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Author Topic: Muslim Women Entrepreneurs  (Read 3236 times)

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« on: May 26, 2008 04:30 AM »

Building Sisterhood

Mubarakah Ibrahim and her Muslim sisters break stereotypes and empower women.

Thursday, April 17, 2008
By Alexis Fitts

With her warm smile and talkative demeanor, trainer Mubarakah Ibrahim doesn't paint a very intimidating picture.

That is, until you realize it's 6:30 in the morning, and a small following of women have assembled at a football field near Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven for the punishing regimen of crabwalks and Indian runs that are part of her morning boot camp workout.

"Ladies, it's time for sprints."

There are groans.

But the scene is more girl power than torture. The first runner pumps her arms above her head triumphantly, in classic Rocky style. The slowest runner finishes to a rallying chant of "you can do it" and Ibrahim's token "you go, girl." In other words, this isn't your typical gym class.

And Ibrahim isn't most people's vision of a personal trainer. An observant Muslim, Ibrahim hosts her classes in traditional attire, all in accordance with Islam's decree that a woman show no more than her face and her hands in public. Today Ibrahim's workout ensemble includes loose black track pants, a pink tunic and a flowered pink hijab, or head wrap, worn chicly with a matching pink baseball cap.

Ibrahim bears none of the trademarks of a personal trainer—no ripped abs, no skimpy workout bras. There's no way to see how strong Ibrahim is until you watch her hold a plank pose long after her students have collapsed on the ground. There are no men in any of her classes, and the windowed wall of her studio has a curtain that she regularly draws for privacy when working with Muslim clients. Some are Muslim or orthodox Jews, searching for the separation by gender in order to exercise. Others simply like the comfort of being around other females.

But in the two years that Ibrahim has owned Balance Fitness, her business has been making waves far beyond the health industry. She's been the subject of front-page stories in the Hartford Courant and Chicago Tribune. Last year, she was a guest on Oprah.

Ibrahim has become something of a poster child for a breed of Muslim women who are publicly defying the stereotypes of suppressed, submissive women of Islam. By entering the workplace on their own terms, as business owners, Muslim women are combining religion and profession in a way that forces clients to encounter them in a professional light. Even more surprisingly, many of these small businesses are popping up because of Islam, not in spite of it.

"After Sept. 11, nobody knew Muslims, and in face of misconceptions you believe what you are told," Ibrahim says. "I think that an important part of businesses interacting with mainstream society is to teach other people about Islam. Very few people are going to just go into a mosque and find out. It's intimidating. One of the things I supply is a bridge where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims. In today's time, the Muslim community is beyond pamphlets and speeches."

As the American Muslim community continues to establish itself, these businesses are becoming more prevalent. For this special report, we profile several Muslim women entrepreneurs who are doing it for themselves, and breaking some long-held stereotypes in the process.

Religious necessity forced Tracy Sesker into business ownership. She was a salon worker from age 16 but parted ways with her boss when he asked her not to use the shop on Mondays (when it was closed) to cut hair of Muslim women who rely on private, all-female environments to expose their hair.

"I said to myself, 'If I can't do the Muslim sisters, regardless of what I'm doing, I have to create a place for that,'" Sesker explains.

Sesker opened the Muslim-friendly Veranique's Beauty Salon on State Street in New Haven. She decorated with warm colors and a mix of Islamic and African themes. She hired her own staff. But most importantly, she can run the salon her way, with a private downstairs room that caters to Muslim women all week long.

Behind Every Great Muslim Man

The convenience of independent businesses for observant American Muslims is not a new phenomenon. Muslim nations in the Middle East set their calendar around daily prayer and keeping Friday, the holy day, free from work. Many Muslims see business ownership as a way of melding religion with home life; being your own boss means you can stop to pray and close on Fridays.

The history of female enterprise, in particular, goes beyond recent times. The prophet Mohammed's first wife, Khadija, a role model for most Muslim women, was a highly successful merchant. The couple met because Khadija hired Mohammed, and married because Khadija was impressed with his work ethic. Khadija and her enterprise remain central figures in Islam—she is considered the first true Muslim.

"It was the fact that she was a well-regarded businesswoman that gave [Mohammed] the leisure to go up into the mountains and receive revelations," says Jimmy Jones, chair of the World Religions Department at Manhattanville College and board president of the Masjid Al-Islam mosque in New Haven.

Hardly sounds like a tradition lacking in female enterprise.

But in the American climate, it's more difficult for women to enter the workplace because of the pervasive modesty requirements that are less accepted or understood within American businesses. According to Kashif Abdul-Karim, Imam of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, some businesses are less than accommodating of the requirements that a woman not interact alone with a man she is not related to. Others, particularly in the corrections and public safety industries, view the hijab as a safety hazard—or are merely uncomfortable with it.

"A lot of times, the sisters have to employ themselves and create an environment where they feel comfortable or acceptable," says Abdul-Karim.

But for other women, entrepreneurship is a means to change public opinion or be active within their community. Delores Laws works a day job as service coordinator of Housing Opportunities Unlimited, but has a rich history of entrepreneurship. In 1996, she created Kawduka, an outreach program for juvenile probation funded with the revenue from a second job. Named with the Swahili word for "the protector of youth," Laws ran a program that employed five full-time case managers and a plethora of volunteers for close to two years before a mild stroke forced her to cut back.

When Laws first converted to Islam in 1994, she had trouble finding clothes that fit Islamic code but were still stylish. She found herself going further and further from her Bridgeport home—first Norwalk, then New York—so eventually she opened her own clothing shop in Stamford.

She didn't limit herself solely to Islamic garb. She also sold African clothes, floral arrangements, beauty products and various household goods. She describes the store's style as "African Muslim." She sold abaya (long, ankle-length wraps) and jobabs (tapered tunics) to Christian ministers to use as robes.

"[Women] are branching out into businesses that don't involve Muslims, even though some are very self-conscious of what other people are going to think of them as a Muslim," Mubarakah Ibrahim says. "When you're a woman, it's physical. Everyone sees. It's right on the table."

Though Ibrahim created her business to address the need for a growing awareness of fitness among Muslim women, most of her business comes from non-Muslims. Maintaining a solely Muslim client base is unfeasible, Ibrahim explains, because of cultural differences.

"There's no little black dress to fit into, no bikini season," she says. "You can spend all day not thinking about the size of your hips until you go home and get in the shower and then it's like, 'Whoa, where'd that come from?'"

"This Is My Country"

Curiously, there are fewer American Muslims in jobs with the greatest power to change perceptions. A study done by Cornell University in 2002 found that the most underrepresented career paths for American Muslims were those like journalism, law and media productions—positions that "influence public policy and public opinion," according to the study. The lack of self-definition in the public eye is even more prevalent among female Muslims.

Tayyibah Taylor is an exception. Rather than climbing the ladder at Condé Nast or Hearst, Taylor founded Azizah, a lifestyle magazine for Muslim American women. "I wanted to educate the Muslim community about having their own media," she said last week, during a conference at Yale. "You can either complain about what's on TV and the perpetuation of stereotypes, or you can create your own media and get involved."

The post 9/11 divide, and the pervasive fear that followed, gave women even more of a reason to look for self-definition. Decked out in hijabs, Muslim women were more readily identifiable by their religion than Muslim men, and faced a troubling backlash. Even today, the women we interviewed say, threats and derogatory remarks are unsettlingly commonplace.

Delores Laws remembers a young man staring her down on a Metro-North train. She was alone with her grandson in the car. Laws took out the mace she bought for protection following the attacks and held it hidden behind a day planner. She prayed.

"I said to Allah, 'Please do not allow this to happen to me here, because I cannot protect myself and I do not want my grandson to have to witness this.'" The man got off the train with no commotion but a hostile arm motion.

That wasn't the only time. Laws says she would walk down the streets of Stamford to shouts of "terrorist" or "go back to your country." "I would turn around and say, 'This is my country. I was born here, and one of the great things about America is that I have this choice.'"

Her family tried to get her to take off the hijab for safety reasons, but Laws refused. Still, she recalls thinking, "I wonder if this is how Asian Americans felt during World War II."

In the face of this kind of hardship opening her business to the community became particularly relevant to Laws. Though she locked her doors at 6 p.m. as usual, she would stick around if anyone wanted to talk. Members of the community would sit in circles and discuss religion, often late into the night.

Though the fear has waned, the pre/post 9/11 clause still rings fiercely in the psyche of Muslim Americans as reason to remain rooted in their communities, rather than separate.

Laws no longer carries mace with her, but she still views it as part of her duty to provide a positive interaction with non-Muslims through her business.

"If you do that you can't teach people that their perceptions are wrong—they need an example. People have to see: We're visual and emotional people," says Laws.

For Sesker, cutting hair builds bridges.

"People that didn't know me [before they come to my salon] see that I'm wrapped up and say, 'How she gonna do my hair if she's wrapped up?' I love that part of my job when I'm like, 'Well, let me show you. I can show you better than I can tell you.'"

Wanted: Muslim Women for All Positions

Azizah's Tayyibah Taylor sees the rise of Muslim women in business as a natural progression in the Muslim American experience. The first priority was what to eat, then where to pray. Having satisfied those needs, schools were built. Enterprise is the natural next step, Taylor says.

As the Muslim American population grows, the key will be finding women to fill jobs that only Muslim women can do. A recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public life showed Islam is a growing faith, but it's dependent on women going into certain fields to survive, according to the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford's Abdul-Karim.

"We need more Muslim doctors for working with women. We need more Muslim social workers for dealing with issues with women. You go to other countries and there are more social agencies with women because of the need for separation by gender, but we don't have those agencies yet because [the American Muslim population] is new," says Abdul-Karim.

To Mubarakah Ibrahim, it's as much about bringing a new, entrepreneurial face to Islam. Speaking to a Yale forum on Muslim women in business, Ibrahim said:

"When I wrote to Oprah it was in part because I wanted her to have a positive Muslim role model on her show, someone who's not oppressed, who's not embarrassed of wearing the hijab...No offense to Muslim sisters who are from other countries, but my father is a Cherokee, and my mother is African American. My father fought on the front lines of Normandy. When you see that as a face of Islam, that I am an American Muslim, it's different."


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« Reply #1 on: May 26, 2008 04:32 AM »

Denmark: Immigrant women entrepreneurs

A big part of New Danish (ie, immigrant) women start their own company and with that strengthen society's entrepreneur culture and push for equality and integration, said the Danish prime minster when he met several hundred enterprising women in Århus.

Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that it should be recognized that immigrant women outdo their own husbands and the Danes in general in entrepreneurship despite the resistance they face. He opened a conference in Århus on entrepreneurship and independence, with over 100 immigrant women attending.

"When a woman with an immigrant background starts her own company, it has meaning for the whole of Danish society. First because we need people who are not afraid to take chances and put things in motion. Second because the integration in the labor market of Danes with immigrant background is necessary for maintaining cohesion in Denmark, and finally because these women bring us closer to full equality in Denmark - it is crucial in a community with fewer active workers and more elderly," he said.

Rasmussen had no doubt that the women play an important role when it comes to integration - whether they're independent or employed.

"I have heard that when somebody integrates a man, then they only integrate a man. When somebody integrates a women, they they integrate a whole family. Many of you are role models - You have dreams of your future," he said, while many in the hall nodded in agreement.

To the question what else can be done to encourage immigrant women to entrepreneurship, Rasmussen answered that there is already a special loan, which can go up to 500,000 kroner (~$90,000), and the state guarantees 75% of the amount. Besides entrepreneurs are offered extensive counseling and finally there exist several funds that are directed at immigrant women.

"But many are afraid of taking such a loan, since Islam is against interest," objects Hani Ali, who has Somali upbringing.

The answer was that people should take into account that these are Danish terms with interest on loans.

"What will you do so that also ethnic girls with veils can get a job?" asked Maria Avianfav, who has Iranian background and feels well integrated after 13 years in Denmark.

"As I said in my Constitution Day speech, people should choose themselves if they want to wear a veil. We will not make laws about it. But at the same time it will be possible for both public and private employers to make objective regulations for employee's clothing."

Source: Berlingske (Danish)

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« Reply #2 on: May 26, 2008 04:38 AM »

Muslim Women Entrepreneurs

From CEOs to Chicken Vendors
By  Shahnaz Taplin-Chinoy
“An Arab woman who doesn’t shoot for the moon is an idiot,” says Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan writer and sociologist in her book Dreams of Trespass. Yet, shooting for the moon takes on new challenges in an era of globalization. Across the Arab world — Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt, women from CEOs to chicken vendors shoot for the moon. But they also share something in common with women in other regions; it is often socio-economic realities, not religion or culture, which dictate similar work choices and patterns for women globally.

Globally, economic realities require under-privileged women to work. Middle-class, educated women can afford the choice to work or stay home and raise their kids, while affluent women — be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu — have a plethora of options.

Umm Mohamad Ahmed, a 47-year-old woman selling chickens in Cairo’s Dharb Al Ahmar slum faces slump sales: “Chicken sales have been down due to bird flu.” Left with five children when her husband died, Ahmed decided to re-open his poultry shop, but she lacked capital. On her neighbor’s advice, she applied — with trepidation — for a micro finance loan of 200 Egyptian pounds ($35 US). Wearing a black face-veil splattered with chicken innards, Ahmed is part of the global economy.

Ahmed represents a huge segment of Muslim women who are primary breadwinners. With no choice about working, they hover at the two-dollar-a-day, third-world poverty line. Though their economic roles are often influenced by the global economy, their specific strategies still retain their traditional religious or cultural business ethics.

Around the corner sits Hanan Hamed Osman, a 55-year-old divorcee who started a kiosk business selling tea biscuits and chips. She capitalized her kiosk with the sale of her jewelry nine years ago. Later, in response to customer research, Osman diversified her inventory to include sugar, oils, rice, pasta, and even lufas, with three consecutive micro finance loans. Today, she earns 110 Egyptian pounds a day ($20 US) while in the old days she would only net 10-20 pounds ($3-5 US).

Islamic values and the fear of God guide Osman’s business decisions, keeping her happy with modest returns and minimal profits. When asked about her dreams, poor as she is, her first response is “to go for Umrah, a pilgrimage.” When pushed on business growth, she says, “I dream of ten kiosks, but I am happy with what I have.”

The theme of “happy with what I have now” is also echoed by Intisar Hamed, a 31-year old, unmarried woman — a candle maker, whose loan enables her to stock raw materials and work daily instead of every other day. Soon to be married in a “love marriage of her choice,” Hamed lives modestly, with a relentlessly crowing rooster, her relatives, and her religion. Following her religious mandates, she chooses to buy top-grade raw materials because she does not want to short-change her customers.

Necessity has turned these Muslim women into micro-financed entrepreneurs. Like the masseuses who work in a hammam, or ladies spa, in Allepo, Syria, the entrepreneurs would have preferred not to work. But as widows and divorcees, they are responsible for their children. In a beauty salon in Amman, Jordan, women manicurists opt to work due to family hardships. Someone in the family falls ill or dies, and they end up having to come to the financial rescue.

Not all women face this struggle on the margins. In Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, more than half the college graduates are women. The Syrian women patronizing the spa, and the Jordanian clientele of the beauty salon fit a different model — educated, middle-class, often university graduates who prefer to be housewives after marriage.

On the West Bank of Palestine, however, highly educated women become sole breadwinners for a different reason. Many of them have lost fathers, brothers, and husbands to jail or to the Intifada, or their husbands cannot get jobs because of the new restrictions on entry into Jerusalem.

And then there are well-educated, privileged women who have choices wherever they reside. “I took over the business to continue the family name, not so much for money. It was not an easy thing in Syria, especially because it (father’s business) was not supposed to be a business for women,” says Shirin Derani, 35 and single. Nineteen at the time her father died, and the oldest of four siblings, Derani took over her father's business of packaging food for hotels. Since then, she has expanded and now imports kitchens and table wares for restaurants and hotels.

The challenge of entering a man’s world came with the job. Derani speaks of her first experience in Italy while attending a management course. The Italian manager said to her, “This is not for a woman, go back to your country and send me your brother,” who, Derani explains, was 11 at the time. So women entrepreneurs in the Arab world do face male hostility — often from the West.
Derani cites many challenges in business, including “Syria’s lack of support for commerce, lack of access to capital and private banks that required all funds to be raised from the family.” She also has to deal with Syria’s incomplete integration in the global economy; she cannot get import permits for many of the goods she needs.

“People in business call me a train because I don’t have any limits. I must overcome all the obstacles to reach my goal,” says Derani. Admitting that she had to put her long hair in a ponytail so men would look at her and not her hair, Derani says, “I had to gain respect for myself and the respect of the men I worked with.”

Yet Derani confesses: “I am successful in business but it has affected my personal life. I don’t know how to relate to a man. I’ve become one of the guys.” She has no common language with her girlfriends who opted for traditional paths.

Derani has high hopes and dreams: “I don’t want Syria to remain a virgin market. I want to change policies and lift import restrictions because even though the government wants to protect local industry, local production is inadequate to meet the needs of Syrians today.” She believes that her “success defies western notions of Muslim women stereotypes,” and she has written to Oprah Winfrey several times asking for the opportunity to share her story.

In Jordan — a more open society, Salwa Aldiqs, whose father is Bedouin, has fewer obstacles than Derani. Aldiqs, 37 and married with two children, started Kinda, a woman’s salon in 1998. Unlike Derani, she faced few challenges, besides mastering the paperwork of a start-up company. In fact, her family has been most supportive, particularly her Bedouin in-laws, who are not well-educated. Pregnant with her child and birthing the salon simultaneously, Aldiqs was so overwhelmed that her in-laws offered to send one of their daughters to Amman to help her in the business.

Aldiqs says, “being a woman and running your own business is a plus,” in a country where it is common for educated, upper-class women to operate businesses. Aldiqs pays the working women in her salon good wages by Jordanian standards, recognizing the pressures they have at home with family, finances, and taking care of sick relatives.

Remarkably, the economic roles and choices of women in the Arab world seemed very similar to those in the United States and followed familiar global patterns. Working-class or poor women have tougher lives and most must work. Where many men are in jail or face violent death, women pick up the slack. Educated middle-class women can choose to work or not. Everywhere, affluent women can do as they please. They can “shoot for the moon” and be entrepreneurial stars; stay at home and be women of leisure, full-time mothers; or some combination. But while culture shapes the particular local choices, the global economy relentlessly seeps in everywhere — even into the chicken markets of Cairo's slums.

Shahnaz Taplin-Chinoyis a freelance writer based in the United States She holds a master's degree in communications from Stanford University. For the past 30 years, she has been working as a communications specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area and in India with non-profit organizations and foundations on women's, children's, and environmental issues. She is now channeling her experience to create a dialogue and bridge the divide between Islam and the West.

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