The Mauritanian government made history by appointing a woman, Naha Mint Hamdi Ould Mouknass, to the post of Foreign Minister. Ms. Bint Ould Mouknass is the first woman to hold the post in any Arabic-speaking country; she is joined by five other female appointees in General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s government.
Her background is straightforward enough. The eldest daughter a wealthy northern businessman-cum-Foreign Minister, from the Elguera’a tribe, she served as an MP from Nouadhibou on the Foreign Relations Commission. In the earlier part of the decade she was an advisor to Ould Taya. Circa 2000, she has been head of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès (UDP), supporting Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi in 2007 but following with the exodus of ex-supporters in June 2008, helping to accelerate the downfall of his government. THe UDP supported Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz in the most recent polls and her appointment can be seen as at least partially the result of this track record.
Her appointment is at once clever and utilitarian: Bint Mouknass’s appointment, like that of her predecessor, is an attempt to appeal to outside audiences with a fresh and “soft” face. The General is also offering spoils to his supporters (more on this later, but be aware that she is strongly favored by Libya). It also puts a wedge between the new government and the Islamist movement, whose policy it co-opted prior to (and during, mind you) the presidential election (e.g., Israel), it is thought to be politically beneficial to act contra the movement’s ideology, thereby clearly distinguishing himself from it, especially in light of his efforts to “fight terrorism,” though this was surely thought up well before last week’s suicide bombing (and likely without their possibility in mind).
Some will have none of it. The imam of Nouakchott’s number two mosque denounced her appointment by means of scripture and hadith. Imam Ahmedou Ould Habiboullah Ould Lemrabott described a woman’s proper place is “in the house, in service of her husband and family”. He spent fifty minutes on this, according to al-Akhbar. Taqadoumy also writes that Lemrabott quoted verses stating that women should not travel without their spouses or close male relatives, an invocation which would make Ms. Ould Moukness’s job rather difficult at even a theoretical level: She is after all, not married. (Taqadoumy also has the editorial from La Tribune‘s sharp editorial on the matter.)
What should be said is that Mauritanian Salafists — and it is safe to call Imam Lemrabott a Salafist — are none too pleased with the high relatively high ratio of women in the new government and are making a point of it. There is nuance, though. Abdellahi Ould Boyé, a more seasoned sheikh, president of the World Muslim Congress and former minister under Mokhtar Ould Daddah now living in Saudi Arabia, told ech-Chaab (a government paper) that appointing women to high posts in order to “appeal to others” or for any other reason beyond their personal qualifications is “hypocrisy” and in violation of the shari’ah. (“تعيين المرأة في بعض المناصب محاباة للغير وليس على أساس الكفاءة قد يكون نوعاً من الرياء في الديمقراطية”). Here Lemrabott’s criticism is not so conditional; He is opposed to women in office as a matter of principle. Note, though, that Lemrabott supported Ould Abdel Aziz after the coup and during the recent elections, imploring “Muslims” to vote for him. Lemrabott’s support for Ould Abdel Aziz is not peculiar; Islamists in Mauritania historically supported whomever was in control; It was only until the waning days of the Ould Taya regime that they found themselves in the “opposition” having till then been eager court theologians.
This view is quite controversial in Mauritania, where women have seats reserved in parliament and women are traditionally strong figures in society, often carrying on with greater social freedoms than their northern and eastern Arab sisters. Tawassoul (the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood) has little to say, and one might assume their agreement as a result (despite the prominence of women in their campaign advertisements). It further represents a rejection of all six female ministers on the part of what might be called “movement Islamists” (as opposed to political or government Islamists (e.g. Tawassoul), to borrow framing from the American context), to set themselves apart from Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz’s government on less moveable theological grounds than was the case with their anti-Israel positioning.