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and heart failure.
This practice has been publicly condemned by the government of Mauritania, as well as international organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA). UNPFA has launched various programs to combat force-feeding and to promote human rights of children. Even though the campaigns have been effective, force-feeding is still a very common practice in some rural areas of Mauritania and the cultural attachment of praise for a women’s big size is still alive today. Unless a major change takes place, many young girls vulnerable to Leblouh will continue risking their childhood and health.
Part 1 of 2 documentary, Fat or Fiction
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Agaila Abba is a freelance writer specializing in African, North African and Middle Eastern affairs.
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