Bridal dowry tradition divides Mauritanian newlyweds
Text and photos by Mohamed Yahya Ould Abdel Wedoud for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 26/03/10
When young car salesman Ahmed married a university student in Nouakchott a month ago, he was eager to move with his bride into their own matrimonial home. Thanks to the long-standing Mauritanian tradition of arheel, however, his wife is still living with her family.
Arheel is the name for the bride's journey to the matrimonial home. She leaves her parents for her new abode, accompanied by trilling cries of joy, celebratory songs—and piles of linen, blankets, utensils and domestic appliances, all of which are on display for friends to admire and evaluate.
For Mauritanians who adhere to tradition, this ceremony is no less important than that of the wedding night.
Marriage customs such as sahwa and arheel endure in Mauritania, but some young couples are calling for change.
The money spent on arheel is enough to cover the expenses of a family for a whole year, one expert says.
Linens, dishware and other items are put out on display for all to see.
Men and women gather at the matrimonial home to celebrate the wedding and inspect the arheel goods.
Ahmed blames arheel for forcing him to live apart from his new bride. "There should be no sanctity for a habit that makes people endure costs beyond their means," he tells Magharebia. Ahmed says that his wife is an educated young woman who does not even believe in arheel. Still, he says, they had no choice but to respect her family's observance of the custom.
And wait for her dowry to grow.
"They are working very hard to collect the matrimonial items for their daughter, and this may just take much more time," he says. "It's a human tragedy disguised as a social habit."
Even when grooms reject arheel as outdated and financially unwise, they cannot avoid it.
The bride's family often bears higher costs than those of the groom. The arheel custom makes parents feel socially and culturally obliged to provide costly items. The practice makes no distinction between the rich and the poor.
Families of lesser means may receive assistance from relatives or from members of their tribe. In such cases, arheel items are collected through donations. It would be shameful, donors feel, for a bride to arrive at her groom's home empty-handed.
Ahmed's enforced separation from his new wife is common, according to one Nouakchott mother of three girls. "The bride has to stay at her family's for months until they can collect the necessary items for arheel," So'ad Mint Ahmed confirms. For So'ad, arheel is unavoidable. "I don't think that there is a woman who can go to her husband's house without arheel, unless she had no family or relatives."
"Arheel is a social, indispensable necessity," she tells Magharebia. "The family has to think carefully about the matter before they give their daughter in marriage to someone."
Many Mauritanians cling to this habit as they cling to life itself, often out of nostalgia for an old social habit established by their forefathers in the desert.
"I opened my eyes to see arheel everywhere," said Meriam mint Ahmed, 55. "I was brought up with it and saw how my parents were keen on it, and considered it part of the cultural identity of the country."
The night before the bride leaves her childhood home for the matrimonial abode, female relatives make sure the household items amassed for arheel are already in place awaiting her arrival.
Arheel is also only done by night because of another Mauritanian tradition: sahwa.
Socially-mandated shyness, or sahwa, means Mauritanian husbands can't speak to their in-laws and wives can't show affection for their spouses. It is one of the most deeply-rooted habits in Mauritanian society.
This night, for arheel, the bride has to completely cover her face and wear a black cloak soaked in incense. It's a time of tarab, which starts a new stage of matrimonial life.
The next day, a banquet honours friends, family and neighbours. Everyone gathers to exchange light conversation and extend wishes of happiness. The groom buys sweets and distributes them in an atmosphere of brotherhood and friendliness.
The bride's friends (or nimasha) come from everywhere to have a look at the arheel bounty. Brides compete to acquire items that bring their families distinction and standing in society.
This kind of impression, however, comes at a price.
Many men think long and hard before deciding to marry.
"The average arheel costs about 4,500 euros. Among well-to-do people, expenses can exceed 35,000 euros, which is a big amount of money by local standards," sociologist Mourad Ould Ahmed tells Magharebia. "It’s natural that young people don't accept such costly social habits."
''Arheel symbolises an exaggeration of one's own importance," he says.
Many social customs in Mauritania, including arheel, were the product of Bedouin desert life, the cultural expert explains, adding that they may gradually disappear "under the pressure of new liberal behavioural patterns imposed by city life".
"The young generation yearns for freedom and looks to break all the traditional barriers that were chaining their fathers and grandfathers," Ould Ahmed adds.
The arheel tradition has actually become an obstacle to marriage, history teacher Malai Ahmed believes.
"It doesn't suit the nature of contemporary life for a simple reason: the money wasted on it is enough to cover the expenses of a family for a whole year. Therefore, it becomes meaningless from an economic point of view," he says.
The custom that has long symbolised a new union could now prove to be its undoing.
"The habit of arheel, and the unreasonable expenses that go with it, could eventually cause husband and wife to arrive in a difficult economic situation that ends with a divorce," Malai Ahmed says.
"Why doesn't the elite of this country do something to put an end to this situation which is destroying our society?" he wonders.
Despite growing criticism of the tradition, Mauritanian civil society organisations seem reluctant to address the issue.
"I tried several times to break some of these costly marriage customs," says Al-Khalifa Ould Haddad, president of the Youth Organisation for Combatting Poverty and Illiteracy. "Civil society is still lacking in courage to deal with harmful social habits, such as arheel or the forced-fattening practice of leblouh."
Still, there have been some local successes.
"I prepared a guiding document that included some hadiths and verses from the Holy Koran calling for avoiding extravagance in marriage," Ould Haddad tells Magharebia. "I presented the document to the imam of al-Ateeq mosque and his group in the city of Aoujeft. They approved the document after discussing it, and started implementing it in the city."
"I sensed a significant response from the people there," Ould Haddad says. "The amount of dowry was reduced to less than 75 euros, something that was economically beneficial for everyone."
"I myself was the first one to benefit from this social reform," he adds. "I married without having to spend too much."
Subscribe to our newsletter and get Magharebia's latest articles delivered to your inbox.