Factors that conditioned the role of women in Mauritanian society in the late 1980s included the impact of Islam and sharia (Islamic law); West African influences that allowed women substantial independence in some social and economic areas; economic modernization, which challenged customary behavior patterns in some areas; and Mauritania's rapid pace of urbanization, which subjected traditional nomadic customs to new scrutiny. Many women in such urban centers as Nouakchott, for example, were born in the rural interior of the country and found their childhood training challenged by changing urban social conditions.
Girls' education took place primarily at home and emphasized homemaking skills. Some girls attended Quranic schools, but their training was usually limited to learning verses from the Quran and attaining minimal literacy skills. A mother's responsibility toward her daughter traditionally included instruction in household and family affairs and childrearing. In recent decades, fathers were responsible for financing any formal education for their children, but a father's most important responsibility toward his daughters was to prepare them for marriage, primarily by ensuring their physical attractiveness. In Mauritania, women are considered beautiful if they are moderately to morbidly obese. A widespread practice, in order to maintain this level of obesity, was forced feeding (leblouh). Forced feeding usually involved psychological pressure, rather than physical force, but it often required a family to reserve substantial quantities of food—in most cases, milk--for consumption by its pre-teenage daughters, whose beauty was a measure of a father's commitment to the marriage alliances they would form. Many young women were betrothed or married by the age of eight or ten. Unmarried teenage girls were subjected to severe social criticism.
Divorce was fairly common in Mauritanian society in the 1980s, even among very traditional villagers. A divorced man suffered no social stigma, but a divorced woman could still become an outcast if her family or her former husband's family criticized her behavior. Women traditionally had cared for their homes and worked in limited agricultural pursuits; but by the 1980s, they were beginning to enter professions formerly closed to them, such as commerce, teaching, and a variety of skilled occupations.
By 1985 nearly one-fourth of all girls below the age of eleven attended primary school, a marked increase over enrollment figures just a decade earlier. More women were attending secondary schools and universities, and in 1987 Khadijatou Bint Ahmed, Mauritania's minister of mines and industry, became the nation's first female cabinet official.