Who’s in the Kitchen Now?

This semester I have had the great privilege of taking the “Conflict Cuisine”capstone. This class is dedicated to the study of food security, international conflicts, and the use of food as a strategic tool of diplomacy. This post was written in response to the following prompt:

Who’s in the kitchen now? Are women the ultimate curators of cuisine? Consider approaching this blog from a gender focused lens and examples of different trends.

The streets of Tehran provide a milieu in which the traditional imagery of Ayatollah Khomeini propaganda and remnants of ancient Persian art are juxtaposed to men and women passersby wearing Tommy Hilfiger jeans with faces plastered to their iPhones. Viewers of the YouTube series “The Grand Bazaar: Munchies Guide to Tehran” are treated to this unorthodox glance by female guide Gelareh Kiazand. Another continent over, Anthony Bourdain provides his sardonic touch during his Libyan culinary travels on an episode of “Parts Unknown”. In both instances, the advancement and modernization of these Muslim-majority nations is evident; the tea-houses and shisha bars that were traditionally banned to women and children have now openly embraced this clientele. What remains stagnant, however, is the gendered structure behind each country’s culinary scene. While the bulk of the individuals working intensely behind stoves, ovens, serving-lines, and vender stalls are women, the higher-level staff and owners are overwhelmingly male. The lines between which gender can rightfully claim to be the curators of cuisine are waning.

The answer to the question of “who is in the kitchen now?” can be better answered by digging deeper into the sociopolitical and economic underpinnings of which gender has enjoyed the autonomy of deciding whether or not to be in the kitchen, and which gender has historically not been given that same privilege.

Not dissimilar from other cultures, in traditional Middle Eastern societies men are ascribed the role of the breadwinner and women the role of caretaker – of hearts, minds, and arguably most important, of stomachs. Often shut out of formal political and business sectors, the lives of many Middle Eastern women have come to be centered on networks of interpersonal relationships that are solidified and celebrated through the preparation and enjoyment of food.Particularly in the role of motherhood, women foster social reproduction and are responsible for the inter-generational transfer of knowledge. Put more simply, in addition to eye color and height, children also receive cultural, social, financial, and human capital from their parents. While sons are groomed for school and white-collar careers, daughters have traditionally been groomed for household work .Though many still learn recipes for preparing kabobs, basmati rice, and kibbeh from their mothers, changing times have introduced school and formal labor into the mix.

Interpretations of the feminine character have been directly tied to both domestic and foreign policy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for example, reacted vehemently in 1961 to the enfranchisement of women. Yet in 1979, he accepted the political role of women and solicited their vote for establishing an Islamic Republic. Of the Iranian women employed in the mid-1980s, 60% were married and working inside and outside of the house. In a similar context, Muammar Gaddafi stressed the notion of “separate but equal” when considering the equality of men and women. After overthrowing King Idris in 1969, he championed the increase of compulsory education from six to nine years – a move that boosted female literacy rates in Libya from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the region. Gaddafi encouraged women to take up jobs such as teaching, nursing, and administrative work. By the time he was ousted from office in 2011, there were more women than men at university. In both of these cases, the ideas of these leaders were based on Islamic principles; different times and circumstances, however, made conflicting interpretations possible. In recent years, Muslim reformists have similarly attempted to revise Islamic discourse in response to internal societal changes, political demands, and international opinion.

The increase of sanctions against countries suspected of having nuclear warfare programs like Iran have shifted labor trends, and dinner menus. Forced with the burden of both providing for the family and increasingly supplementing the income of their husbands, women have begun to use their traditional skills in the kitchen for profit. After working in the formal restaurant industry during the day, many women in countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan then come home to prepare meals of egg soup and subsidized chicken – a measure to ensure their families sustain adequate nutrition in the midst of their economic strife of their nations . Considering the fact that impoverished populations, which are disproportionately comprised of women, spend about 50-70% of income on food the role of women as curators of cuisine has become increasingly difficult to uphold.

The ball is in the younger generation’s court. No longer moved to action by promises of bread and luxurious displays of government power through large-scale feasts, younger populations are challenging antiquity – starting with food politics. There is an undeniable dichotomy of women carry the load of cooking tasks in the home, yet not accurately being represented in formal restaurants, particularly in a managerial capacity. Traditional recipes are passed down through families, and women have the wealth of knowledge of these intricate regional dishes – all that is missing is another means of sharing it, beyond the confines of the family dinner table.

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