For Kurdish Iraq's women entrepreneurs, persistence pays off

Qassim Khidhir
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Zilan Serwud, 22, needed family approval before opening her food truck selling burgers in Iraqi Kurdistan

Zilan Serwud, 22, needed family approval before opening her food truck selling burgers in Iraqi Kurdistan (AFP Photo/SAFIN HAMED)

Arbil (Iraq) (AFP) - 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 under-developed 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 Arbil 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, said Serwud, 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 (GIZ) 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," said Serwud.

- Budding businesses -

In Iraq, only 15 percent of working-age women are in the labour force, 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, making 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'," said Diman Fatah, 59, who opened Arbil'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," said Fatah.

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".

But 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," she urges 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 support 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 labour activist who publishes online testimonies of women entrepreneurs, told AFP she had noticed a shift, too.

"It is not because society has become open-minded all of a sudden," said Jaff.

"Yes, some have become more tolerant, but the rest realised 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 laws prohibit women from working in particular industries that require physical labour or overnight work.

Women workers who go on maternity leave in Kurdistan are not guaranteed their positions when they return, and 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," said Jaff.

About 100 kilometres (60 miles) east in the city of Rania, Shawnem Hussein's Sky Fitness health centre 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," said Hussein.

One of them, a gym member who asked to remain anonymous, said seeing the success of Sky Fitness had fed 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.