Since its independence in 1960, Mauritania, a desert nation of approximately 4.42 million people, has experienced improvements in various areas. However, the 2018 Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program ranked it 159th out of 189 countries, indicating that the country still faces many formidable challenges.

Mauritania’s harsh environment forces many people to live in poor, isolated communities that reinforce rigid social stereotypes and traditions. Various practices, such as slavery, continue to undermine the potential of the country and its people. Leblouh is one such tradition that adversely affects Mauritanian women and girls.

What is Leblouh?

Leblouh is an ancient custom in Mauritania that involves force-feeding young girls and fattening them to gain prestige and stature in their communities, especially in the eyes of eligible men. In Mauritanian society, “heavier girls and women” are believed to be beautiful and wealthy, while their “slimmer counterparts” are not only considered inferior but also a source of shame to their families.

The preference for heavier women allegedly emerged centuries ago among the Moors, a term used now to describe the ethnic group of mixed Arab and Amazigh origins that make up nearly three-fourths of the country’s population. Members of that society believed that men with large wives were wealthy and could afford to feed them well despite their difficult desert way of life.  

In Chinguetti, Mauritania’s ancient capital, an RT documentary shows Fatimetou Lelhamel, a so-called Leblouh expert, trying to cajole her young granddaughter into drinking a cup of milk. “Drink, drink,” the elderly woman says as the baby girl fusses and tries to resist. Eventually, the infant surrenders and begins to obediently drink from the cup in her grandmother’s hands.

“This is how we fatten up women,” Lelhamel says victoriously as she wipes her granddaughter’s mouth. “She drinks milk until the afternoon. We prepare couscous and she eats it, too. For breakfast, we prepare special milk, called ‘amzik.’ We churn the milk until butter starts to appear. Then we mix that with fresh milk,” Lelhamel added. The baby girl’s family hopes that she will weigh at least 100 kilograms (or 220 pounds) by the time she reaches “marriageable” age or that she eventually gains enough weight to appear of an appropriate age.

Aminetou Mint Elhacen, who runs a Leblouh camp in Atar (a commercial hub 272 miles from the capital, Nouakchott), receives approximately $155 for every girl she force-feeds over a three-month period. Every day, she expects her “clients” to eat around 40 egg-sized balls of oily couscous mixed with crushed dates and peanuts (around 300 calories each) along with 12 pints of goat’s milk and gruel.

If Elhacen’s young clients resist the force-feeding, she punishes them. “I’m very strict . . . . I beat the girls or torture them by squeezing a stick between their toes. I isolate them and tell them that thin women are inferior.”

If the Leblouh regimen is successful a 12-year-old could weigh up to 80 kilograms—or 176 pounds.

Ancient Leblouh Tradition Continues to Endanger the Lives of Mauritanian Women

The U.S. National Institutes of Health’s recommended caloric intake for a moderately active nine to a 13-year-old girl is between 1,600 and 2,000 calories. While an adult male bodybuilder can eat up to 4,000 calories to achieve his personal fitness goals, young Mauritanian girls are forced to consume between 14,000 to 16,000 calories a day to gratify their communities, at the expense of their health.

Although more people are speaking out against the Leblouh practice, Elhacen and other Mauritanians, especially those living in rural communities, feel that the practice is necessary: “How will these poor girls find a husband if they’re bony and revolting?”

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Mauritania’s Ministry of Women’s affairs introduced a campaign in 2003 to tackle the problem of women’s obesity in the country. Television commercials and official pronouncements from Nouakchott urged young women to maintain a healthy weight and warned them against the risks associated with obesity, including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and depression.

One television skit depicted “a husband carting his fat wife around in a wheelbarrow,” while another showed “houseguests raiding the refrigerator because their host was too obese to get up to feed them.” Doctors were recruited to explain the health risks of obesity. While the government’s public campaign was successful in Nouakchott and other populated areas, the success did not last. The campaign was disrupted by a series of unexpected events.

Three suspected al-Qaeda members murdered four French tourists in Aleg (a city 162 miles southeast of Nouakchott), in late 2007, causing tourism and foreign investment to plummet in Mauritania. Then, the country’s democratic government was overthrown in a military coup in 2008. The new leadership advocated for a “return to tradition,” which paved the way for the re-emergence of the Leblouh phenomenon.

Before the 2008 military coup, government data put the percentage of girls subjected to Leblouh at 50 to 60 percent in rural areas. Although it is less practiced in urban areas (around 20 to 30 percent), Leblouh is “re-emerging because men still find mounds of female flesh comforting and erotic,” explained Seyid Ould Seyid, a Mauritanian male journalist. “The attraction is ingrained from birth.”

Evolving Social Norms

“I don’t like thin women. Who likes them? A real woman should be big and tranquil,” Mohamed Elwen, an older Mauritanian man told RT Documentary. “These slim women . . . I don’t know how they can live their lives. I don’t want to speak about them. But today, they have their admirers.”

While it seems that Leblouh is an immutable part of Mauritanian society, the internet, technology, and globalization are gradually changing the way Mauritanians view the world, themselves, and the age-old practice. “Now, no one wants a fat woman. No one,” Makfoule Mint Ali, an older Mauritanian woman told RT Documentary. “I think that television and radio are causing these changes.”

The negative side effects of Leblouh on girls’ and women’s health are driving some activists to fight the practice. Mar Jubero Capdeferro of the UN Population Fund in Mauritania told CNN that Leblouh is less popular among young people. They see how it has affected women of previous generations. Still, the ancient practice has become riskier in modern Mauritania.

Even though recent droughts have left many families with little food to feed their families, let alone fatten their girls, they continue to try. Some women in Mauritania have resorted to supplementing their Leblouh with animal hormones and steroids to gain weight and increase their chances of marriage.

Nouakchott’s position on Leblouh or women’s obesity notwithstanding, one thing is clear: Mauritanian girls and women have little agency when it comes to their bodies. As long as they remain isolated, controlled by social, economic, and political institutions, their bodies and choices will continue to be shaped by external forces.