Sunday, December 14, 2014

On trying to not be an anak derhaka.

(This actually started out as a Facebook post, and then I realised I had more to say)

Even though I was brought up to listen to authority, I now know that a well lived life is more than just being "obedient". As a child, I was told plainly to obey my parents and obey teachers. Presumably, this was to prepare me for life as a wife who should obey her husband. (That didn't go down well, obviously.) Obedience was prized as a mark of a good child and a good student - and in the context of Singapore, a good citizen.

At the root of this was love. We thought that if we obeyed well enough, we would be loved. But then when I was much older I realised that love should not be bartered for obedience, especially in a child. The ideal parent was supposed to be a benevolent dictator: the father and/or mother held power by virtue of being older/bigger/the parent, but s/he was supposed to exercise it with responsibility and kindness towards the child. So everything that the parent asked for was supposed to always be in the child's interest. 

But the saying "absolute power always corrupts absolutely" couldn't be truer in this case. When does this benevolent power stop its reign? According to what I was taught, for girls it was supposed to stop when you got married. Then you were passed over to your husband, who would be your guardian (in other words, for women it never stops).

The last four years have been life-changing for me in many ways. Moving to a new country by accident, getting married (multiple times), giving birth, raising a little boy, and another big life decision in the works. Along the way I have had to make many decisions which were not exactly the most popular ones, and faced a lot of backlash and drama for it. Soul-sucking, but I won't go down without a fight. 

Along the way I've learned strategies to deal with it: explanation, direct resistance and hiding (in that order). Unfortunately, the strategies don't always work out because there's always that cloud of anak derhaka (Malay, lit. unfilial/disobedient child) hanging over your head. At some point, you start to realise that this kind of power and control uses fear woven into cultural stories and myths.

The most important thing I learned is this: the worst thing is, in the name of obedience, to let someone else make decisions for your life that you regret and/or resent. If you want to do something for your life, whether mainstream or offbeat, then do it. Just take responsibility for it - that's good enough for me.

If you do something that someone else wants, and you think it's part of being obedient or a good child or whatever, then learn to own it or leave it. If you don't have the time, the money, or the physical and emotional energy to carry it out, then just don't do it. The martyr mentality really kills me: you do something because it's "the right thing" and then you totally find yourself in a rut or you totally hate it. Or you whine and make everyone else's life hell because your own life is hell. 

I don't want that for myself and I don't want to carry such baggage down to my own children. I don't want to teach them to suffer in the name of blind obedience. I want to teach them to make careful and balanced decisions, consulting me if they feel that I can help. It's my job to cultivate that connection with them so that they feel I can be someone they can turn to. No child is going to come running to their parents for love out of nowhere when the child-parent relationship has always been that of power and control.

I have been told I don't do what I am "asked to do". I have also been told I am "too educated" (a comment reserved exclusively for a woman, though I'm amazed to hear such a thing) because I ask questions and refuse to be bullied into life-changing decisions. 

Thank you, I take these as compliments. My life is more than the sum of other people's ideas. 

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.

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This article was originally published at Aquila Style

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