For Kurdish Iraq’s women entrepreneurs, persistence pays off

Kurdish entrepreneur Zilan Serwud launched Zee Burger in the regional capital Irbil, offering no-fuss fare of burgers, fries and onion rings served at small wooden tables. (AFP)
Updated 23 September 2019

For Kurdish Iraq’s women entrepreneurs, persistence pays off

  • Lingering societal prejudice, family pressures and an under-developed private sector have constrained women from breaking into the Iraqi workforce
  • In Iraq, only 15 percent of working-age women are in the labor force

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 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 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, 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 said.
“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.
In Iraq, only 15 percent of working-age women are in the labor 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 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,” 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.
Avan Jaff, a female Kurdish labor activist who publishes online testimonies of women entrepreneurs, said 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 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 laws prohibit women from working in particular industries that require physical labor 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 kilometers (60 miles) 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,” 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.


Will European arms ban impact Turkey’s Syria operation?

Updated 48 min 15 sec ago

Will European arms ban impact Turkey’s Syria operation?

  • Several European countries imposing weapons embargoes on Turkey

ANKARA: With an increasing number of European countries imposing weapons embargoes on Turkey over its ongoing operation in northeastern Syria, Ankara’s existing inventory of weapons and military capabilities are under the spotlight.

More punitive measures on a wider scale are expected during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Oct. 17.

It could further strain already deteriorating relations between Ankara and the bloc.

However, a EU-wide arms embargo would require an unanimous decision by all the leaders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned last week of a possible refugee flow if Turkey “opened the doors” for 3.6 million Syrian refugees to go to Europe — putting into question the clauses of the 2016 migration deal between Ankara and Brussels.

“The impact of EU member states’ arms sanctions on Turkey depends on the level of Turkey’s stockpiles,” Caglar Kurc, a researcher on defense and armed forces, told Arab News.

Kurc thinks Turkey has foreseen the possible arms sanctions and stockpiled enough spare parts to maintain the military during the operation.

“As long as Turkey can maintain its military, sanctions would not have any effect on the operation. Therefore, Turkey will not change its decisions,” he said.

So far, Germany, France, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway have announced they have stopped weapons shipments to fellow NATO member Turkey, condemning the offensive.

“Against the backdrop of the Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, the federal government will not issue new permits for all armaments that could be used by Turkey in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

Following Germany’s move, the French government announced: “France has decided to suspend all export projects of armaments to Turkey that could be deployed as part of the offensive in Syria. This decision takes effect immediately.”

While not referring to any arms embargo, the UK urged Turkey to end the operation and enter into dialogue.

Turkey received one-third of Germany’s arms exports of €771 million ($850.8 million) in 2018. 

According to Kurc, if sanctions extend beyond weapons that could be used in Syria, there could be a negative impact on the overall defense industry.

“However, in such a case, Turkey would shift to alternative suppliers: Russia and China would be more likely candidates,” he said.

According to Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, the arms embargo would not have a long-term impact essentially because most of the sanctions are caveated and limited to materials that can be used by Turkey in its cross-border operation.

“So the arms embargo does not cover all aspects of the arms trade between Turkey and the EU. These measures look essentially like they are intended to demonstrate to their own critical publics that their governments are doing something about what they see as a negative aspect of Turkey’s behavior,” he told Arab News.

Turkey, however, insists that the Syria operation, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” is undeterred by any bans or embargoes.

“No matter what anyone does, no matter if it’s an arms embargo or anything else, it just strengthens us,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told German radio station Deutsche Welle.