The henna artist leaned over her client’s hand and glanced at the smartphone to get the precise details of the pattern chosen by her client, a young woman who lives in an ancient desert town in the West African nation of Mauritania.
Under a patch of moonlight, the young woman, Iselekhe Jeilaniy, sat warily on a mat, careful not to smear the wet henna on her skin, as it had on the eve of her wedding.
But she was not getting married. She got divorced. The next day would be her divorce party.
“Your attention, married ladies – my daughter Iselekhe is now divorced!” The mother of Mrs. Jeilaniy called out to the townspeople, ululating three times and drumming on an upside-down plastic tray. Then she added the traditional reassurance that the marriage had more or less ended amicably: “She’s alive, and so is her ex.”
Mrs. Jeilaniy giggled and looked at her phone. She was busy posting henna photos on Snapchat – the modern version of a divorce announcement.
Divorce is considered shameful in many cultures and carries a deep stigma. But in Mauritania it is not only normal, but even seen as a reason to celebrate and spread the word that the woman is available again for marriage. For centuries, women have gathered to eat, sing and dance at each other’s divorce parties. Now the custom is being updated for the selfie generation, with inscribed pies and social media montages, as well as the traditional food and music.
Divorce is common in this almost 100 percent Muslim country; many people have lived through five to ten marriages, and some as many as twenty.
Some scholars say the country has the highest divorce rate in the world, though there is little reliable data from Mauritania, in part because divorce agreements there are often oral and undocumented.
According to Nejwa El Kettab, a sociologist who studies women in Mauritanian society, divorce is so common in the country, in part because the majority of the Maure community inherited strong “matriarchal tendencies” from their Berber ancestors. Divorce parties were a way for the country’s nomadic communities to spread the status of a woman. Compared to other Muslim countries, women in Mauritania are quite free, she said, and can even pursue what she called a “marital career.”
“A young divorced woman is not a problem,” Ms El Kettab said, adding that divorced women were seen as experienced and therefore desirable. “Divorce can even increase the value of women.”
As Mrs. Jeilaniy carefully rearranged her melafha — a long cloth wrapped around her hair and body, the bright white chosen to emphasize the dark henna — her mother, Salka Bilale, strode across the family courtyard and crossed her arms, posing for photos intended for campaign posters.
Mrs. Bilale was also divorced young, became a pharmacist, and never remarried. Now she’s running to become the first-ever female member of the national legislature for Ouadane, their hilltop town of a few thousand people living in humble stone houses adjoining a 900-year-old ruined city.
Divorce was the reason Mrs. Bilale was able to do all this. She had married young, before she could pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, and divorced when she said she realized her husband was dating other women. Her former husband, who has since passed away, had wanted her back, but she refused, so he cut her off financially, giving her nothing at first and then only $30 a month to raise their five children, she said.
Urgently in need of money, Mrs. Bilale opened a shop and eventually earned enough to put herself through school. Last year a new hospital opened in Ouadane and when she was in her early sixties she finally got a job in the medical sector.
Her daughters’ experience had been very different. Ms. Jeilaniy got married much later, at the age of 29, and 28-year-old Zaidouba had so far rejected all marriage offers she had had, preferring to study and take on a series of internships.
Many women find that divorce gives them freedoms they never dreamed of before or during marriage, especially a first marriage. Mauritanians’ openness to divorce – which seems so modern – goes hand in hand with very traditional practices surrounding first marriages. It is common for parents to choose the groom themselves and to marry off daughters when they are still young – more than a third of girls are married by the time they are 18 – leaving the women with little choice in their partners.
When another Ouadane resident, Lakwailia Rweijil, got married for the first time as a teenager, her father held the wedding ceremony without her knowledge and then informed her.
It wasn’t long before she divorced that man. But she’s been married off and on in the more than two decades since.
Ms Rweijil had no choice over any of her six husbands and so she said, “I don’t put people deep in my heart. When they come, they come. When they leave, they leave.”
But she has been able to choose who she wants to divorce. Women can legally file for divorce in Mauritania under certain circumstances, and while it is usually men who technically do so, it is often at the insistence of the woman.
Women are generally given priority over men for custody of any children after a divorce. While men are legally responsible for paying for their children’s maintenance, there is little enforcement and women often bear the financial burden.
Even though many women never plan to divorce, when it does happen, it is easier for them to move on than in many other countries, said Ms El Kettab, the sociologist, because society supports them instead of forcing them. condemn. “They make it so simple, it’s easier to turn the page,” she said.
And one of the ways a woman’s circle shows support is through parties.
Ms. Jeilaniy said she got divorced because her husband was too jealous and sometimes even refused to let her go out. She had to wait three months to finalize the divorce and have her divorce party, an interval necessary to ensure the woman doesn’t get pregnant. If so, the couple usually waits until the child is born.
On the day of her divorce party, Ms. Jeilaniy dabbed foundation on her cheeks and highlighted her dark brows with gold, as she learned from YouTube.
Dressing in a deep indigo melafa, she stepped out the front door and headed for the party hosted by a friend of her mother’s in the living room of her humble stone house.
The women dipped dates in canned cream. They served camel meat and onions with pieces of bread. Then they ate handfuls of rice from a communal bowl and rolled them into balls in their palms as they talked. Little boys crouched and peered through the open windows at the increasingly noisy party, which is at the level of the sandy street in Ouadane.
More women came and the singing began. Women who had been through many divorces and attended many divorce parties sang about love, then about the prophet Mohammed – lilting, rapturous, sometimes mournful desert music, accompanied only by drums and handclaps.
Mauritania, a land of nomads, camels and empty moon-like landscapes, has been called the land of a million poets. And even divorce is poetic.
“There is so much poetry about the seduction of divorced women,” said Elhadj Ould Brahim, a professor of cultural anthropology at Nouakchott University. This is in stark contrast, he stressed, with much of the Muslim world, including Mauritania’s immediate neighbors such as Morocco, where, he said, the social stigma is so strong that “it is death for a woman to divorce “.
Contemporary poetry on the theme of divorce, Mr. Ould Brahim said, is more visual and conveyed through social media.
“Snapchat is the new trench,” he said.
The sisters’ mother arrived and plopped down on the carpet near Ms. Jeilaniy, who had spent much of her party on her phone, texting and posting selfies. The party began to subside.
Mrs. Bilale looked at her oldest daughter. “She’s only interested in marriage and men,” she said. “When I was her age, I was already interested in politics.”
Mrs. Bilale rose from the carpet. If Mrs. Jeilaniy wasn’t using her status as a divorcee to advance her career and build her independence, then Mrs. Bilale would be focusing on her own status. She headed out the door to the kitchen, where she’d been spying on some potential voters for the upcoming election.
“I go to the youth to get votes,” she said.