The Politics of Couscous: Can We Preserve Traditions Without Preserving the Patriachy?

Couscous is at the centre of life in North Africa, eaten both as a simple meal of the everyday and as an elaborate feast for celebrations. So integral is its role that some refer to it simply as ta'am - food. In December 2020, the customs associated with it in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia were added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In a speech marking the occasion Malika Bendaouda - Algeria’s Culture Minister - announced “The woman who does not know how to prepare couscous is a threat to her family”. I explore the ramifications of this for millions of women who make couscous - including my family - in a piece I wrote for Lucy Writers.

My great-grandmother hand-rolling couscous grains

Women have carried out these traditions for thousands of years yet are being spoken for by people who don’t - Malika admitted she is no expert in preparing the dish, so who then is she referring to when as a woman herself she is exempt from her own moral standpoint? Tunisia’s ambassador to the application also stated that couscous plays an “essential role in the Maghreb’s patriarchal society”. How does this, combined with Malika’s comments, remove the agency of the women the application is dependent on, and reinforce the common stereotype of the Arab woman as voiceless and oppressed?