Nouakchott, Asharq al-Awsat- When Aicha Bint Jeddane ran for president in Mauritania in 2003, she was the first and only woman to contend for the seat amongst the other male candidates.
Her slogan: “You have tried a male president; why not try a female one?”
Women’s presence in Mauritanian history, society, culture and public life is not a recent development, many ancient historians and travelers have mentioned them in their accounts and travelogues. Upon visiting Mauritania, ancient Moroccan historian Ibn Battuta was surprised by the extent of women’s involvement in society and the status they enjoyed among the academic circles, which compelled him to hail the country as “the land of scholars and women”.
In contrast to many other societies, Mauritanian society has no history of abuse against women, whether physical or otherwise; in fact, insulting women in this community is considered the worst insult to be leveled against men. Women have been known to leave their homes if their husbands offend them, which lead the men to apologize and try to resolve the dispute. This usually takes place in a big celebration in which the wife’s friends and family members attend in what is locally known as ‘Amscari’. Additionally, polygamy in the old Mauritanian society was infrequent.
Today women occupy prestigious positions in society; they manage commerce and trade businesses and are investors who own capital. It is believed that the distinguishing characteristic enjoyed by Mauritanian women is the fact that they are a source of pride when women in some parts of the world are perceived as a source of fear and scandal.
However; the Mauritanian woman has managed to penetrate the most vital political circles: the government and decision-making centers. Presently there are three female ministers, five undersecretaries, two ambassadors and two governors of provinces. Women also occupy posts in the police force and army despite retaining the national attire, which covers the whole body, and adhering to the social and Islamic norms.
In the last legislative elections, Mauritanian women gained wide representation in parliament, 20 percent of the seats, which is the highest percentage in the Arab world. In the municipal council, Mauritanian women occupy 1,120 seats out of a total 3,688, which represents 37 percent.
During the eighties, the Mauritanian government took the initiative to develop a ministry specialized and dedicated to women’s affairs and integrated it into various other sectors of daily life. This step was accompanied by a presidential decree announcing the first female minster, Khadija Bint Ahmed who was the head of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce at the end of the 1980s.
This step was met with considerable worldwide approval; however there was some criticism and disapproval among the conservative circles who cited religious and historical reasons. This controversy was short-lived since the media outlets and the openness of the Mauritanian society contributed to quelling these criticisms and discontent.
Former President Mouaaiya Ould Taya, whose term lasted over 20 years (1984-2005), was particularly concerned with women’s affairs. Women occupied ministerial positions and Ould Taya also established a national day in their commemoration (8th March). Credit is due to Ould Taya for his success in incorporating women in the newly established ruling Democratic and Social Republican Party (PRDS) at the time, in addition to placing no restraint on the number of women occupying parliamentary positions. However on 3 August 2005, the armed and security forces staged a coup and deposed Ould Taya, appointing Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall as the new head of government.
Furthermore, the political atmosphere at the time was responsible for rearing a new breed of women who were battling on a different front; the ‘Haratine’ are the dark-skinned Arabic-speaking descendents of slaves which they considered to be alienated black Africans who had lost their identity and needed to regain their nationalist and cultural roots. Running parallel with prominent head of the People’s Progressive Alliance (APP) anti-slavery activist Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s efforts, was the active participation of al Maalouma Bint Bilal who was a member of numerous human rights organizations calling for the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Bint Bilal who is a member of the APP won a seat in parliament in the latest elections.
Bint Bilal told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I have made a pledge to myself to fight for the weak and the marginalized. They supported me and responded to my political discourse, which has led me to this position that I now occupy.”
She added that the central issue that occupies her is the abolition of slavery and that having representation in the state’s parliament will bring her closer to achieving their objectives. She told Asharq Al-Awsat that she had succeeded in persuading the Mauritanian government to ratify a law that criminalizes the practice of slavery and punish its perpetrators, which she said had subjected her to a significant amount of social and political pressure.
Al Naha Bint Miknass, parliamentarian and leader of the Union for Democracy and Progress party is the first Arab woman to head a political party. She won her seat in the last elections as did two representatives from her party. Bint Miknass succeeded her father, the late Hamdi Ould Miknass, as head of the party in the late nineties. Ould Miknass served as prime minister of the first Mauritanian government following independence.
Bint Miknass said that she always strives to lead the party down the right course, acknowledging that the road ahead is still a long one. “The party depends on social theories that aim at combating social inequalities and ensuring that all citizens can benefit from political participation and the distribution of wealth equally amongst all citizens without discrimination,” she told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Women are starting to more major roles in Mauritanian politics, three women head political parties of which only the aforementioned is represented in parliament. Yet, Tahia Bint Habib, who heads the Mauritanian al Amal party, believes that women are marginalized, furthermore citing it as the reason she has not achieved more political gains.
Bint Habib told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Mauritanian society still embraces what she described as backward views when it comes to women. She accused the political authorities, holding them responsible for “women’s absence from participating in the national decision-making [process],” despite the large female presence in the local municipalities and the elected National Assembly.
In 1992, the state announced that it had established a state secretariat in charge of women’s affairs and Mariam Bint Ahmed Aicha was appointed as the head. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is responsible for assisting women by providing them with employment and integrating them into various activities but is also very active in spreading awareness campaigns across Mauritania that aim to raise the standard of education amongst women, which is ailing especially in conservative communities. Such communities regard educated women with some suspicion, believing that attitudes and approaches like these seek to disrupt the conservative Mauritanian societal values.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also tackles various social phenomena that are seen as hindrances to development and as having a negative impact on women’s development, such as marriage at a young age, the spread of divorce and also female circumcision. The ministry has also unveiled an ambitious strategy to counter the breakdown of the family unit, which has a direct and weighty impact upon the balance of society; both economically and psychologically, moreover displacing children and subjecting them to homelessness and destitution.
Mauritania has the highest divorce rates in the Arab world at 37 percent and there is no legislation to ensure the rights of the children and their mothers. To meet the challenged posed by poverty, with emphasis on Mauritanian women, a human rights office was set up in 1998 to undertake close coordination between the people and governmental ministries whilst following up on the proposed poverty reduction programme. Additionally, the office has most recently put together a strategic framework to combat poverty, which is the fruit of a joint effort that includes the aforesaid office management, civil society and foreign aid.
In 2000, Mauritania drafted a family law that grants women various rights, including the right to participate in political and social life. Women constitute 50.5 percent of Mauritania’s population and it is without a doubt that they have made considerable progress over the years whether on an economic, social or political level. Illiteracy rates have decreased: primary education among females has increased from 54.5 percent to 76.4 percent, and on a secondary level it has increased from 31.3 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2000 and has risen to a total of 21.3 percent in higher education. The literacy rate in Mauritania is 80 percent, making it one of the highest rates in the Arab world.
Despite the considerable progress made and despite the government’s efforts to integrate women into all sectors of society and allow them to participate in social and political life, women’s rights activists believe that there is room for improvement. However, judging by the posts that women are occupying today in Mauritania, there has definitely been a marked improvement inasmuch as there are indicators for further development.