IRAQ’s WORKING WOMEN: Successful self-employment, despite conservative society

By Murtadha al-Hudud in Dhi Qar

Bayareq stands in the middle of her busy kitchen, a rolling pin in her hands. She passes it gently and skillfully over the dough in front of her. Cooking is a skill she learned from her mother and grandmother in Mosul, in northern Iraq, and now she prepares the most famous dishes from her hometown for a different audience of appreciative foodies in central Iraq.

Around 11 years ago, Bayareq moved from Mosul to her husband’s home in Suq al-Shuyukh, in the province of Dhi Qar. The town is 40 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital, Nasiriyah.

Bayareq, who is now in her 30s, began to socialize with the women in the neighborhood and introduced them to the distinctively Mosul dishes she was so skilled at making.

In 2017, having gained a reputation as a good cook, Bayareq started her own business with modest capital of just IQD100,000 (around US$75).

One of the first snacks she started making was Mosul kubba, a kind of meat pie made with bulgur. Bayareq really didn’t expect that the project would be such a success but many people ordered her kubba. Then she set up a Facebook page, through which she could sell her dishes. It’s called Mashallah Foods.

During this interview, Bayareq’s hands don’t stop moving. She kneads dough, chops vegetables and prepares the orders as they come in. She believes it’s very important to deliver fresh food on time and this keeps her very busy.

She has also expanded her menu to include other dishes made in a Mosul style, including dolma (vegetables stuffed with meat and rice), arouk (vegetable or meat patties), kleicha (sweet cookies) and lahmacun (flatbread topped with meat and vegetables) . She now delivers to most parts of the province and she even has some customers in Baghdad. Every order she sends out, she attaches a sticker with the name of the business on it, her way of marketing.

Bayareq says she is not just in this business for the money. She also wanted to help introduce her hometown’s culinary traditions to Iraqis in the south of the country.

She is one of a growing number of young women who are taking on jobs in Dhi Qar. The province has generally been fairly conservative but recently more females have entered the labor market. They get jobs in markets or stores, as well as in the security sector. Some have started their own businesses and are self-employed like Bayareq.

In Iraq not many women work. “Inequality between women and men in Iraq remains particularly pronounced,” the United Nations in Iraq wrote recently. “In 2021, female labor force participation in Iraq was among the lowest in the world, standing at 10.6%.”

This means that out of around 13 million Iraqi women of working age, only about 1.4 million of them do. Of those, only between 300,000 and 400,000 are in the private sector.

According to a study by Iraq’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 78% of working women are employed in the public sector and only 21% in the private sector.

This may be because, in a conservative society where men and women tend to have more traditional roles, it’s not easy in the private sector — as Bayareq can attest. Her current workplace is her kitchen at home, although she’d love to set up her own restaurant specializing in food from Mosul. There’s nothing like that in Dhi Qar at the moment. During Ramadan, when its particularly busy, Bayareq was even able to hire another three women to work with her.

But in a country where not many women work or run their own businesses, Bayareq knows she could never have done this alone. Her husband, her own parents and her husband’s parents have all supported her, including with childcare, so that she could make a success of her fledgling business.  

This story was written as part of a series of articles with the support of the Qarib programme, a regional program funded by the French Development Agency (AFD) and implemented by the French Media Development Agency (CFI).

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