Mauritanian divorcees wield uncommon power
By Mohamed Yahya Ould Abdel Wedoud for Magharebia in Nouakchott -27/05/11
Mauritania is outpacing its Maghreb neighbours when it comes to gender equality. Polygamy is rare. Women achieve high government office. They can also divorce and remarry as often as they like.
It is the divorce part that worries Mauritanian men the most.
Four out of ten Mauritanian marriages end in divorce, often because the husband cannot support his household. High unemployment makes the situation worse. For men contemplating marriage and those trying to keep their wives, times are tough.
Mauritanian women, on the other hand, have parties. Friends and family of the runaway brides join in the celebrations.
There is no social stigma attached to a failed marriage. If a woman does not get it right the first time, she can always give it another go.
"According to Mauritanian customs, the divorced woman is received with trills of joy and overwhelming happiness by her family, friends and neighbours, which lifts up her spirits and gives her the confidence to build another nest after the destruction of her first one," says social analyst Ahmed Ould Abdellatif.
"Society's excessive leniency toward divorced women and high dowry are behind many divorce cases in Mauritanian society," he tells Magharebia.
"There is no shame or sadness if the marriage ends," he explains. "In some areas of the country, celebratory gunshots are fired in the air to welcome the divorcee back home."
Aminetou Mint El Moustaffa married at 18, gave birth to a son and then sought a divorce. Before she turned 20, she had a new husband.
"I was certain I'd get married again, and why not?" she laughs. "Marriage is in God's hands. He gives it to whom He pleases and when He pleases. It's fate and divine decree!"
Meimoune Bint Taher, a housewife, says, "As Mauritanians, we are proud of this custom and adhere to it, as we consider it to be a humane custom and not in opposition to religion or good morals."
"Some women in other countries fall prey to their husbands and society is behind that," she says. "That's unjust and inhumane, and strikes at the heart of women's freedom," she stresses.
More than 70% of Mauritanian divorcees wed a second time, and approximately 55% marry a third time. There is no fear of social stigma.
"Mauritanian men have a great understanding of the psychological and social circumstances of divorced women," she says with a smile.
Mauritania also differs from some other Arab countries in that polygamy is uncommon. Social analyst Moktar Ould Alyen says: "The norm in marital agreements is to add the following sentence: 'no spouse before, no spouse after, and if so, the decision is in the woman's hands' , which implies dissolution of the marriage if the groom gets married to another woman."
"Mauritanian women attained all their rights without any real struggle, contrary to their sisters in many Arab and Islamic countries," he adds. "Women in Mauritania sit on the most important ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, occupy all positions and even run for the presidency."
All things considered, Moktar concludes, "Mauritanian women are pampered. And leblouh, or fattening, is evidence of that."
Some men in Mauritania are alarmed by what they call "the power of women", arguing that it threatens men economically, psychologically and socially.
Mohamed Ould Zein El Abidine in 2008 launched a non-governmental organisation to defend men's rights. In his fifties, he appears tired and worn out, with sweat dripping on his face.
It has been a long fight, this battle to "protect men from women's oppression and establish a ministry for the protection of men's stolen rights", he says.
"Women stole everything from men in this country," he exclaims. "The judiciary sympathises with women, as does society, and the ministries are all occupied by women!"
"When I tried to fight this reality by filing an application for a license to found an organisation defending men's rights, a group of female secretaries at the Ministry of the Interior detained the request for nine months in the labyrinths of the ministry," he says.
The social affairs ministry contains a bureau for family conflicts. Magharebia asked the ministry's legal advisor, Sidi Athman Mohamed, about Ould Zein El Abidine's position that men are in such dire straits that they need their own NGO to protect their rights.
"I think, simply, that this man did not come to this ministry," Mohamed tells Magharebia. "It is clear that he has prior judgments. Perhaps he has personal problems with some women that he is trying to generalise."
He adds, "The ministry is here to serve both sexes, with full equality and justice, and to attend to the resolution of family disputes, not only for women."
"Women must get all their rights, but that was not and will not be at the expense of men," Mohamed says.
Many women take pride in having a number of ex-husbands, seeing serial marriages as proof of their beauty and desirability.
"Some women boast about the number of times they entered wedlock," says social activist El Mamy Ould Mohamed. "We often hear someone say she was married four or five times, as though that were the biggest proof of her beauty, lineage and femininity, which enabled her to attract more husbands."
This means that a divorce is welcome even before it happens, the activist explains. "This has negative consequences for society in general," he tells Magharebia.
"We have the saying, 'The most hated permissible thing to God is divorce'." Mohamed adds. "Quite simply, I do not see a winner in the divorce process, whatever happens."
Subscribe to our newsletter and get Magharebia's latest articles delivered to your inbox.