Small businesses, big dreams: Iraq’s women entrepreneurs

The sewing machines and fabrics that surround Alaa Adel in her “Iraqcouture” studio in Baghdad are proof of her success in deeply patriarchal Iraq.

Adel, 33, counts herself among the limited number of female entrepreneurs in a country where most women do not work outside the home.

“We have a social tradition that prevents many women from working,” Adel said in her studio in Baghdad’s Karrada commercial district.

Even for those who do, “it’s not always easy,” he added.

The International Organization for Migration said in an October report that “prevailing customs and traditions … limit women’s activities in their domestic and nurturing roles”.

Adel said that such prejudices, as well as practical difficulties, presented a challenge in realizing his dream.

A graduate of the University of Baghdad specializing in fashion and design, Adel wants to create his own fashion house.

“I went to see patrons of organizations that support art and culture. But my idea was systematically rejected because I had no experience in creating projects,” he said.

Thanks to a foundation in Iraq, The Station, and the “Raidat” (Women Entrepreneurs) program funded by the French embassy in Baghdad, Adel got training that, she says, gave her the confidence to start her own business. business.

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– Obstacle –

The private sector in Iraq is still embryonic, making it more tedious and long steps to build a company.

The country, which is trying to move past four decades of war and chaos, is also plagued by endemic corruption, widespread unemployment and a poverty rate of around 30 percent.

Almost 38 percent of people with jobs work in the public sector in Iraq – one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Adel eventually got a loan from a private bank, and created his brand “Alaa Adel” last summer.

In the beginning, she had to deal with sexism from some clothing suppliers who were reluctant to do business with a woman, she said.

Then there is the lack of public childcare facilities, in a country where tradition dictates that children should be cared for at home – by the mother – until they go to school.

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Adel gets help from family members who take care of her two sons, aged nine and four, while she is at work.

– ‘Complicated’ –

Iraq has 13 million women of working age “but only about one million are working”, said ILO country coordinator Maha Kattaa, who presented a report in July last year.

The participation rate of women in the labor force is “significantly low” at 10.6 percent, the ILO report said, compared to 68 percent for men.

In contrast, neighboring Saudi Arabia — until a few years ago one of the most restrictive countries in the world for women — has a female participation rate of 35.6 percent in the second quarter of 2022.

Most of the women working in Iraq are teachers or nurses. Members of the police or armed forces are rare.

For Shumoos Ghanem, men “dominate many sectors while women are relegated to the margins”.

The 34-year-old is the owner of a food business and founder of the Iraqi Women in Business initiative, which provides professional guidance to women online. She is also a mother to a 14-month-old son.

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Ghanem said most of what she counsels are mothers who are out of work and “wondering whether society will accept them” again as working women.

Over the past five or six years, Iraqi women have had more opportunities, he said, but the space for them “to progress is still limited”.

“Some regions are more traditional than others,” he added, further restricting women’s chances to have “careers or open projects”.

Surrounded by men, Ghanem said she herself experienced sexism and worried about harassment.

“When I went to the suppliers for the first time, I really saw how complicated it was,” he recalls.

Now she works from home, but she also has a dream – to have her own health-conscious restaurant where she can help strengthen the ranks of Iraqi women entrepreneurs.

“I want to make this a place to support women who want to work in this sector,” she said.

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