Fat Arab women: is it really the culture?

It is because of the culture that Arab women are fatter than men, stated The Economist. Not only should they stay indoors, men also like Rubenian women. But it is much more about the misunderstanding that good food is a lot of food, and therefore healthy.

Three large balls of sugar in a small glass of tea is nothing. Every day, meat and rice are on the table, in large bowls and prepared with sunflower oil, always accompanied by the traditional flat bread. Must be washed down with Coca-Cola or any other sweet soda. And for in between, of course, there are the famous Iraqi sweets, from baklava to kleecha with dates.

No wonder obesity is a big problem in Iraq. If you add overweight and obesity together, two out of three Iraqis suffer from it. With major health consequences: cardiovascular diseases and diabetes have become real public diseases.

Worldwide, more women are obese than men: 15 to 11 percent. In the Middle East, it is more than a quarter (26 percent) of women and 16 percent of men.

The news-shy summer was the reason The Economist devoted an article to it. Why are Arab women fatter than men? is the title. With a photo of Iraqi actress Enas Taleb as an example. Because with her “real curves” she would be an Iraqi beauty ideal that women would even try to emulate by taking weight gain pills.

fat shaming

It was an unpleasant surprise for Taleb, she told Newline Magazine’s Rasha al Aqeeda. The 42-year-old actress and talk show host has been working since she was sixteen and feels loved by her audience. She decided to sue the magazine for ‘fat shaming’.

And she’s right, because she doesn’t really fit under the heading of overweight. Nor is she a good example of an article that largely blames culture for women being more likely to be obese than men. Because Arab women mainly live indoors and do not go to work. Has less opportunity to move.

Much of that doesn’t apply to Taleb, who has had her career outside the home for years. For years, she appeared in almost every television series made in Iraq and presented numerous programs. A public life that certainly does not take place indoors.

The Economist did itself a double whammy by initially naming the dirham as the Iraqi currency (instead of the dinar). That error has now disappeared.


On a number of points, however, the anonymous author of the piece is right. I myself have noticed how difficult it is to just go for a walk; there are always young men who stop their car next to you and start talking to you. Now, I don’t have a husband who has a problem with that, but many Iraqi men feel personally attacked (or blame their wives) because of this behavior by their peers. Among other reasons, many men also shop so that their women get even less exercise.

I had the opportunity to pay for a pool at one of the more expensive hotels, but many women in Iraq cannot afford it. At least not now, when the economic situation is worsening throughout Iraq. The wealthier women now have a treadmill or an exercise bike at home, but in the lower class it is as invaluable as a visit to the gym. Which, by the way, has appeared in recent years for men in all shapes, sizes and price ranges, but far less so for women. And mixed sports, that’s out of the question.

And then there is the heat, which only rises. No one goes out for fun, and if necessary in the air-conditioned car. For at least five months of the year, many families’ outings are limited to going to cool malls and maybe sitting outside in a park in the evening.


Equally important to the problem of obesity in Iraq is the lack of knowledge about what food does to your body. I just think of the feast I was allowed to share with his men at a chief’s house. There was a platter of a large turkey with rice and bread, no vegetables or vitamins involved. I was talking to a male colleague who was trying to lose weight by eating only chicken, no lamb or beef. It never occurred to him that it would be better to cut out rice and bread and replace it with vegetables and fruit.

In Iraq, everyone knows the example of the Kurdish leader who was president of Iraq for many years, Jalal Talabani. He was an overweight man who loved good food. His doctors constantly warned him to cut back to no avail. In the end, he had a brain hemorrhage. His favorite recipe was turkey, which he could easily eat whole, so the story went.

Eating a lot is a sport in Iraq. The concept of eating until you feel satisfied has hardly caught on. The overloaded plates are the result of poverty: when there is enough to eat, you eat your fill, because you don’t know when it will happen again. But nowadays there is enough to eat every meal, even if it is just rice and bread.

In the West, we have had a dietary tradition for years. My mother was on the weighing scale daily and tried everything the women’s magazines recommended besides the sherry and bread diet. This is much less the case in the Middle East. A person who is thin is more likely to be seen as unhealthy than someone who is clearly more than a few kilos too much.


It also doesn’t help that hospitality dictates that there is always too much on the table (or the sofa on the floor). And what has made the situation worse is that on top of the fatty diet full of carbohydrates and sugar, fast food has appeared. In the afternoon there is a substantial lunch where possible followed by a nap. And where there used to be a plate of fruit and maybe some sweets in the evening, there is now the home-delivered burger, pizza or something else from the American fast food arsenal.

The Economist tries to blame the fact that more women are overweight primarily on culture. This is partly true: women are less likely to have a job and live more indoors. Boys kick a ball, but girls don’t practice outside. And it has to do in part with what I have already described: the unwanted attention of strange men. That this is indeed a problem was recently illustrated in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Over there a video went around of a couple of girls swimming in the pool of a hotel/restaurant in Barzan, the region where the ruling Barzani family is from. And where people are quite conservative. Girls in swimwear in public, it’s not possible. Soon after, the pool was filled with concrete to prevent the embarrassing incident from happening again. Aib, something that shouldn’t be, remains important in the culture. And often concerns women and their honor.

Therefore, there is much that is not talked about. And that is one of the reasons why the play went the wrong way – and not just the mistakes that were made. The Economist tries to argue that Arab men prefer to see their wives as Rubens painted them. A little fat on the bones, something to hold on to. Whereas I know young men who fell for their wives before marriage because she was so beautiful. And years later they complain that she let herself go and got so fat.


Which actually also indicates how difficult it is to eat Iraqi food and still stay slim. I hear from everyone who has been in Iraq for a few weeks that he or she has gained weight. I survived my twelve years in Iraq without much extra weight by occasionally enjoying tasty and plentiful Kurdish and Iraqi meals, but above all by eating healthily at home.

It is a solution that has partly already found acceptance among the younger and wealthier generation, because the message about a healthy lifestyle has reached them. But many Iraqi women are mainly concerned with the question of how they can still put enough on the table each day in the face of ever-increasing poverty and unemployment and economic malaise. And for them, eating healthy equals a full stomach.

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