An article on female obesity caused a stir in the Arab world

The Economist article that opened the controversy

For Enas Taleb, the headline was like a insult. I was asking: “Why are women more obese than men in the Arab world”, and it was accompanied by a photo of an Iraqi actress waving to the audience at an arts festival.

the article of The Economist analyzed a series of possible explanations for the 10 percentage point gap between obesity rates for men and women in the Middle East and then pointed out that many Iraqis regard Taleb’s curves as an ideal of beauty.

The chronicle repeated several times the word fatwhich is taboo in much of the Western media.

The reactions were immediate on social networks. Twitter users described the article as misogynistic. Some organizations do denounced. Several writers were shocked at what they considered degrading stereotypes of Arab women.

Several women rollerblading in Port Said, Egypt (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Several women rollerblading in Port Said, Egypt (REUTERS / Amr Abdallah Dalsh) (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH /)

Taleb, who is 42, said that is suing the London magazine for libel.

Although analysts admit that there is an obesity epidemic in the arab world, related to poverty and gender discriminationthe case of Taleb and the commotion that arose bring to the fore the issue of teasing for a person’s physique, deeply rooted in the region and about which very little is said.

“If there is a student who goes to school and hears hurtful things and her classmates bully her for being fat, how will she feel?”Taleb asked in an interview with the agency AP from Baghdad. “This article is a insult not only towards me. It is also a violation of the rights of all Iraqi and Arab women.”

The article said that in the middle east prefer fleshy women, which may explain why there is so much obesity. But the angry reactions caused by the chronicle and Taleb’s discomfort when he saw that a photo of him illustrated a note on the obesity of Arab women it contradicts the general belief that fatness is considered a sign of wealth and fertility in the region.

Women in Lebanon
Women in Lebanon

The globalization of Western beauty ideals through television, advertising and social networks gave way to unrealistic parameters who ignore the expectations of themselves that women and others have in the Arab world, according to several studies.

In a forthcoming report on Egypt, Joan Costa-Font of the London School of Economics says she found that while some older rural women continue to see plump women as affluent, “In Egypt it is not true that being overweight is a sign of beauty. Western patterns take precedence.”

The demand for cosmetic surgeries skyrocketed in Lebanon. Some 75% of Emirati female students say they are dissatisfied with their bodies and 25% tend to suffer from eating disorders, according to a 2010 study by Dubai Zayed University.

Despite everything, many say, teasing for excess kilos is still frequent, and even accepted, in the region, compared to what happens in Europe and the United States, where self-esteem movements encourage the acceptance of obesity.

Iraqi women wear face masks while looking at books in Baghdad (REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily)
Iraqi women wear masks while looking at books in Baghdad (REUTERS / Khalid al-Mousily) (KHALID AL-MOUSILY /)

“Our politicians in Lebanon keep making these horrible, sexist comments about women’s bodies,” said Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author and human rights defender.

Haddad argued that when women raise their voice, the patriarchal society of Lebanon responds with “reactionary speeches and unrest”. She added that even innocent comments about a woman’s weight can be very painful for young people battling insecurity and a pathological need to change their bodies to look prettier.

“I am an annoying, hardened, 51-year-old feminist, and yet I weigh myself every day,” Haddad said. “Can you imagine how hard this is for the less privileged people.”

Ameni Esseibi, a Tunisian woman who has overcome social stigmas and is one of the first models of clothing for obese women, He said that body positivity remains taboo in the Middle East even as the population gains weight.

Enas Taleb
Enas Taleb, Iraqi actress (Ammar Albadri/AP) (Ammar Albadri/)

Esseibi stated that in “a very judgmental society” like the Middle East, “women are not taught to be confident. We always want to be slim, attractive, marry the most powerful man.”

He indicated, however, that women are beginning to become aware of and express their discomfort at being teased on social media.

The notion that the men “lock the women in the house” so that they remain “Rubenesque”, expressed in the article The Economist, put his finger on the sore spot.

Baghdad’s Heya (Ella) Foundation said the article was a form of “bullying” and demanded an apology for Taleb.

Malaysia’s Musawah Foundation, which promotes equality in the Arab world, said The discomfort generated by the article reveals that “the women of the region are developing a collective position that rejects racism, denounces sexism, as well as fat-phobic expressions and their colonial legacy.”

Taleb, a talk show host and star of hit TV shows, said she felt compelled to speak out. “They used my photo in a harmful context, in a negative way,” declared. “I am against the use of the body to fix the value of a human being.”

A couple shopping in Baghdad, Iraq (REUTERS/Teba Sadiq)
A couple shopping in Baghdad, Iraq (REUTERS / Teba Sadiq) (TEBA SADIQ /)

Taleb said he hoped her defamation suit encourages women to say “I love myself, I am strong and I can cope with these difficulties”.

It is a strong message in a region where lWomen are always the losers, attached to tradition, with discriminatory laws and salary disparitiesin addition to rigid standards of beauty, which conspire against the progress of women.

(By Isabel Debre and Maggie Hyde)

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