The henna artist bends over his client’s hand, glancing at his smartphone for precise details of the pattern chosen by his customer, a young woman living in an ancient desert town in the West African country of Mauritania.
Under the bright moonlight, the young woman, Iselekhe Jeilaniy, sits carefully on a mat, careful not to wash off the wet henna on her skin, as she did on the night of her wedding day.
But he is not married. He’s getting a divorce. The next day was her divorce party.
“Your attention, married woman – my daughter Iselekhe is divorced now!” Ibu Jeilaniy called out to the townspeople, kowtowed three times and banged a plastic tray upside down. Then he added the traditional assurance that the marriage had ended more or less amicably: “He’s still alive, and so is his ex.”
Ms Jeilaniy giggled, looking at her phone. He’s been busy posting girlfriend pictures on Snapchat – the modern day version of a divorce announcement.
Divorce in many cultures is considered shameful and carries a deep stigma. But in Mauritania, it’s not only normal, but even seen as a reason to celebrate and spread the word that the woman is available once again for marriage. For centuries, women have gathered to eat, sing, and dance at parties to divorce one another. Now, the custom is being renewed for the selfie generation, with inscribed cakes and social media montages, as well as traditional food and music.
In this almost 100 percent Muslim country, divorce is common; many people have been through five to 10 marriages, and some as many as 20.
Some scholars say the country has the highest divorce rate in the world, although there is little reliable data from Mauritania, partly because divorce agreements are often oral, undocumented.
Divorce in the country is very common, according to Nejwa El Kettab, a sociologist who studies women in Mauritanian society, partly because the majority moors the community inherited a strong “matriarchal tendency” from their Berber ancestors. Divorce parties are a way for the country’s nomadic communities to spread news about the status of women. Compared to other Muslim countries, women in Mauritania are quite free, she says, and can even pursue what she calls “matrimonial careers.”
“Young women getting divorced is not a problem,” said Ms. El Kettab, adds that divorced women are considered experienced and therefore desirable. “Divorce can even increase a woman’s value.”
When Ms. Jeilaniy carefully rearranged her melafha – a long cloth wrapped around her hair and body, bright white chosen to highlight dark henna – her mother, Salka Bilale, struts across the family yard and crosses her arms, posing for a photo intended for a campaign poster.
Bilale’s mother also divorced young, became a pharmacist and never remarried. Now, she’s running for the first female national legislature for Ouadane, their hilltop town of a few thousand people living in modest stone houses bordering 900-year-old city ruins.
Divorce is the reason Ms. Bilale can do all of this. She had married young, before she could pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, and was divorced when she said she realized her husband was dating another woman. Her ex-husband, who had died, wanted her back, but she refused, so she cut his finances, initially giving him nothing, and then only $30 a month to raise their five children, she said.
Desperate for money, Ms. Bilale opened a shop, and eventually made enough money to send herself to school. Last year, a new hospital opened in Ouadane, and in his early 60s, he finally got a job in the medical field.
Her daughter’s experience was very different. Jeilaniy’s mother married much later, at the age of 29, and 28-year-old Zaidouba has, so far, turned down all the offers of marriage he had, preferring instead to study and undertake a series of apprenticeships.
Many women find that divorce gives them freedom they never dreamed of before or during marriage, especially first marriages. Mauritanians’ openness to divorce—which seems very modern—coexists with the very traditional practice surrounding first marriage. It is common for parents to choose grooms themselves and marry off daughters when they are young – more than a third of girls marry by the time they are 18 – leaving women little choice in their mates.
When another Ouadane resident, Lakwailia Rweijil, married for the first time as a teenager, her father held the wedding ceremony without her knowledge, and then informed her.
Not long after that she divorced her husband. But he has married many times in the more than two decades since.
Ms. Rweijil had no choice between any of her six husbands, and as a result, she said: “I don’t place people deep in my heart. When they come, they come. When they go, they go.”
But she can already choose whom to divorce. Women can legally initiate divorce in Mauritania under certain circumstances, and although it is usually men who technically do so, it is often at the insistence of women.
Women usually get priority over men for child custody after a divorce. Although men are legally responsible for paying for the maintenance of their children, there is little enforcement of the law and women often end up bearing the financial burden.
While many women never plan to divorce, when they do, it’s easier for them to move than in many other countries, says sociologist Ms. El Kettab, because society supports them rather than condemns them. “They made it very simple, easier to turn the page,” he said.
And one of the ways women’s circles show that support is through parties.
Jeilaniy’s mother said she divorced because her husband was too jealous, sometimes even refusing to let her go. He had to wait three months to finalize the divorce and throw his divorce party, a necessary break to ensure that the woman was not pregnant. If so, the couple usually waits until the child is born.
On the day of her divorce party, Ms. Jeilaniy smeared foundation on her cheeks and accentuated her dark brows with gold, as she learned from YouTube.
Wrapping herself in a deep indigo melafha, she stepped out the front door and headed off to the party, which was hosted by a friend of her mother’s in the living room of her humble stone house.
Women dip dates in canned cream. They scooped up camel meat and onions with a piece of bread. Then they ate handfuls of rice from a common plate, rolling it into balls in their palms while talking. Little boys crouched and peeked at the growing boisterous party through open windows, the one in Ouadane is at sandy street level.
More women came, and the singing started. Women who have known many divorces and attended many divorce parties sing about love, and then about the Prophet Muhammad – lilting, floating, sometimes sad desert music, accompanied only by drums and clapping.
Mauritania, the land of wanderers, camels and blank landscapes like the moon, is sometimes 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, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Nouakchott. This stands in stark contrast, he said, to much of the Muslim world, including Mauritania’s close neighbors like Morocco, where, he said, the social stigma is so strong that “to divorce a woman is death.”
Poetry with the theme of divorce nowadays, said Mr. Ould Brahim, is more visual in nature and is conveyed through social media.
“Snapchat is the new invitation,” he said.
The sisters’ mother arrived and sat down on the rug near Ms. Jeilaniy, who spent most of her party on her cell phone, texting and posting selfies. The party started winding down.
Bilale’s mother looked at her eldest daughter. “She was only interested in marriage and men,” he said. “When I was his age, I was already interested in politics.”
Bilale’s mother got up from the carpet. If Ibu Jeilaniy does not use her status as a divorcee to further her career and build her independence, then Ibu Bilale will concentrate on using her own status. He headed out the door into the kitchen, where he had been spying on some of the potential voters for the upcoming election.
“I’m going to young people to get a vote,” he said.