Morocco’s Beauty Elixir: Oil and Feminism

Featured Image: The Salé medina is tighter than its Marrakech and Rabat counterparts, but it still offers vibrant, cultural wares. (PC: Clare Wu)


By: Allison Chen


[dropcap]D[/dropcap]eep in the dusty, mountainous Ourika Valley, a Berber woman sits cross-legged, grinding baskets full of argan nuts. Another handful of hijabi women purposefully walk the shop, introducing the array of natural cosmetic products lining the shelves and warmly conversing with customers as they work the cash register. These golden nuts produce gallons of the new “it” beauty ingredient—argan oil—found in shampoos, conditioners, and skincare products around the world. From high-end brands like Josie Maran to Walmart-sold Suave, nearly every cosmetics line has capitalized on this Moroccan oil trend and its supposedly cure-all properties.

However, argan oil has not only improved the beauty routines of millions of women around the world but also provided economic independence to many Moroccan women. Peering into these shops, any viewer may realize that the only workers visible are women. In fact, argan oil is commonly produced in women’s cooperatives—which women own and work in, ultimately splitting the profits amongst themselves.

One of the few employment opportunities for women in rural areas, the argan oil cooperatives provide a method of gaining economic independence in this conservative, Muslim country. While Morocco has proven increasingly more progressive towards gender roles within the past decade, Morocco’s female labor participation rate still stands at 25 percent, according to the 2012 World Bank report, though women comprise 47 percent of Morocco’s tertiary education enrollment.

While women in cities receive more education, the habits of Moroccan society may motivate even highly-educated women to leave the workforce. In rural areas, where progressive ideals of female education have not taken a stronghold, female economic independence is even rarer.

Argan oil cooperatives provide an outlet for Moroccan rural women to gain employment even in more conservative communities.


At night, busy vendors continue to sell food, clothing, and handmade goods (such as cosmetics), in the Jemaa el-Fna square. (PC: Gabriel Roy)


Cooperative Marjana is an argan oil women’s cooperative stationed in the sandy, windy Essaouira—Morocco’s beach city where the first women’s argan oil cooperative began. Hind, who chose to keep her last name anonymous, a saleswoman at the Cooperative Marjana outlet in the Ourika Valley, explains that some men in her community were originally hesitant about the idea. However, she notes that a shift occurred after a few years of women running the cooperatives.

“First, we had a problem because the men don’t need the women leaving home,” Hind begins, “but when men saw the ladies working, knowing more things, and having money, it’s okay—accepted. Now they let women work, and they wouldn’t have before.”

While city women may receive more schooling, the lack of employment opportunities within the more traditional communities limits the care and assistance that women can offer their children. Hind emphasizes that the women leading the expansion of cooperatives wanted expansion to occur in places where women had much fewer opportunities. After all, women could not send their children to school when their husbands did not make enough, and these women did not have employment opportunities.

These cooperatives not only raise female employment but also grant a degree of economic independence from men. The authentic not-for-tourism cooperatives, which offer fair prices for their products, are owned only by women, and the profits are divided evenly, while the cooperative takes some for utilities. Especially in Aggadir and Essaouira, women extract kernels from the argan tree by hand. The women proceed to throw away the shell and fire the kernels to remove the oil from the nuts. The end product will eventually find itself on the shelves of local argan oil beauty shops, international cosmetics chains or grocery stores.


The Yacout Coopérative sells an array of argan oil products by the Rabat beach.


One of the local beauty shops in Rabat is L’Arbre de Vie, a bustling beauty shop nestled in the blue-walled portion of Rabat’s Rue des Consuls. sells exclusively argan oil beauty products. Naima, one of the shop’s workers explains that women specialize in every part of argan oil production within these cooperatives. They “pick it out of the trees themselves, get the oil out of the fruit, and either make the product themselves or sell the oil to other companies that manufacture them, where they are tested by labs, etc.” According to her, most of the local shops within Rabat use the oil made within women’s cooperatives. In fact, many of the shops, like L’Arbre de Vie, within the Rabat medinas like Rue des Consuls— named for the ambassadors and consuls that once lived there —claim their argan oil comes from the cooperatives in Agadir and Essaouira, where the argan tree is indigenous.

However, the creation of women’s cooperatives stems largely from tradition. The women in Cooperative Amal Ourika des prouits agricoles STI FADMA, a popular shop for foreigners exploring the Ourika Valley,  explain that argan oil has always been produced by Berber women—not men. In fact, argan oil began as a common beauty ingredient for the Berber population—a racial minority group within Morocco. Due to mere tradition, producing argan oil is nearly an exclusively woman’s work in Morocco, which allows women to thrive in this industry, especially women in rural areas–where tradition is even more important.

Hadijja, a Berber woman who works at the cooperative explains that her cooperative, which is on the smaller side, currently employs four female laborers. They collectively produce one liter of argan oil a day. Bigger cooperatives employ twenty or more women. She notes that the other employment opportunities available to her would have been “to help the husband with washing cows—all things related to domestic work,” which is why the argan oil cooperatives were so attractive to her.

Since many of the cooperatives are not owned by men or allow employment separation from their spouses, the women also have their own spending money.

“They’re grateful to have money that they can make for themselves and be independent,” explains Hind. Cooperative Marjana allows a large degree of freedom. Women can come and go as they please, since they are not bound to work in the cooperative. Hind describes the typical workday as four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon.

These cooperatives allow women to earn their own income, even within the more conservative Moroccan communities. In fact, Nabil Belkabir, the leader of Tlila, an underground leftist movement located in Rabat, explains that Morocco adheres strongly to its Muslim teachings, including the more conservative principles for women. He explains, “women are discriminated by the system for economic employment,” commonly through de facto discrimination. While no laws truly prohibit women from seeking employment, traditional expectations may pull them away. Mohamed Tageddine, an international policy lawyer and Moroccan delegate, notes that even in more progressive cities, women have started to go through higher education at larger numbers, yet still leave employment after only a few years in the workforce.

Tageddine notes that he knows various women—including his associate’s daughter and family friends who had underwent about twenty years of education, but still left the workforce after marriage or childbirth.

“If there is no really need for the woman to go outside, she will stay inside. A real need. By real need, I mean the salary of her husband is not sufficient to satisfy the principle needs of the family. It’s not the same that happened in the Western countries.”

Although women are still increasingly receiving higher education in Morocco, some resistance still exists in pursuing long-term education. He explains that, “Morocco has no complex concerning the status of women; Morocco’s status of women is actually quite progressive compared to other countries in the region,” yet highlights that hesitance—both for men and women—remains towards the prospect of career women.

Many women in cities, however, have opportunities for employment. Hind Ind Ben Benayad, a female manager at an inner city riad, Riad dar Baddi of Salé, explains that while Morocco holds some opportunities for women’s education and employment for city women like herself, there are much fewer openings for economic independence rurally. She considers the disparity in opportunity relatively large across Moroccan cities.


A female worker at Cooperative Amal Ourika des prouits agricoles STI FADMA, grinds the argan nuts.


“A lot of them don’t have diplomas or certificates of higher education, so they can only work in fields or a coop,” explains Benayad, as she compares their situation to the situation of her peers and herself, where families actually encourage females to study and obtain a job, which is partly how she rose to a leadership position at the riad.

In some cities, the situation is extremely different. “Before, the situation was that women would stay home instead of going to work or receiving education, but now, even when women get married, it’s still very common for them to pursue higher education,” says Benayad. Thus, argan oil coops have allowed women in rural areas to contribute to their local economy and provide outside income.

“Women all want to work; it’s not like before. Everyone has a dream. Everyone wants to work. They want to do something,” starts Benayad. However, a predominant work culture in Morocco entails women’s working for their family rather than themselves.

“You have to realize that women in Morocco are not like women in Europe or America. In Europe or America, women will work just for themselves; in Morocco, they work for their families,” says Benayad.

Even as Moroccan women have more opportunities for employment, the cultural norms make many of their career endeavors family-oriented, a norm that manifests itself more within these traditional, rural communities.

While no laws presently inhibit women from seeking employment, wide disparities exist between the attitudes of the various communities within Morocco regarding a woman’s role in the house and in the economy. Morocco currently has female government officials, yet simultaneously has communities where women are discouraged from basic education.

However, tradition can also help women gain some degree of economic independence, too. With the tradition of Berber women managing nearly all aspects of argan oil production, the dominance of women’s cooperatives for argan oil rose within the industry, granting many women in rural areas of Morocco employment. Now, with the popularity of argan oil as a beauty ingredient within the international cosmetics industry, the opportunities only seem to grow from here.

Argan oil,an ingredient that is marketed as the hot, new beauty elixir and cure-all, also alleviates the gender disparity in Moroccan labor participation. This oil not only globally raises women’s confidence in their image but also gives women more self-determination in Morocco.

And, that may be the beautiful part of this beauty elixir.


Allison Chen is a sophomore in Morse College. You can contact her at