Bright spot in Palestinian economy: more women opening businesses
Female entrepreneurs are finding creative ways to carve out a niche for themselves in the marketplace, boosting the economy as well as their confidence and independence.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Ajoul and Ramallah, West Bank
It's a rainy day in the West Bank¬†village of Ajoul, and when the kids get out of school a few dart into¬†Myassar Issa's mini-market to buy sweets before running home up the¬†muddy hills leading out of the valley.
They're part of the steady stream of customers that have helped Mrs.¬†Issa grow her shop since opening it with a micro-finance loan of¬†$1,400 two years ago. Today she has repaid that loan and gotten¬†another, doubled her merchandise, and gained a new sense of¬†independence as the family breadwinner. Her husband has two other¬†wives and can't provide for her and her three sons, who are eager to¬†marry but don't have the financial means to do so.
"I could either sit and say, 'He has to pay, he has to pay,' and¬†starve and let my children starve, or act. I had to act," says Issa,¬†surrounded by stacks of Pringles, diapers, and a TV playing Egyptian¬†soap operas. "I don't care what my in-laws say, all I care about is¬†saving money so my sons can get married. When a person has an¬†objective, nothing can break that person."
The West Bank economy is even more gloomy than the weather here;¬†government workers recently went two months without getting salaries¬†until Saudi Arabia kicked in $100 million to help ease what has been¬†described as the worst financial crisis since the Palestinian¬†Authority was founded in the 1990s.¬†But despite the structural problems and widespread despair, female¬†entrepreneurs such as Issa are finding creative ways to carve out a¬†niche for themselves in the marketplace, boosting the economy as well¬†as their confidence and independence.
"You cannot sit around and wait for the government to give you¬†business," says Issa, who also has a side business raising 1,500¬†chickens. "No one is going to give you anything when you just sit¬†around."
Samir Barghouthi of the Arab Center for Agricultural Development in¬†Ramallah says statistics of female participation in business are hard¬†to come by, but estimates that women entrepreneurs are increasing in number and today¬†represent 5 to 10 percent of business owners in the formal sector and 30¬†percent in the informal sector
There is significant cultural resistance to women entrepreneurs,¬†however ‚Äď and not only from men.¬†Sawsan Dweik, an interior designer and wife of a wealthy Palestinian¬†business executive, says women are often the most critical.
"'Look at her, she's out of the house all day, not taking care of her¬†husband and her kids,' they will say," Ms. Dweik says bitterly.¬†But there is stiff resistance from men, as well, she adds. "The men¬†feel that she is coming not only to challenge but to take what is¬†theirs ‚Äď to work, to earn money. She is trespassing."
Mr. Barghouthi sees it somewhat differently. "Of course, maybe they're¬†not comfortable to see their women going outside the home for¬†business," he says, "but they have no alternative."
A gym of their own
Such social strife finds no place at My First Gym, however. Girls who¬†burst in after school have a full set of mini-gym equipment at their¬†disposal, designed specially for kids. There's also a room of¬†kid-sized stationary bikes from London for spin classes, a play area¬†with huge squishy exercise balls and hula hoops, and a huge bowl of¬†green apples in the fridge.
"I think that it is a good place for children ... to [develop] good¬†habits, a new lifestyle," says owner Amani Harhash, one of nine¬†sisters from East Jerusalem who are all professional women, including¬†a lawyer, dentist, and interior designer. My First Gym is one of a¬†number of opportunities in Ramallah, says Ms. Harhash, for children to¬†"vent out all the negativism" of their society.
The gym, which opened in May 2012, employs four people ‚Äď all women ‚Äď¬†and has 60 members who pay 200 shekels ($55) a month for access to all¬†the equipment and the various classes, including yoga, aerobics, and¬†ballet.
This is Harhash's third business; she started with a shop that sells¬†maternity clothes and then opened a day care center, which employs¬†five people, with the help of a bank loan.
"Not all women can stay at home with their kids, so we have to give¬†them a place where they can depend on other people that their children¬†are in a safe place while they are working," says Harhash, who studied¬†business administration in Jordan. "It's a must."
Shyrine Ziadeh is a young woman who had dreamed of going to study abroad ‚Äď her¬†passion was ballet ‚Äď but her parents encouraged her to finish her¬†degree at Birzeit University near Ramallah first.
But she found there was a demand for her skills here at home, so she¬†opened a ballet studio in downtown Ramallah in December 2011.¬†"I think business is common sense," says Ms. Ziadeh, who especially¬†loves the advertising and marketing side.
She has anywhere from 10-20 girls in her three classes, ranging from¬†toddlers to young adults. The tuition is 200 shekels ($55) a month,¬†but not all families can pay.
At first her family financed everything, and her brother helped¬†arrange the rental of her top-floor studio space from the Orthodox¬†Church nearby. Now she is able to cover the rent, although the church¬†allows her to pay late when necessary, and she is paying back the¬†money her family lent her. She wants to develop the business further,¬†however, and is disappointed that no Palestinians have expressed¬†interest in helping.¬†(For more on the ballet center, read today's blog post here.)
But Ziadeh is undaunted, and puts her whole heart into her work,¬†inspired by her late father.
"I'm doing this for him," she says. "He always wanted me to do¬†something special."