Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rushing for Morocco’s “liquid gold”? Here’s how to get the best argan oil

Estée Lauder. Dove. L’Oréal. These brands have marketed a series of products containing argan oil, rich in vitamins E and C and often touted as a “wonder oil” to cure everything from split ends to acne. Unfortunately, these products usually contain only small amounts of argan oil.

Such advertising is often misleading since these products often contain much more of other ingredients that make hair feel smooth, such as silicones. I believe there are better forms of argan oil products, and better ways to obtain them.

“Liquid gold”

Argan oil has a strong but refined odour: a perfume that can be described as somewhere in between toasted hazelnut, almond, and sesame. In terms of appearance, it is a rich golden-brown colour with highlights of amber. Outside of Morocco, where it has been a traditional food of Berber communities for centuries, not many people know that argan oil also has precious nutritional properties.

According to various scientific studies, the nutritional and dietary properties of argan oil are superior to those of extra virgin olive oil. Argan oil consists of 80 percent unsaturated fat, just like olive oil, but has more essential linoleic fatty acids (omega-6) with an anti-inflammatory effect that helps our joints, circulation and immune system, plus it supposedly aids in fertility, too. There is also preliminary evidence that it can increase insulin sensitivity and therefore, it may have an anti-diabetic effect.[i]

Edible argan oil (pressed from toasted kernels) enhances the flavour of dishes like tagines, couscous, salad dressings, roasted vegetables and fish. A few drops on a green salad are enough to give a delicious flavour to a dish. But the simplest (and my favourite) way to eat it is as amlou, a mixture of argan oil, nuts and honey poured over a piece of bread, which makes for a nourishing breakfast.

Gold rush?

Also known as louz el-barbary or Berber almonds, the fruits of the argan tree resemble olives on the outside, and almonds on the inside. The traditional and more labour-intensive method of extracting oil from the kernels involves women who dry, de-pulp, break, roast, grind, and knead the final paste.

When bought straight from the source, pure organic argan oil costs around US$200 per litre (but luckily, they are also sold in small bottles at the affordable price of around US$4 to US$8 each). It is pressed from the kernels of the Argania spinosa plant, a thorny and evergreen tree unique to Morocco. It only grows within the Souss plain, a hot and dry 800,000 hectares in the country’s southwest, extending from the coastal city of Essaouira inwards towards the high Atlas mountains.

Since 2002, the growing demand for argan oil outside of Morocco, especially by cosmetic companies, has resulted in the creation and organisation of women’s cooperatives by the government. These cooperatives, set up by individual women, provide employment for Berber women, offer business and literacy training, and the collective revenue helps to drive village development projects and regional tourism.

Over the last decade or so, argan oil was so popular that prices have soared internationally and locally. This rapid price increase was partly due to international demand, and partly due to the reduced supply of fruit from two or three years of drought.

Today, in some areas, traditional methods of preparation have been replaced by modern manufacturing where machines are used to do the tasks, except crushing the nuts (which is still usually done by hand). This new method reduces the labour on women and increases the shelf life of the oil and its purity.

Faced with this international surge in demand, many women cooperatives are equipped with modern extraction equipment and have established organic production and certification processes (such as Ecocert for example), which have allowed them to gain significant access into the international market.

Today, there are more than 150 argan cooperatives all over Morocco, run almost exclusively by women. A number of organisations regulate and confirm the quality and origin of the oil, such as the Moroccan Association of Geographical Indication of Argan Oil (AMIGHA), which fulfils a function similar to the French appellation d’origine contrôllée for cheeses and other agricultural products.

Visiting a cooperative

The Women’s Cooperative of Argan Oil Produced by Women of Taddart is one of the numerous organisations all over the Souss plain. This cooperative was started in 2005 as a way to provide the Berber women in this small mountain town with literacy classes and alternative ways to supplement their family incomes. On a trip to Morocco a few years ago, I had the opportunity to drop by and see how this cooperative worked.

As I entered the small and cosy shop, women busy pounding argan kernels looked up and gave me tired smiles. A middle-aged woman named Aicha, who was managing the sales that day, cheerfully pointed out to me the variety of argan oil products made on-site: edible golden-brown amlou in small clay tagines, cosmetic oils in delicate glass bottles marked with a use-by date, soaps, and shampoos. I asked Aicha to tell me more about this cooperative.

She explained that at first, the men in Taddart were not keen on this organisation of women because they had traditionally been the only breadwinners. They were also sceptical about women working outside of the home. However, with time and increased family incomes, the men became more accepting.

Unfortunately, by trying to grab some of this lucrative income for themselves, Aicha conceded that the argan oil industry in Morocco is facing problems of fake cooperatives, diluted oil, bogus accreditation, and degradation of argan forests.

Fair trade
Should you buy that expensive bottle of argan oil, whether it’s pure or not? As with any product in today’s highly globalised world, one woman’s daily bread is easily another woman’s exclusive hair serum. If you wish to use or consume argan oil, it is best to go straight to a certified organic and fair-trade source such as Tounarouz in Agadir, or find a reliable international supplier like Saadia Organics.

It is important to look at the complex interactions between our consumption and the livelihoods of others, to help balance issues of biodiversity, fair trade and thriving livelihoods.

[i] Samira Samane, Josette Noel, Zoubida Charrouf, Hamid Amarouch and Pierre Selim Haddad, ‘Insulin-sensitising and anti-proliferative effects of Arganisia spinosa seed extracts’, Sep 2006, available here.


This article was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, November 17, 2014

“Camel hump” hijab-shaming reveals more than meets the eye

A few years ago, I was chatting to a friend from university in her dorm room. She was raised in an East African Muslim family, but she didn’t wear hijab and I had no idea of her own religious convictions. We somehow mentioned an Arab hijabi friend in passing, and she remarked that this hijabi wore a bump at the back of her head (which I had always assumed was her ponytail). But according to her, “this is haram”.

Bewildered, I got home and innocently Googled “hijab”, “hump” and “haram”. I had never heard about this ruling taught by any religious teacher (and I’ve had my fair share of them) in the last 20 years. When I used to wear hijab, I found my own ponytail hump a rather useful spot for a pin to stop the entire scarf from moving around my head. Or was this whole hump business just not a big deal in my home region at the time, Southeast Asia?

Needless to say, the internet is full of wonderful things. I came up with fashion tutorial videos on how to do a Khaleeji-style hijab, amateur graphics blanking out faces of women done in Microsoft Paint with arrows pointing to the offending hump, and stern warnings for innocent Muslim(ah)s wondering the same thing as me. And I discovered the hadith that seemed to form the basis for this ruling: women whose heads look like camel humps “will not enter Jannah and they will not smell its fragrance.”[i]

Let’s temporarily put aside the argument that Abu Huraira is not the most reliable of narrators, and that many of the 5,300 hadith he supposedly remembered of the three years he spent in the Prophet’s company are some of the most misogynistic ones you could find in the four main Sunni hadith collection.[ii]

When I wore the hijab growing up in Singapore, a bump at the back of a hijabi’s head was simply a normal hair bun or ponytail. Today, young women use oversized scrunchies or clips resembling flowers to create volume. For brides that choose an “Arab” style outfit, their hijab also includes a characteristic hump as a fashion statement. In Turkey for example, many hijabis have proven resistant to the multitude of new hijab styles; the most popular style for some time has been a colourful silk scarf that is neatly wound around the neck and – yes – a bump at the back. In the Gulf where a large hump is the height of style, women wear it as a fashion statement.

Just like the “jilboobs” phenomenon of shaming women who are not wearing hijab in a style the accuser finds “proper”, finding fault with the way that some women choose to dress is a characteristic feature of patriarchy. In religious patriarchy, a layer of shame works especially well. With the hijab especially, there can always be a reason to shame women into dressing differently; what they wear is never good enough.

A woman wearing modest clothes in the street can be told to wear hijab; a hijabi is told that her outfit is too colourful or too flashy or her hair is showing; a niqabi is flirting with her eyes; and finally, a completely covered woman in public causes fitna, or chaos with simply her presence. I’m not exaggerating. At least once in my life, I have been told one version or another of these reasons for covering up.

While I would raise my own children to follow their own conscience and take responsibility for their actions, I also believe that the attitude of others towards us does leave an impact on our own self-image. Shame is one of the most painful human emotions. If we are told consistently that how we dress is sinful or the space we occupy is unimportant, then we think of ourselves as worthless nobodies. When we speak out against injustice and are told that our points are moot because we haven’t spent X years studying at Y university, then we think that we are disgraced failures.

Young women making fashion tutorials are constantly told that their makeup and hijab styles are unIslamic, while young men are driven to depression because of their tattoos. Instead of pointing out each other’s flaws, let’s aim to see the best in one another. How can we raise strong, self-confident Muslims if there is a constant beating down of their decisions – sartorial or otherwise?

[i] Narrated by Abu Huraira, in Riyad as-Salihin, available here
[ii] Raja Rhouni, Secular and Islamic Feminist Critiques in the Work of Fatima Mernissi, p.220, available here


This article was originally published at Aquila Style


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