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

Watch: ‘Legendary Qariah’ Faridah Mat Saman

Given the unofficial title of qari’ah lagenda or a ‘legendary female Quran reciter’, Faridah Mat Saman participated in Tilawah al-Quran (International Quran Reading Competition) held in Malaysia, over several decades.

She was the overall female champion in 1964, the first year that the competition had a separate category for women. She went on to win in 1965, 1972, 1976, 1977, 1989, 1990, and 1991. Although retired, she made a guest appearance in the 2012 competition as shown in the video below:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

10 telltale signs you’re most probably a Muslim mother

1. You have a book of foolproof baby names.
The Qur’an contains about 30 names for boys, suitable for any parents or in-laws from an Abrahamic faith. There’s only one ready name for a girl, though, so maybe you can consult a book on Islamic history for more ideas.

2. Your healthcare professional is wondering why you’re whispering into your newborn’s ear.
It’s called the adhan, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to hold your newborn babe as soon as he/she is born and let your voice be the first thing he/she hears.

3. You say “alhamdulilah” probably 50 times a day.
If this comes involuntarily out of your mouth every time someone burps, farts or sneezes, then you’ll be doing a lot of this with a baby or several children around.

4. You are expected to put something sweet on your baby’s mouth, make them bald, and sacrifice an animal.
One tradition called tahnik involves placing dates or honey on the lips of a baby within the first seven days of life. Another tradition involves shaving hair of a baby (or the alternative: snip off just seven hairs) after 40 days, weigh it and donate an equivalent amount of gold to charity. Yet another called aqiqa calls for the slaughter of a goat or cow to express gratitude for the birth.

5. Piggy plush toys are a source of discussion.
Imagine this: a well-meaning non-Muslim colleague gives a friendly, furry, stuffed toy pig as a present. You actually have a conversation (with yourself or someone else) about whether it’s okay for your kid to play with it. If you decide it’s okay, you might still have to deal with other Muslims telling you that your child shouldn’t put the toy in his mouth.

6. A discussion about whether it’s okay to let your children see you naked must include fiqh and not just revolve around issues of body-image and self-esteem.
One mother wrote on the internet about how she lets her sons see her real post-baby body so that they grow up with realistic images about women’s bodies, instead of thinking that the airbrushed photos in magazines are real women. I figure that someone that has seen your insides can probably see your outsides without being too shocked. Besides, a discussion about which parts of the mother’s body is visually off limits to her son is way too Oedipal for me.

7. “It’s sunnah” becomes your stock answer for extended breastfeeding.
Even though a minimum of two years of breastfeeding is recommended by the World Health organisation, many in our parents’ generation who were influenced by the aggressive marketing of infant formula companies may try to stop you from breastfeeding your child beyond six months, or up to several years. Luckily if you’re Muslim, you can always say the Qur’an indicates 30 months for pregnancy and breastfeeding (46:15).

8. You have to deal with equal numbers of people telling you that you can or cannot fast while breastfeeding.
Opinions are pretty divided about whether a pregnant and/or breastfeeding mother should or shouldn’t be breastfeeding in Ramadan. Luckily, whether you fast or not is only up to you and your baby. Just listen to your body.

9. You worry that your kid gets ham sandwiches at the day care.
If you live in a non-predominantly Muslim community or country, a ham and cheese sandwich is a totally normal snack. Be sure you let your caregivers know what your child should eat – or pack it along when you drop her off.

10. You feel simultaneously terrified and hopeful about Islamophobia.
Parenting can be the most joyful and the most scary experience of your life. From the moment your children are born, your greatest fear will be losing them. While being Muslim after 9/11 has not been easy, you’re hopeful that your children will be the ones to change the world for the better.


This article was originally published on Aquila Style

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A bath and a bite in Budapest: a sensory jaunt around Hungary’s capital

Szia from Budapest! After about eight hours on the bus from Prague, I’ve arrived here at 5.30am, greeted by snow. As I can only check in to the hostel after 10am, I can’t get into my room yet, so I rest in the common area while waiting for my bed to be ready.

The countries of Eastern Europe are often shrouded in mystery, having been part of the Soviet Union for so many years. However, a city like Budapest is great for backpackers travelling Europe – prices here are generally lower than in Western Europe because of lower average wages.

Buda and Pest

Budapest is made up of two smaller towns that were unified in 1873: the hilly Buda on the west bank and the flat plains of Pest on the east bank, separated by the river Danube. The two sub-cities are connected by the capital’s most famous bridge, the Chain Bridge. I decide that I may need an entire day to explore Buda, so I leave Pest for the next day.

At the top of Castle Hill in Buda is Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace with seven fairytale-like white towers. These towers represent the seven Magyar tribes who settled in this area in 896AD. I discover that, in the Middle Ages, a guild of fishermen was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls. From this location I can get a beautiful view of Pest and Chain Bridge, and for free too!

Fun fact: Chain Bridge was built by William Clark, the same architect who built the Thames Gateway Bridge in London
The next day in Pest I start with an educational visit to the chilling House of Terror on the recommendation of other guests at my hostel. Portraits along the outside walls of the museum serve as a memorial to victims who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in this building, which was previously used by fascist organisations. In this museum, I learn more than I have ever wanted to about the Nazi and Soviet occupations in 20th-century Hungary and, later on, the life of fear that people suffered under the Hungarian Communist Party.

I find it baffling how history repeats itself; how we humans continue to terrorise each other, time and again.

A hot bath… outdoors
The tour of terror has left me high-strung yet low in spirits – I need to unwind. I am searching for the well-known medicinal Széchenyi Baths, and finally locate them in a lush green park. This innocuous-looking park hides underground pipes pumping from two very hot natural thermal springs (74°C and 77°C) to various indoor and outdoor pools.
Outdoor pools at Szechenyi baths. Photo: Nur Febriani Wardi
The indoor pools are about 27°C, while the outdoor ones are as warm as 38°C. Ticket prices vary depending on the time and day of your visit and extras such as a cabin or locker. In general, admission will set you back roughly 4,000 Hungarian forints (US$18) per person.

As I don’t want to be alone, I decide to try the mixed pool. I’m not sure about the dress code, and so I try to enter a pool in a T-shirt and long cotton trousers, fending off comments about my trousers. When I pass through the ladies’ changing room, a woman working there tries to pull my trousers off, insisting that I am not allowed to enter the pool wearing them. After some negotiation, I eventually pass through with knee-length tights.

Later I discover that there is no strict dress code for the pools, although one must wear swimwear in these baths (including tankinis and burkinis). Just make sure you are wearing something made of Lycra, or that at least looks like swimwear, so you won’t raise the ire of the other bathers.

I contemplate dipping into the outdoor pools, but decide against it because it is too cold to run outside in my wet clothes. There are many other people though, hopping in and out of different pools, trying them all. I am feeling rather embarrassed after the changing room incident, but I definitely want to come back here in warmer weather to try the other pools.

[Warning: Waters of the Széchenyi Baths are slightly yellow because of the sulphate content (along with other minerals like calcium and magnesium). Therefore, pregnant women and children are recommended not to spend too much time in them.]

Marks of war

In Pest, I notice that many ordinary and important buildings are still riddled with bullet holes. These marks are a result of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet-backed governments. The failure to hide these marks is probably not an oversight, as it serves to remind Hungarians of the price of freedom. Although both parts of the city bear bitter signs of fascist and dictatorial regimes, they still stand regal – proud of the beautiful and rich history behind their sites and buildings.

A bite of this and a nibble of that
After a good soak and swim, I need to restore myself. At the end of Váci Utca, the main shopping street of Budapest, is the Great Market Hall. This enormous indoor market is filled with two levels of shops. I am absolutely dazzled by the array of things on sale: spices, meat, fresh vegetables, fruit and pastries.

Vaci Utca
I select two food items: lángos and rétes. A popular summer snack, lángosis a deep-fried flat bread sprinkled with grated cheese and sour cream, with an optional rub in garlic. Other toppings include mushrooms, eggplant, cabbage and jam. It was traditionally a breakfast bread baked in the oven at home. However, these days it is fried in oil. Crispy, oily, warm – yummy!

Strudel, a traditional multi-layered fruit pastry, is eaten all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The deliciously sweet and sour rétes, or sour cherry strudel, is one of the ways to use up an abundant harvest of cherries, grown all over Eastern Europe.

When I lived in the Spanish city of Valencia, my Hungarian roommate Andrea once prepared lentil főzelék, a cross between a soup and a stew, usually eaten with bread and a fried egg. Since it is usually a homecooked dish, it is practically impossible to find in upscale restaurants, only in cheap diners. Andrea recommended a self-service diner in Budapest, called the Főzelékfaló Etelbár (address: Nagymező utca 18). I try the lentil főzelék here, but Andrea’s version is definitely better.

I cannot leave the capital without experiencing Budapest’s cafe culture. Walking down Váci Utca, I duck into a small, half-lit cafe decorated with chandeliers. I order strawberry-perfumed tea and spend the rest of the evening contentedly writing postcards.

Lost in my thoughts, I relive the delight of Budapest: the breathtaking views of its remarkable buildings (some with a more powerful history than others), balmy public baths and delectable bites. The past two days are just a taste of what there is to discover in this dignified city that I can’t wait to visit again.


This article was originally published on Aquila Style

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Watch: Beauty in the Middle East on Levant TV

I was approached by Levant TV, a London-based online television company broadcasting news and programmes about the Middle East, to speak about an article I wrote on beauty pageants and whether they can empower or if they ultimately objectify.

The clip of the episode on 'Beauty in the Middle East' under their series 'Forbidden Talk' is available for viewing on YouTube (the entire discussion is really interesting if you can get past the Middle East vs the West, but if you want to skip to my segment it's at the end, around 40:00).


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