Sitting Around the Tajine: How I Discovered I Was a Girl

Nour El Yakine Kaddeche 

Growing up, my favorite time of the day, especially during the winter season, was around six or seven pm. After a long day at work, my mom would make her evening coffee, watch her favorite series, and then head to the kitchen to start making dinner. My siblings and I would excitedly follow. While she is making the most delicious meal of the day and in preparation for baking kessra, a traditional type of Algerian bread, my mom would heat the tajine, a big flat pan-shaped tray made out of clay.

The tajine is utilized to bake bread and is conventionally placed on a propane gas cooker, or what we call tabbouna, that sits at the center of the kitchen. My two older brothers and I loved the bonding experience of gathering around the tajine and warming our small bodies while waiting for dinner. Some of our most serious conversations, our favorite inside jokes, and our hardest life decisions as a family were made around the tajine.

However, it was not always fun and giggles around the tajine, or at least not for me. Being the seven-year-old kid that I was, I would notice the pattern of how my brothers sat with their legs open, and would unconsciously copy it. My mom, however, took great issue with that. She constantly scolded me for it and frequently asked me to close my legs. When I would ask why it was not acceptable for me to sit similarly to my brothers, she would tell me that it is because I am a girl.

She would explain how good girls who come from respectable families do not sit as if they are at a café, a public space that is exclusively populated by men in Algerian society. In this way, it was also around the tajine that I discovered, very early on, the gender identity that I was socially assigned and expected to comply with in order to be “good” and validated. 

Not only did I discover that I belong to a distinct gender, but I also learned that I am bound to continue positively and correctly performing it, according to a rigid set of regulations, every day, for the rest of my life. My younger self found the concept unnecessarily complicated and greatly burdensome. I just wanted to open my legs because it was more comfortable and allowed for easier access to the warmth coming from the fire.

I could not grasp how that would ruin my family’s honor or the word “honor” for that matter.  Therefore, as a child, I loathed being a girl. I was under the impression that there was a gender market that parents go to where mine went and got me the bad gender of less quality for a cheaper price. 

More than a decade later, at 22, I am still trying to unlearn everything that I internalized about womanhood. I am now aware of the deeply sexist dynamics of my culture, as an Arab Muslim woman, that is generationally transmitted not only via socialization but also via institutionalized political, economic, and legal policies.

I still, nonetheless, sometimes feel bad for opening my legs when I sit. In such moments, I cannot help but think about the little girls all around Algeria that cannot fully enjoy the wonderful sentiment of sitting around the tajine on a cold night because their mothers think that the way they position their bodies determines their human worth.

Leave a Reply