Zeinab weighs 120 kg. This 60-year-old, dressed in an abbaya (a long black dress), washes vegetables in a Baghdad restaurant for 20,000 dirhams ($13.70) a day. In fact, she doesn’t have the means to prepare a full meal for her family, she survives thanks to the “leftovers from the restaurant” that her boss offers her. And “it’s mostly fatty food,” she laments. But is that the real reason he’s overweight?
In the Middle East and North Africa, 26% of women are obese compared to 16% of men. While the disease affects an average of 15% of women and 11% of men worldwide, the gender gap varies greatly by region. The Economist reports an even more surprising number: in 2019, eight Arab countries were among the 11 countries with the highest incidence of female deaths from obesity — such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
A person is overweight if their body mass index (BMI) is 30 or more, which is usually due to an unbalanced diet or lack of exercise. Only a healthy lifestyle, interrupted by outdoor physical activities such as work or study, can prevent this risk. According to the British newspaper, women are only forced to stay at home because of the behavior of men in public spaces.
In Iraq, as in other Arab countries, young girls and boys up to puberty can play football together on the street. “We don’t like it when the girls are outside,” said a sweaty Iraqi who plays ball four times a week but categorically refuses to let his sister do so. For them it is the “home treadmill”.
Going out sometimes means risking your life
Even worse. Street harassment discourages jogging or walking on the streets in countries like Iraq or Saudi Arabia. “When I walk my dogs, I have to turn on music so I don’t hear the insults,” says one Iraqi woman. Excursions are limited to walks in air-conditioned shopping centers. And the few gyms that are reserved for women are mostly found in big cities.
The world of work is also hostile and puts the brakes on ambitions. According to the World Bank, only a fifth of women in Arab countries are in paid employment. In Iraq it is only one in ten. Thus, none of Zineb’s four daughters works. They also risk gaining weight, but their mother prefers the family to remain in precarious circumstances rather than risk “men harassing them at work”.
Rashid is another obese Iraqi housewife. She wants to lose weight, but her husband “doesn’t like the idea of her dieting, he’s afraid he’ll end up with a piece of wood in his bed.” According to the British magazine, Iraqis often cite “Enas Taleb, an actress with voluptuous curves, as the ideal of beauty”. A norm that is also a source of unhealthy neglect for women.