In her Baghdad kitchen, Fatima Ali piles cutting boards with cheeses, dried fruit, and nuts. She dreams of someday studying abroad and of opening a cooking school in her country. Ali is one of a growing number of Iraqi women who have parlayed pandemic restrictions into home-based businesses.
Last March, Ali was studying to become a medical specialist in Iraq. Forced by the pandemic to stay home, she searched for something to fill her time.
She remembered participating in an exchange program in the United States. At a Vermont cheese factory, she saw cheeses artfully arranged on wooden boards. The trays looked like paintings.
“I said to myself, why not be the first to do it in Baghdad?” She took an online business course. She researched cheese varieties and wooden dishes available in the Iraqi capital.
Months later, Ali was making a small but steady income. Her parents have supported her home-based business—partly because she doesn’t need to mix with people outside the home.
At first, Ali received two orders per week maximum. Now she can barely keep up with the volume of requests for her cheese boards.
Rawan Al-Zubaidi works at an Iraqi organization that supports start-ups and young entrepreneurs. She reports more home-based businesses since the pandemic’s start. These include women who crochet, craft jewelry, make sweets, and deliver food.
But it’s more than that. “It represents a solution to obstacles that Iraqi women face when trying to find a job,” Rawan says. It’s a way to bypass discrimination and harassment that often come with working in Iraq—where many husbands or fathers won’t let wives and daughers work. Even for the few who do manage employment, unsupportive male colleagues abound.
“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,” Rawan says.
Mariam Khzarjian started a home business selling handmade accessories inspired by her ancestors. The pandemic forced her to focus, working on new designs and techniques during lockdowns. In turn, lockdowns forced customers online.
“Online became the only way to reach clients,” Khzarjian comments, “and they in turn became more loyal.”
She says, “[The coronavirus] is terrible, but for those able to take advantage of the internet and build connections with customers, it had its positive side.”
One day, Ali hopes to attend culinary school abroad. She also wants to open a school in Iraq for those “who have passion for cooking, like me.”
“This is just the beginning,” Ali says of her new venture. “I’m still developing myself.”
Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. — 1 Corinthians 3:7