Fatima Ali was in her final year of studying when Iraq started a full lockdown in March to control the spread of the coronavirus. Forced by the pandemic to stay home, she spent a lot of time on social media, looking for something to do.
Then an idea came to her. Six years ago, she visited America on an exchange program. She and other students visited a Vermont cheese factory. There nice, wooden plates showed different kinds of cheese.
“I liked it…I said to myself, why not be the first to do it in Baghdad?” She took a free online business course. And she researched cheeses and wooden plates available in the Iraqi capital.
Months later, 22-year-old Ali is successful. She sells her cheese boards, making a small amount of money. She also has more than 2,000 followers on the social media service Instagram.
A growing number of Iraqi women are using pandemic restrictions to create new businesses in their homes. It's a way to get past the discrimination and harassment that often come with working in Iraq’s society. It also provides additional money as the economy worsens.
On a recent day, Ali cut up and arranged cheeses, dried fruit and nuts as she talked about her dreams. She wants to go to cooking school outside Iraq and open her own cooking school in the country.
“This is just the beginning. I’m still developing myself,” she said. The words on her purple T-shirt said, “You Have to Love Yourself.”
Rawan Al-Zubaidi is a business partner at an Iraqi non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports young business people and their new, small companies. There has been an increase in home businesses since the start of the pandemic. These include women making food deliveries, sweets and hand-made cloth products.
It’s “a solution to obstacles that Iraqi women face when they try to find a job,” she said. She said there were many women in Iraq whose husbands or fathers would not let them work.
“Some Iraqi women can’t find a job because conservative families or husbands consider that women talking directly with other men on the job will bring shame on them,” she said.
The number of women who work in Iraq is very low. As of 2018, only 12.3 percent of women of working age were employed or looking for work, the United Nations reports.
Tamara Amir manages a Facebook page to educate Iraqi women about their rights. She said she receives many calls each day from women facing sexual harassment at work. Often, they report feeling they have to give their male boss “something in return” to get a job or to advance.
However, Ali’s parents have helped her with her business. She said it is secure, and it also means that she does not have to go outside and mix with people. Her mother helps her prepare her cheese plates. She uses a well-known service to send her goods to buyers.
At first, she received about two orders each week. Now, she gets many orders each day and works hard to complete them.
Mariam Khzarjian is a 31-year-old Iraqi-Armenian. She worked as an assistant in an engineering company for seven years. She quit in late 2018 because she felt there was no way to improve her position. She started her own home business selling handmade objects inspired by her family. Many of the men in her past once worked as carpenters, or professional woodworkers.
She called her business Khzar, which is Armenian for the art of cutting metals and woods. Its slogan is “wear a story.” Khzar designs are based on telling stories and building emotional communication with the clients.
During the pandemic, she worked on her designs. The move toward online shopping helped her business grow in a way she could not have imagined.
“Online became the only way to reach clients, and they in turn became more loyal and more confident about my art, because they are buying something without trying it,” Khzarjian said.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
lockdown –n. a state of staying at home or restricted from going places as a security measure
plate –n. a flat round dish used for serving and eating food
harassment – n. to annoy or bother (someone) in a constant or repeated way
sweet – n. a cake or candy
obstacle – n. something that makes it difficult to do something
shame – n. a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong
inspire – v. to make (someone) want to do something
slogan – n. a word or phrase that is easy to remember and is used by a group or business to attract attention
client – n. a customer
confident –adj. a feeling of belief that something will turn out the way you expect it
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