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“My weight was never a problem when I lived in Senegal, but every time I went on vacation to Mauritania, my aunt made me eat, even what the boys had left behind. They considered me skinny there. Visitors were told that I was sick to justify my weight. To be pretty, she had to get fat, ”recalls Asma, 25, of Mauritanian and Senegalese origin. Like her, many young Arabs are under constant pressure to gain weight not only from friends and family, but also from strangers on the street. In the opinion of this population group (70% in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania), and especially among the whites who form the elite in power, female obesity is a criterion of beauty. The imposing forms, extolled in Mauritanian poetry, have always been synonymous with feminine beauty and a demonstration of wealth and good health.
PHOTO GALLERY | Forced to gain weight
In Mauritania, the beautiful woman is the one who is fat. Many are forced to gain weight to be considered beautiful and suitable for marriage. The photographer Carmen Abd Ali reproduces with this photographic series the testimonies of the victims of this practice
Being overweight is also closely linked to the issue of marriage. In the past, girls, sometimes as young as five, were sent to camps in the area to be force-fed for months with astronomical amounts of camel milk and millet porridge. With the transformation, the young women quickly lost their childish appearance and were therefore able to marry.
A dangerous race for the kilos
Although this traditional force feeding is gradually disappearing, it continues to be practiced, especially in rural areas. It still affects 40% of young women, according to Aminetou Mint El-Moctar, president of the Mauritanian Association of Head of Household Women (AFCF, for its acronym in French). Today there is still the obligation to develop rounded hips, plump buttocks and plump arms. The proverb “the woman occupies in the heart of the man the same space that it occupies in his bed” remains firmly ingrained in the mentalities. Many young women gorge themselves to comply with the canons of beauty. “When I was 15 years old, everyone told me that I had to gain weight, that men would not be interested in me because I was too thin,” says Zohra, a twenty-something Moorish ethnicity.
To make sure they achieve their goal, they go to Moroccan stores in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, to buy herbal teas and suppositories to whet their appetite, or even massage oils to develop their curves. However, in the absence of the promised results, urban women now turn to pharmacies, where they get multivitamin syrups, corticosteroid pills or antihistamines, which, when used differently from the original, cause rapid weight gain .
Zohra secretly took these pills on the advice of a friend when she was 18 years old and was pressured by her family and future husband. In two weeks, the young woman gained 20 kilos. “When my figure changed, everyone congratulated me,” he recalls. Worse still: since the 2000s there has been a new fashion among young Arabs in the Mauritanian capital: the dreug dreug. This pill, produced in India and designed for cattle, is easy to find on the black market despite the 2010 law prohibiting the illegal sale of drugs, and can be purchased at a price of between 150 and 200 Uguiyas (between 3, 43 and 4.75 euros).
Serious effects on physical and mental health
The effects of this frantic race for kilos are negative for the health of young women. “With these drugs, in three weeks the girl is not recognized. It becomes deformed because only the upper part of the body develops, ”explains Asma. Swelling of the torso and arms, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, risk of infertility … The health consequences are numerous, and in some cases can include death.
In 2008, the AFCF recorded 148 cases of girls and women who had been subjected to both modern and traditional force-feeding. Twelve of them died for having taken dreug dreug. “My friend warned me that with the pills I could have a headache or notice that my heart was racing. It’s a quick and easy way to get fat, but it has many dangerous side effects, ”explains Zohra. Although a minority ignore the consequences, the majority know the risks, but are willing to do anything.
The proverb “the woman occupies in the heart of the man the same space that it occupies in his bed” remains firmly rooted in the mentalities
For these young women, caught between the desire to satisfy society’s expectations and their deep desires, the abuse is also psychological. “I see that some girls get fat just because of what they will say and to please men. They cause damage to their body and end up not feeling comfortable in it ”, laments Asma. Many struggle to accept that body that they no longer recognize and that brings insecurity to them. “I started to have a lot of stretch marks and a lot of belly. I felt very insecure. If I had to do it again, I would not take the pills. Today I am not feeling very well ”, acknowledges the young woman.
Defy the codes
The practice, banned by the Mauritanian government in the early 2000s, has been the subject of awareness campaigns, especially on television. But it is difficult for mentalities to change in such a traditional society. Despite the difficulty in breaking free from these deeply held ideas, young women are trying to get things moving. “I do not want to enter that spiral in which we lose ourselves in the impositions that we have to comply with. That destroys our confidence. I don’t want to meet all the demands, ”says Asma, whose family has stopped commenting on her silhouette.
Nawa, another twenty-something, believes that throughout the world, women’s perception of their own body is dictated by the society in which they live. “The woman has to adapt to what is expected of her. But we have to be able to be ourselves and make our own decisions. ” One sign of this evolution is that since the beginning of the century, with the opening of gyms and sports clubs in Nouakchott, more and more women who previously led sedentary lives are now exercising, aware of its health benefits and eager to reclaim their precious curves.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.