Understanding Mauritania’s Diet Culture

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BOULDER, Colorado — The nation of Mauritania resides in the northwest corner of the African continent in one of the aridest regions of the Sahara Desert. Western cultures often idealize skinnier women as the standard of beauty. However, in Mauritania, the opposite rings true. Obese women are considered beautiful. In fact, families will go to great, even dangerous lengths to ensure their daughters become beautiful. Let’s take a closer look at this desert nation and Mauritania’s diet culture, which is putting young girls at risk.

History of Mauritania

The Barfour tribe first settled in the region, now known as Mauritania. Later, the Berbers displaced the tribe around 200 AD. After hundreds of years of war between the Arab and Berbers for the land, the French ultimately colonized the country. It wasn’t until 1960 when Mauritania broke away from France’s rule and became independent. Since its independence, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania has endured a series of military coups and is still struggling economically today.

The median annual income in this African nation is approximately 19,900 MRO, which is equivalent to $536.82. Unfortunately, the median annual income is unattainable for 16.6% of the population who live below the Mauritanian extreme poverty line. The unforgiving climate makes life increasingly difficult since most of the country receives fewer than 25 inches of rain all year.

Gavage

The term “gavage” is of French descent and is defined as the act of force-feeding. For women in Mauritania, gavage is a way of life, similar to dieting for women in the west. Mothers introduce their daughters to gavage as early as 8 years old to “perfect” their bodies before they hit puberty. Some families choose to practice gavage at home, sacrificing their own food supply for the sake of their daughter’s appearance. However, for those who can afford it, they send their children to “fat farms.” These camps are in remote locations in the Sahara where participants have little chance of escape.

This style of eating consists of consuming three enormous meals every day over the course of three or four months. These meals range from a variety of calorie-dense foods such as camel cream, couscous, dates, porridge and a variety of meats and vegetables. In between each meal, the girls have to continue snacking on carb-heavy options such as breadcrumbs drenched in olive oil.

At the end of one day, these girls will consume approximately 9,000 calories. By the end of their three-month experience, this caloric intake will rise to 16,000 calories per day, which is almost nine times the recommended intake of girls their age. Should they refuse to eat or get sick, the girls are severely punished via physical abuse from their caregivers.

Mauritania’s diet culture of gavage is mostly carried out by women, sometimes even the girls’ own mothers. Medical professionals have preached the health problems associated with gavage, such as obesity, Type II diabetes, heart problems, depression and anxiety. However, feeders aren’t concerned with these post-gavage effects. In Mauritania, being beautiful takes precedence over health and safety.

Cultural Acceptance

This idolization of large women is not a new idea. In fact, such beauty standards in this region date back to nomadic tribes where rich and powerful men would overcompensate by providing their wives great amounts of food and pleasures. Since they were not expected to work, these women would gain significantly more weight than the average peasant.

As a result, obesity became the desired phenom. Today, Mauritania’s diet culture makes it socially accepted that only obese girls have a shot at finding a wealthy husband. Being skinny is a sign of family poverty. Aishatou Mohamed Sheibani is a gavage feeder at one of these “fat farms.” In a documentary with VICE, she expresses her agreement with the gavage rationale, “She must be fat to get married. She must gavage to be fat…”

The Fight Against Force Feeding

Gavage is not a well-known practice, especially not in the western world. With a lack of coverage, it is difficult to make known the trials of these young women, creating a challenge in advocating for them. A few inspiring women are working to end this horrific experience.

Women’s rights advocates, Aminetou Mint Ely and Fatimata M’baye, are fighting for legal attention. Mint Ely is the head of the Association of Women’s Heads of Households. She discussed her frustration about the lack of government representation for women. ”We have gone backwards. We had a Ministry of Women’s Affairs…We had female diplomats and governors… The military has set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles. We no longer even have a ministry to talk to…” M’baye is a children’s rights lawyer who has tried to defend a multitude of cases involving force-feeding. So far, she has been denied at every turn. This is incredibly hypocritical of their global disposition, considering Mauritania has signed international and continental treaties vowing to protect children’s rights.

The first step to solving any social injustices is making the problem known. Only by discussing difficult topics can we attain the resources to overcome them. Just because something is considered “tradition,” doesn’t make it morally right. The sooner governments condemn these practices, the sooner these girls can get an equal chance at life.

– Amanda J Godfrey
Photo: Flickr

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