To the land of henna and kohl, Avon calls

For centuries, Morroccan women have enhanced their beauty by drawing upon the resources available.

The blush and lip stain of choice, for example, is laakar lfasia - a ladybug-red mineral powder mixed with lemon juice in tiny clay pots.

Herbalists in the alleys of the medina here still serve as old-fashioned perfumers, selling musk stones and rosebuds in bulk. Teeth are brightened by brushing with swak twigs, which also give lips an apricot blush.

But this month, a somewhat controversial beauty regime made its debut. "Skin So Soft" body oil, anyone? Have you tried the demure Iced Coffee lipstick?

Yes, Avon is calling on all Casablanca complexions.

While offering women new economic and cosmetic options, the American company's arrival also raises concerns about corrupting the North African sense of beauty, or at least redefining it.

"Normally women in hijab [Muslim dress] don't wear makeup, but I don't think there's any problem as long as it's subtle and tasteful," says Amina Tahiri, a young mother of two who is one of 1,200 women just recruited as representatives here for the door-to-door cosmetics icon.

Mrs. Tahiri and other sales managers held a lavish open meeting this month - complete with makeovers, door prizes, balloons, and manicures - to win potential representatives and clients over to the joys of direct marketing (not to mention matching lip gloss and nail polish).

Making some extra pocket money, notes Tahiri, isn't against the Koran. "It's good for my family. My husband and I help each other with supporting the family. Anyway, it's not like before. More and more women are working in Morocco these days."

At least that's what Avon is banking on.

Founded by an encyclopedia salesman in 1886, the company now operates in 137 countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Avon officials say the Morocco launch is a test for future North Africa operations, suggesting there is a trend of women entering the workplace in the traditionally male-focused Maghreb region.

But to some Moroccans, Avon is a symbol, if not a source, of a Western concept of beauty that is undermining the country's already rich traditions and rituals.

"The woman with dark hair, wide hips, and a few extra pounds has always been the essence of beauty in Morocco," says Fatema Mernissi, a sociologist at Mohammed V University in Rabat who is considered a leading feminist in the Arab-Muslim world.

"In the East, women were once restricted by a harem [the women's part of the Muslim household], but now they're confined by the pressure to be too skinny. But that's not our culture!" she exclaims.

Integral to Moroccan culture is the hamam, or Turkish bath. Each week, as part of the cleanliness prescriptions of Islam, the faithful scrub down and let clogged pores breathe in a series of increasingly hot steam chambers. Women come here with aunts, sisters, and friends to exfoliate, massage, and wash with sabon bildi, a thick, caramellike soap made from olive oil. Henna also plays a central role: Women churn the powder into gloppy masks to moisturize their bodies and to dye their hair burgundy or russet.

For weddings and other celebrations, women and girls use henna to embellish their hands and feet with intricate filigree patterns. Many indigenous Berber women get small green tattoos on their chins and foreheads at their marriage ceremonies.

And then there are the eyes. "In our culture, we say the eyes talk to you," says Khira Lansari, Avon Morocco's national sales manager. "Do you know what our biggest seller is? Mascara. Black. Maybe it's because with women in veils, all you can see is their eyes. Or, women in scarves might not wear makeup, but they'll feel comfortable putting on mascara."

Ms. Lansari admits it will be hard to market the products in the rural, poor village communities. "But, maybe mascara might sell. It's a generational thing."

"For example, even if I have Avon makeup, I still prefer to use the traditional black powder kohl for my eyes - like my mother and grandmother. But my teenage daughter will never use it. A lot of these products have lost their popularity among women in my generation, in their 40s." More than half of young women use modern makeup products in Morocco today.

Dr. Mernissi says she dabbles in both the old world and the globalized market for her own toilette and that most Moroccan women do the same. "I go to the hamam and put henna on my skin and hair," she explains. "Even when I go to New York, I let the shower run hot to create a steam hamam at my hotel. "But when I finish with the bath, I put on expensive French creams."

Avon vendor Tahiri says she and some friends also have abandoned swak twigs and kohl, "but the hamam - that we can't give up." She proceeds to demonstrate Avon products that can be used in the hamam: Soft Pink Bubble Bath, Simply Delicate Feminine Wash.

Apparently, her clients agree. Tahiri can supplement her income, she says, with anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 dirhams (about $460 to $920), "mostly by networking through friends of friends, neighbors." In a country where the minimum monthly wage is set at less than 2,000 dirhams, that is a significant boost.

Her 16-year-old niece, Fatimzahra Laroussi, is thinking about becoming a vendor. But she says "teenagers don't wear makeup. We're too young; you have to respect your age. Besides, it's not safe to get all done up if you want to walk out on the streets. Boys aren't very well behaved. They can be like dogs sometimes."

Asmaa Salmy is looking but not buying the Avon hype. The Casablanca mom in a brown headscarf and Italian shades prefers musk stones to the Far Away talc powder she's sniffing (3 dirhams). "I prefer our natural products, like masks made from tomato, avocado, and carrot."

Besides, she continues, "we have to look more to our origins. Tradition is more important now than ever - to be cultivated and not just made-up. It's just like the saying we have here: 'Talk and I tell you who you really are.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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