African Women’s Lives: Fatimata M’Baye
Fatimata M’Baye is a human rights lawyer, co-founder of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH) and vice-president of the NGO International Federation for Human Rights (Fedération internationale des droits de l’homme, FIDH).
M’Baye was born in 1957. She was initially not allowed to get an education because of her grandmother, however, her mother, who felt that her daughter was intellectually gifted, fought for her daughter to be allowed formal education. M’Baye was finally allowed to go to school when she was 11 years old, she graduated from high school at age 25. In 1985, after completing her law studies at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, Fatimata M’Baye became the first female lawyer in the country. M’Baye was first arrested for her activism in 1986, when she, along with her 14 year old sister, were arrested for distributing flyers protesting the arrests of Black Mauritanian Intellectuals who had written about the Mauritanian State’s racism against Blacks. She would be arrested again in 1998, along with fellow Mauritanian Human Rights activists, after a report on slavery in Mauritania was aired on French Television. After protests locally and outrage internationally from organizations like Amnesty International, M’Baye and the activists were pardoned by the Mauritanian President at the time, Ould Taya.
In 1991, she co-founded the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH). In 1999, M’Baye became the first African to win the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. This award, created in 1995, is given out in the City of Nuremberg, Germany.
Over her career, she has defended fellow human rights activists, women wrongfully convicted under Mauritania’s “Sharia” laws, and has been an advocate for the rights of children and the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Although her activism has focused on conditions in Mauritania, she has also challenged police brutality against Mauritanian migrants in France.
She is a mother of three, divorced, and currently living in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Fatimata M’Baye’s defense of Rape Victims in Mauritania
M’Baye’s work came to international attention when she was spotlighted in the 2008 documentary, Mauritania: A Question of Rape. This documentary was part of BBC’s Series Women on the Frontline. The Series, introduced by Annie Lennox and shot by all-women crews in Mauritania, Nepal, Morocco, Austria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia, documents the personal stories of women’s rights activists.
The film documents the plight of women who come forward with accusations of rape and are then convicted of zina, sexual immorality, because this is a crime under “Sharia” “Islamic” Laws. Part of the problem is that within Mauritania’s Penal Code, based on a cultural interpretation not an Islamic one, a distinction which unfortunately is not made in the film, pregnancy cannot result from rape, therefore if a woman coming forward with an accusation of rape is pregnant as a result of that rape, she is accused of zina because it is believed that she could not have become pregnant without her consent. This is a truly hopeless situation. As M’Baye states in the film:
We want more than we now have, we want a law that protects us. When a woman has been a victim of rape, when she has lost her honor, when she has lost her future, and when she has no hope left to continue to live, it is the state’s responsibility to protect her.
Fatimata M’Baye and Police Brutality in France
According to a 2009 Amnesty International report on police brutality in France:
On 11 March 2008 she was arrested and held in police custody for 24 hours after protesting at what she considered to be ill-treatment by police officers of a Mauritanian migrant being forcibly expelled on the flight she was travelling on. During the period she spent in custody she states that she was subjected to degrading treatment.
On 11 March 2008 Fatimata M’Baye boarded Air France flight 765 at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, bound for Nouakchott, Mauritania. She noticed several police officers on board but did not consider it unusual until she and the other passengers heard sounds of a man in distress from the back of the plane, who shouted “Help me! Untie me! They’re going to kill me!”. She says she saw a young man who had his arms strapped to his body with a belt, and was being forcibly restrained by border control police officers who were trying to silence him. Fatimata M’Baye and another passenger, a doctor, called on the police officers to untie him and protested that they were treating him in an inhuman and degrading manner.
The flight captain told the police officers to untie the young man as this was forbidden during flights. They refused to do so, so he ordered them to disembark. The passengers applauded this action. A few minutes later approximately 20 more police officers boarded the plane and one told Fatimata M’Baye and the doctor to disembark. Fatimata M’Baye said she would not leave the plane until she was told on what grounds she was being ordered to do so. She says the police officer told her “we have ways to make you do so”, and in response to what she perceived as a threat of physical violence, she disembarked.
Fatimata M’Baye was taken into police custody at the airport, where she was stripsearched. At around 6pm she was told that she had been arrested for “opposing a forcible expulsion” and would be held in custody for 48 hours. At 11.30pm she was taken to a detention cell in a different part of the airport. She was stripsearched again and, while naked, told to “spread her legs” so the officers could check that she was “not hiding anything”. She was deeply humiliated by this procedure which appeared entirely unnecessary as she had already been searched when she entered custody. She protested to the two police officers present and the search was finally halted.
Fatimata M’Baye remained in custody overnight and the public prosecutor was informed of her detention. However, she was released the following day at approximately 3pm and the public prosecutor did not pursue any charges against her. The doctor who had also protested about the treatment of the migrant being forcibly expelled, and had likewise been detained, was also released around the same time. He states he was never informed of the reason for his detention.
No further information is available on the fate of the young man being expelled. According to Fatimata M’Baye’s understanding, he was returned to Mauritania on the next flight.
A video interview, in French, with M’Baye about this case is available online.
Fatimata M’Baye and the Forced Fattening of Female Children in Mauritania
On Oprah Winfrey’s show about Beauty Around the World, the fact that in Mauritania a woman being fat is considered beautiful was discussed, and the fact that some women were being forced fed, particularly in rural communities was addressed. The practice of fattening young girls in preparation for marriage is called leblouh. According to M’Baye, as quoted in a 2009 Guardian article:
The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful. The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl’s thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process.”
“If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30.”
M’Baye asserts in the article that the fattening process is linked with early marriages, as young girls are plumped up, so that they look more mature and therefore can marry younger. She states:
I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.
Portrait of Human Rights Activist Fatimata M’Baye 1999 Amnesty International article available in German online
Mauritania: Serious Attacks on Freedom of Expression and Association 1998 Amnesty International document available online
Mauritania: A Question of Rape video available online
2008 Video Interview with M’Baye in French available online
Girls being force-fed for marriage 2009 Guardian article available online
Human Rights Issues in Mauritania
Fighting Slavery in Mauritania BBC Radio Documentary available online
Mauritania’s Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans 1994 Human Rights Watch Report available online