Mauritania – Young Reject “Forced Fattening” Practice of Leblouh
Author: Womens UN Report Network
Date: February 16, 2009
MAURITANIA – YOUNG REJECT
“FORCED FATTENING” PRACTICE OF LEBLOUH
ideas of beauty and desirability for marriage have long been connected to body
weight. For the younger generation, however, a stigma has developed around the
traditional practice of fattening – Leblouh – which is viewed to be unhealthy.
By Mohamed Yahya Ould Abdel Wedoud for Magharebia in
Mauritanian women historically engaged in forced-fattening practices to
The phenomenon of Leblouh is one of the oldest social values related to
beauty in Mauritanian society. Under the practice, girls are made to eat huge
quantities of food, sometimes by force, to make them fatter. The aim is to give
them greater chances of marriage, beauty and social acceptance, as slim women
are traditionally deemed inferior.
Leblouh is also seen from an economic perspective. A fat girl symbolises
wealth and a refined social class. Vadel, a teacher, said: “The slim girl
brings shame to her family in some towns, especially in remote areas. Some
families find themselves forced to adhere to the customs of the society around
them even if they are not convinced. Local norms don’t show any mercy,
sometimes, to dissidents.”
Most rural, uneducated mothers think Leblouh is the only way to find a
“I practiced Leblouh with my daughter Leila when she was ten years old,
because I wanted her to get married and give birth to children at an early
age,” Khadija told Magharebia. “This is the same thing that my
mother, may God rest her soul, did with me.”
Some women are considered specialists in the fattening practice, even
receiving payment for their work. These women do not care much for the new
generation that is trying to put an end to the custom. Ache, a 45-year old
fattener, said, “I think that the custom of Leblouh is indispensable.
Simply speaking, a fat woman will usually attract men’s looks, unlike the slim
Other women look back unfavourably on the difficult days when they underwent
Leblouh. Hoda’s mother hired a fattener when she was eight years old, growing
up in the countryside. “That woman fattener was very tough with me,”
she said. “She would hit me when I got tired of food and when I was about
to throw up. She used to make me drink a huge container of milk, of about 5
litres. My stomach almost exploded each time.”
Selma was forced to overeat from the age of five. “At first, I used to
throw up several times a day because of the excess of food and drink I was
forced to intake. Women around me were saying that it was perfectly all right,
while I had the feeling, though childish, that this condition couldn’t have
possibly been normal. I gained weight quickly; I was almost 80 kilograms at the
age of 15,” she said.
For Vayza, fattening was supposed to lead to an early marriage to a cousin,
as size was more important than age in the eyes of society. “I was forced
to marry at the age of 14, and I faced many difficulties in my married
life,” she said. “My dream of education was lost; I feel sorry when I
see my friends having slim bodies and studying in high school.”
More than 70% of Mauritanian women over 40 years old think Leblouh is
necessary for marriage, according to a 2007 study by the Social Solidarity
Association. The organisation ascribes this to the fact that women born and
raised in the countryside – before the population flowed to urban centres –
still carry traditional mentalities common to the rural population. Indeed, the
same study found that while only 10% of city girls were forcibly fattened, the
number in rural areas is closer to 80%.
“Leblouh is a negative phenomenon that has invaded our country since
the era of Almoravides,” said history professor Mohamed Salem.
He explained how it became rooted in Mauritanian history. “The woman
used to be confined to a tent because of the harsh desert conditions. Men used
to do everything in order to bring food, which was linked to the livestock, and
women used to spend most of the time eating and sleeping; something that helped
in increasing their weight.”
To achieve social and cultural conformity, women engaged in Leblouh.
Salem said that today things have changed. It seems that the new generation
of girls and even boys are fed up with traditional practices they do not see as
“The age of the traditional ‘tent’, which symbolises the desert, has
long gone,” said Fatimetou, a 22-year old student. “Now that the era
of globalisation has come, the phenomenon of Leblouh has become meaningless and
must disappear, exactly as its age has disappeared.”
Mariem, another student, typifies the new generation of young women in big
cities such as Nouakchott and Noudhibou which is becoming aware of the health
risks associated with obesity.
She told Magharebia, “Today we are in need of thinness and gracefulness
so that we may preserve our health. There are so many women who can’t leave
home because of their excessive weight.”
Critics of the Leblouh custom are finding allies in modern medicine.
Hospitals in Mauritania, as well as private clinics, receive hundreds of female
patients every week with weight-related health problems such as heart disease,
hypertension and atherosclerosis.
“There are many chronic cases which we receive as a result of
Leblouh,” said Dr. Sidi Ahmed, a heart disease specialist at Nouakchott’s
Sabah hospital. “We have launched several campaigns aimed at putting an
end to this mentality that links beauty and fat; which brings some people to
review their customs and traditions.”
“Most of the cases we receive come from the countryside, which means
that city women have started to understand the danger of Leblouh,” he
Some activists are even demanding that legal action be taken against those
who fatten girls as a profession.
Sayyid Aal Ould Ahmed, Secretary-General of the “Together for Social
Welfare” organisation, said his group has launched awareness campaigns in
the capital and some suburbs on “bad traditional practices, such as
Leblouh and early marriage”.
His NGO has also conducted surveys of popular opinion, with some surprising
“We found that 70% of young men today dislike fat women,” Ould Ahmed
According to the survey, just 6% of fat women are married. Ould Ahmed said
this is because “they are usually uneducated, and thus, are not desired by
Finally, he said, some 80% of urban mothers do not want their daughters to
Together for Social Welfare has produced films in everyday language to
educate society about the risks of Leblouh.
Despite calls for legal action against Leblouh professionals, the government
continues to tolerate the practice. Critics suggest that members of parliament
have failed to address the issue because they are older and have little
incentive to change customs they have lived with for so long.
“The government can’t just change mentalities linked to culture –
especially the phenomenon of Leblouh,” said one employee in the Ministry
of Women’s Affairs, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“It is deeply rooted in the rural areas where the influence of the
administrative authority is weak and the spirit of heritage is strong.”
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