The sewing machines and fabrics that surround Alaa Adel in her “Iraqcouture” studio in Baghdad are testament to her success in deeply patriarchal Iraq.
Adel, 33, counts herself among a limited number of female entrepreneurs in a country where most women do not work outside the home.
“We have a social tradition that prevents many women from working,” Adel said in her studio in Baghdad’s Karrada commercial district.
Even for those who do, “it’s not always easy,” he added.
The International Organization for Migration said in a report in October that “existing customs and traditions… limit women’s activities in their domestic and caring roles”.
Adel said that such prejudices, as well as practical difficulties, posed a challenge in realizing his dream.
A graduate of the University of Baghdad specializing in fashion and design, Adel wanted to create his own fashion house.
“I went to see the patrons of organizations that support art and culture. But my idea was systematically rejected because I had no experience in the conception of projects,” she said.
Thanks to an Iraqi foundation, The Station, and its “Raidat” (Female Entrepreneurs) program funded by the French embassy in Baghdad, Adel got training that, she says, gave her the confidence to start her own business.
Iraq’s private sector is still embryonic, making the steps to set up a company more tedious and lengthy.
The country, struggling to move past four decades of war and turmoil, is also plagued by endemic corruption, widespread unemployment and a poverty rate of around 30 percent.
Nearly 38 percent of employed people work in Iraq’s public sector — one of the highest rates in the world, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Adel eventually got a loan from a private bank, and created his brand “Alaa Adel” last summer.
In the beginning, she had to deal with sexism from some textile suppliers who were reluctant to do business with a woman, she said.
Then there was the lack of public childcare facilities, in a country where tradition dictates that children should be cared for at home — by the mother — until they go to school.
Adel gets help from family members who take care of her two sons, ages nine and four, while she is at work.
Iraq has 13 million women of working age “but only about a million are working”, said ILO country coordinator Maha Kattaa, presenting a report in July last year.
The female labor force participation rate is “particularly low” at 10.6 percent, the ILO report said, compared to 68 percent for men.
In contrast, neighboring Saudi Arabia — until a few years ago one of the world’s most restrictive countries for women — has a female labor force participation rate of 35.6 percent in the second quarter of 2022.
Most of the working women in Iraq are teachers or nurses. A rare few are members of the police or armed forces.
For Shumoos Ghanem, men “dominate in many sectors while women are relegated to the margins”.
The 34-year-old is the owner of a dietary food business and founder of the Iraqi Women in Business initiative, which provides professional guidance to women online. She is also a mother to a 14-month-old son.
Ghanem said most of those she counsels are mothers who are out of work and “wonder if society will accept them” again as working women.
In the past five or six years, Iraqi women have had more opportunities, he said, but the space for them is “still very limited”.
“Some regions are more traditional than others,” she added, further restricting women’s opportunities to have “careers or open projects”.
Surrounded by men, Ghanem says she herself has experienced sexism and worries about harassment.
“The first time I went to the suppliers, I really saw how complicated it was,” she recalled.
Now she works from home, but she also has a dream — to have her own health-conscious restaurant where she can help strengthen the ranks of Iraqi women entrepreneurs.
“I want to make it a place to support women who want to work in this sector,” she said.