Women do enjoy a real predominance and do have a strong ascendency in today Mauritanian society, whose two main intermingled components: the descendants of Sanhaja Berbers and those of the Hilalian Arabs, have had for a long time deep rooted matriarchal traditions. Indeed in the collective memory of the Berbers `descendants, still lingers the profound veneration they have all the time harbored for what they consider as their founding ancestor: the semi-goddess “Tin Hinan”; Whereas the descendants of Bani Hilal, for their part, still keep vividly in mind the fantastic tales narrated in the Epic Poem of their Exile, during the 11th century all the way from the Arab Peninsula to North Africa.
In those tales the famous Hilalien females heroes such as: “Shiha”, “Al Jazia Al Hilalia” and ”Khadra Sherifa”, to name only these, are glorified and their heroic deeds magnified. This profound veneration for those historical female figures may be regarded, so to speak, as the founding myth of the noticeable preeminence and the soft, but high-handed, authority women have in the Mauritanian society throughout its history.
This authority, the freedom, the independence, and the self-assurance it rests on, was recorded with utter dismay by the Moroccan glob-trotter and chronicler, Ibn Batuta in his travels book ,”Arrihla”. In this book he reported with astonishment that during a stay he had in Walata (East Mauritania) in 1332,he saw the wife of his host, who was no other than the Cadi of that town, chatting and laughing heartily with a man in presence of her husband. Ibn Batuta was stunned and outraged by what he considered as a scandalous “ungodly” behavior. When he expressed his disapproval of that “reprehensible” situation to his Mauritanian host, the latter told him that to his mind nothing was wrong with what his wife and her friend did.
As a matter of fact, the uninhibited freedom to interact spontaneously with men that Mauritanian women have, their natural propensity not to shy away from such an intereraction and the benevolent tolerance men usually display vis-à-vis this attitude, could perhaps be accounted for by the traditional nomadic style of life Mauritanians have had for long time as well as by the nature of their peculiar habitat: the tents. These indeed are open spaces where nothing could be hidden or concealed. They do not offer any possibility for isolation and confinement, besides the nomadic way of life compels both men and women to live side by side and pretty close to each other.
Therefore, the tendency men do have in practically all the Arab societies, to veil and seclude women so as to remove them from sight is not in Mauritanian character. In fact Mauritanian women awe it to the well established matriarchal traditions of their society to be independent, assertive, self-willed, uninhibited, outgoing and strong minded. They are also a bit authoritative, slightly whimsical and somehow will o`the wisp. Yet they are generous, friendly, good humored and witty.
Like men, Mauritanian women abide by Islamic prescriptions but only as long as those prescriptions do not collide with their cardinal principals. Thus they never accept to put up with polygamy, they may, if the necessity arises, divorce their husbands despite the fact that according to the Islamic law, divorce is a prerogative of men. They invariably refused to be forcefully veiled or to be confined out of everybody sight, they have consistently rejected to be transformed into subservient “Harims” at the beck and call of selfish and possessive “paterfamilias “. They usually react violently should a bigoted man make an inconvenient remark concerning their attires or order them to veil their faces or to conceal their feminity.
However, Mauritanian women are, more often than not, inclined to be little bit narcissistic, and jealous! They generally tend not to be very thrifty. These factors , in a great measure, account for the high rate of divorces in the Mauritanian society and the notable precariousness that undermines the stability of a great deal of Mauritanian households. In addition to these undeniable flaws, women used also to have many inadequacies, in particular the will to hasten the nubidity of little girls through crual force-feeding called ( Lebluh), as to get them married the soonest possible. Needless to say that that early marriage and the premature pregnancy it can bring about, are very harmful for the health of young girls and no less harmful for them is the nefarious practice of genital mutilation many Mauritanian women inflict on these little helpless girls. Fortunately all these horrific practices are receding fast.
In addition to what has been said earlier, one may also say that the matriarchal traditions of the Mauritanian society have considerably favoured women and helped to strengthen their position in all the walks of life. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the increasing improvement of women`s position and the steady embetterment of their social status are the result of a sustained and purposeful struggle they have been carrying out for the last four decades.
Thus on the political plan, they get gradually involved in commerce, business and diverse other lucrative activities in the informal economic sectors. In the academic and scientific fields, women `s presence is more and more conspicuous as they become faculty members, researchers, writers ect.. On the political plan, a growing number of women have become high-ranking officials in the administration and in the armed forces. Many were appointed ministers; others were elected as members of Parliament and of municipal councils. The first female Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Arab World was Mauritanian. The present Mayor of Nouakchott, the country`s capital, is also a lady.
There are now female Judges, attorneys, ambassadors, you name it! Women are likewise leading political parties and chairing civil society organizations. One of them has run for the presidency during the presidential elections that took place on June 21st, 2014.
In a nutshell, one may say in this respect that thanks to the matriarchal traditions of the Mauritanian society and owing to their unwavering perseverance, Mauritanian women are , from all points of views fully fledged citizens who, not only have the full right to drive cars, to travel alone without a male chaperon ,to rub minds and eventually strike friendships with men without risking a “honor murder” but also the possibility to participate with no restriction in the running of the public affairs of the country.
For now Mauritanian Women have still shortcomings to overcome and imperfections to straighten but they are fairly aware of that and are keen on addressing it.
The ultimate goal they seem to be aiming at today is to live up to the historic responsibility they have always been saddled with ,throughout the history of their country, and to strive harder to ensure a brighter future for its people to whom they owe much.
Nouakchott August 3d, 2014.