Small businesses, big dreams: Iraq’s women entrepreneurs

The sewing machines and fabrics that surround Alaa Adela in her Iraqcouture studio in Baghdad are a testament to her success in deeply patriarchal Iraq.

Adela, 33, considers herself one of the limited number of female entrepreneurs in a country where most women do not work outside the home.

“We have social traditions that prevent many women from working,” Adela said in her studio in Baghdad’s Karrada shopping district.

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

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

Adela said that such prejudices, as well as practical difficulties, make it a challenge to fulfill her dream.

A graduate of Baghdad University specializing in fashion and design, Adela wanted to start her own fashion house.

“I was patronized by organizations that support art and culture. But my idea was systematically rejected because I had no experience in project conception,” she said.

Thanks to the Iraqi foundation The Station and its Raidat (Women Entrepreneurs) program, funded by the French Embassy in Baghdad, Adela received training that she says gave her the confidence to start her own business.

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– Obstacles –

Iraq’s private sector is still in its infancy, making the steps to start a business more tedious and time-consuming.

The country, which is trying to recover from four decades of war and unrest, is also plagued by endemic corruption, widespread unemployment and a poverty rate of about 30 percent.

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

Eventually, Adela got a loan from a private bank and launched her brand “Alaa Adel” last summer.

At first, she said, she faced sexism from some fabric suppliers who did not want to do business with a woman.

Then there was a 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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Adela received help from family members who look after her two boys, aged nine and four, while she is at work.

– “Complex” –

There are 13 million women of working age in Iraq, “yet only about one million are working,” ILO country coordinator Maha Katta said when launching the report last July.

The ILO report said the labor force participation rate for women “was particularly low” at 10.6 percent, compared to 68 percent for men.

In contrast, in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which until a few years ago was one of the world’s most repressive countries, the female labor force participation rate was 35.6 percent in the second quarter of 2022.

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

Shumoos Ghanem believes that men “dominate many industries, while women are marginalized.”

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

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Ghanema says most of those she counsels are mothers who have fallen out of the labor force and “wonder if society will accept them again” as working women.

She said that in the last five or six years, Iraqi women have had more opportunities, but they have very limited opportunities to develop.

“Some regions are more traditional than others,” she added, which further limits women’s ability to have “careers or open projects.”

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

“When I first went to suppliers, I really saw how complicated it was,” she recalled.

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

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

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