TUE 10 - 12 - 2019
Sep 24, 2019
The Daily Star
For Kurdish Iraqi women entrepreneurs, persistence pays off
Qassim Khidhir| Agence France Presse
IRBIL, Iraq: Smiling proudly, Zilan Serwud welcomed hungry customers swarming her newly opened food truck in Kurdish Iraq. But launching the venture required more than just permits and loans: Serwud needed family approval. Lingering societal prejudice, family pressures and an underdeveloped private sector have constrained women from breaking into the Iraqi workforce, including in Kurdistan. That didn’t stop 22-year-old Serwud.
She launched Zee Burger in the regional capital Irbil last month, offering no-fuss fare of burgers, fries and onion rings served at small wooden tables.
The journey to get there was nowhere near as simple.
The first step to any female-run business, Serwud said, was convincing relatives the venture would not be looked down on by the Muslim-majority, conservative society.
“I heard some people say, ‘She has a father and brother, why should she run the restaurant?’” Serwud told AFP.
“But if you have an idea or want to develop yourself, you should not listen to hearsay.”
Her family gave its approval, and she received funding from the German development agency to purchase mobile kitchen equipment.
Serwud’s father helped pick out the kitchenware and her brother Bayad even flips burgers part time in the yellow-and-purple food truck.
“I am super happy now that I have my own business. I feel I’ve obtained my freedom and am showing everyone this is what I am capable of,” Serwud said.
Budding businessesIn Iraq, only 15 percent of working-age women are in the labor force. That’s one of the lowest rates in the world, according to a 2018 demographic survey by the regional government.
Among employed women in Kurdistan, up to 75 percent work in the public sector.
That makes female entrepreneurs an especially rare breed.
The biggest obstacle is defamation by conservative elements of Iraqi society who see economically-autonomous women as too liberal or even promiscuous.
“What actually destroys women in our society is the word ‘shameful,’” Diman Fatah, 59, said.
She opened Irbil’s first female-run plant nursery and chairs a botanical club with 450 members, including 25 women.
“Women are afraid to innovate or develop themselves because of what other people might say about them,” Fatah said.
Some recent comments on the Facebook pages of female-led businesses described the owners as “silly” and insisted that “women are responsible for work at home.”
However, through solidarity and persistence, a gradual shift has become noticeable.
Besides caring for literal buds, Fatah’s club helps women-led ventures flourish by encouraging owners to “be confident.”
“Don’t give up and don’t be silent about your rights,” Fatah urged peers. “When a woman starts her own business in our society, she does not only earn money. She raises awareness about equality and paves the way for other women to enter the market and obtain their freedom,” she said.
A 2013 United Nations survey found that 66 percent of Iraqi youth supported the right of women to work, compared to just 42 percent among the elderly - a marked generational improvement. ‘Women are resilient’ Avan Jaff, a female Kurdish labor activist who publishes online testimonies of women entrepreneurs, told AFP that she had noticed a shift, too.
“It is not because society has become open-minded all of a sudden,” Jaff said.
“Yes, some have become more tolerant, but the rest realized that women are resilient and do not give up in pursuing their passion.
“They think their comments are not effective anymore, so they don’t engage,” she explained.
Still, a host of challenges remain.
In practice, some Iraqi legislation prohibits women from working in particular industries that require physical labor or doing overnight work.
Women workers who go on maternity leave in Kurdistan are not guaranteed their positions when they return.
Many who do start ventures are pressured to cede some decision-making to their male relatives.
“It is the family who decides how to spend the profit or where they should invest, not the women,” Jaff said.
About 100 kilometers east in the city of Rania, Shawnem Hussein’s Sky Fitness health center boasts 150 female subscribers.
Members dance Zumba and share stories.
“These women are not coming only to work out, but also to mingle, chat with other women and talk about their problems,” Hussein said.
One of the women - a gym member who asked to remain anonymous - said that seeing the success of Sky Fitness had fueled her own dreams of opening a restaurant in her hometown.
But, in a sign of the enduring conservatism in some parts of Kurdistan, her husband swiftly shattered her hopes.
“He told me, ‘The day you open the restaurant will be the last day you come home,’” she said.
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