The role of first ladies around the globe is changing. The position is increasingly being recognized as a powerful platform for change in a nation, especially where women and children are concerned. A first lady’s stance on topics that affect a nation, their roles as wives and mothers, and their fashion sense are scrutinized by the media on a grander scale nowadays.
The African continent is no different. The roles of first ladies are growing and evolving, some former and incumbent African first ladies are bigger than the real forces that rule the nations; others are big spenders and extravagant fashion icons. However, many first ladies are still “silent” and not very much engaged with the nation. Some also still lack both media and internet presence. Mauritania’s first lady, Lady Tekber Mint Melainine Ould Ahmed, can be classified as a “silent first lady.” And where silence is concerned, there seems to be different levels of silence. There are those who are never seen or heard of in public. Others are seen, but not engaged or heard from. And yet still, many are seen and very actively engaged in “first lady” activities, but are not heard from. Lady Tekber Ould Ahmed falls in the latter. Last year, she attended a meeting of West and Central Africa’s first ladies on discussions of maternal mortality and neonatal morbidity. She also celebrated the Bastille Day Military Parade, in France, with other African first ladies. These might indicate that she is somewhat involved in the issues that concern the women of Mauritania or it could be an indication that she is attending meetings and conferences like other first ladies because it is a nice and open gesture, but really effects no change.
Several factors prevent first ladies from being engaged in a nation. Many are obstructed from view because their countries do not recognize the position of first lady. Others are prevented from engaging because of culture, religion or the ascribed role of women in a society. An uneducated first lady is also prone to stay away from national issues and open discussions and activities. In other cases, a president who practices polygamy might have a plethora of wives who are kept out of the public.
The rationales are endless, but regardless of whatever factors play into the activity or inactivity of a first lady, the case for Lady Tekber Ould Ahmed is puzzling at best. She is well educated, and she is said to be the only wife of Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. It is equally puzzling that a lot more is said about her very public predecessor, Khatou Mint El Boukhari, a woman accused of introducing the Hillary Clinton-style-first-lady to a country where wives of powerful men tend to keep out of the limelight. Perhaps the backlash against Lady Tekber Ould Ahmed’s predecessor accounts for her silence.
A huge onslaught of criticism followed the reign of Khatou Mint El Boukhari, whose husband was the first democratically elected president of the nation, but was overthrown in a military coup in 2008. For a country, where women are essentially not recognized, her outspokenness, involvement in politics and reported arrogance were not very well received across the nation of Mauritania. One would argue that the former first lady was an anomaly in Mauritania, but, was her “misconduct” amplified because her society is one where women with magnanimous and go-getter personalities are yet to find appreciation among the public? Current president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz rose to power through a military coup, maybe his wife is better off in the background attending functions.
It is, however, pertinent to note that the lack of media and internet presence does not necessarily mean a first lady is silent and not engaged. Nonetheless, the 21st century is powered by the internet and social media, and an everyday person can find accurate information about him/herself on a search engine. This leaves us to ask why a first lady and woman married to a powerful man like Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is nowhere to be found. We do not have answers to all these questions, but it is time that first ladies, whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or in the Americas, are given a chance to be active. If nothing else, their positions should be utilized to bring change for women, especially in nations where women are relegated to secondary roles.