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Yemeni women break taboos to become family breadwinners

Deaths of fathers and husbands in the war has forced women to break out of traditional gender roles to become entrepreneurs
Tahani Abdullah, 35, became an entrepreneur after the loss of her husband (MEE/Mohammed al-Khayat)

SANAA - Nuha Azman had to come up with a solution amid the bloodshed of war-torn Sanaa – and fast.

The 25-year-old had just lost her father after he was hit by shrapnel following a Saudi-led coalition air strike on the al-Hafa camp in Khawlan Street. Beyond the immediate grief at his death, the household had also lost its main provider, with Azman’s 10-year-old brother now the only remaining man in the family.

“I became responsible for supporting my family,” Azman said, “then I decided to start a business of making jewellery. I borrowed $1,500 and started making jewellery at home and selling it to shops in malls and other large markets, as well as participating in female bazaars.” Her initiative paid off: her business is now making around $800 per month.

The war in Yemen has left more than 6,400 people dead and displaced at least 2.8 million, the UN reports. Many of those killed are men who provided for their families at one level or another.

Now, through necessity, entrepreneurial women have taken on that mantle, starting small businesses in a country where many disapprove of men and women mixing in the workplace.

But these kinds of attitudes do not affect Azman in the least. “I am not worried about men’s criticism, I am capable of shutting [out] any person who criticises me, whether it is from inside or outside the family,” she says.

One of Nuha Azman's creations from Necklace & Bracelet (MEE/Mohammed al-Khayat)

'Thank God my monthly income is increasing'

Azman spoke with a mixture of emotions at launching Necklace & Bracelet, her female accessories and jewellery startup - sadness at losing her father, coupled with a sense of self-worth at the business she has launched.

After six months of supplying outlets with her products she was able to repay the money she borrowed, open a small shop in a top Sanaa mall and hire a man to work there.

“Profits from my shop allowed me to support my family and myself,” Azman said, “and thank God my monthly income is increasing from one month to another. Last month it reached about $800.”

For Tahani Abdullah, 35, it was the loss of her husband, a private security guard, which similarly led her to become an entrepreneur. He was hit in the head by a ricocheting bullet, she explained. Surgery cost $3,500 and it was paid for with all of Abdullah’s life savings as well as her gold.

At this point in her recollection Abdullah started to choke back tears and had to stop talking for a couple of minutes while she composed herself. Eventually she continued: “After the expensive surgery, my husband was in a comatose state. He died three days later, leaving me and my 12-year-old-son without anything to fall back on.”

With the death of her husband, Abdullah had no alternative other than to find work, but at the start of the war many small companies left Yemen and she could not get a job. Eventually she began selling perfumes made by a friend on street corners and at traffic intersections. She earned enough to cover living costs and rent, then started making her own perfumes and selling them wholesale to shops.

“After that I decided to open my own small shop and showcase my products,” she said. “Thank God, my capital is now $10,000. Half of it was borrowed from my friend, which I repaid at the end of last Ramadan.” The holy month of Ramadan is a time of shopping sprees in Yemen, when the purchasing power of consumers is at its highest.

What sheikhs make of the movement

Yemen is generally a conservative society in which a woman often needs a good reason to leave her home. For many Yemenis, women working with men – known as “ free mixing” - is a sensitive issue.

'A woman must not leave her house to work and mix with men in order to sell and buy'

Some disapprove of women setting up their own businesses. Bader Ad-Din al-Slewi, a Salafi sheikh, told Middle East Eye: “A woman must not leave her house to work and mix with men in order to sell and buy. If she must work to support herself, she can do it from home and hire a relative to sell her products without going out or she can hire a pious man to sell these things for her.”

He cited the story of Khadija, the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, who - was very rich but - according to him - never left her home, even before marrying the prophet.

But Abdullah Muharram, a moderate Zaidi sheikh, disagreed. He cited the story of the Prophet asking for help from women to aid wounded Muslim soldiers. He said that nursing was a profession at the time and that a certain amount of free mixing happened then, thereby proving that both actions were permitted in Islam.

“There is nothing wrong with a woman leaving her house to work, if she needs to do so, and with the consent of her in loco parentis,” Muharram said.

“Anyone who says otherwise has to bring forward evidence from the holy Quran or Sunnah.”

How my hobby paid my mother's medical bills

Fatima Nafea, 40, used to make dresses for herself and for her three sisters, without ever thinking that she might have to change her hobby into a profession one day. Like other women, tragedy forced her to begin her own business.

“At the beginning of the Saudi war on Yemen, my little brother, who is two years younger than me, went to fight on the Yemeni-Saudi border. He was killed two weeks later.”

There was no one to support the all-female household, including Nafea’s sick mother, who needs $100 each month for medicine - so she decided to turn her tailoring hobby into a profession to ensure a “dignified living”.

Nafea continues with pride and confidence: “I started this small project and offered to tailor the clothes of my friends and neighbours for a much lower price than any other tailor. It helped me raise my profile in a very short period. My income last month reached $1000, all of which I spent on my family.”

Now Nafea’s house is where women in war-torn Sanaa head for fashion at low prices. All a girl has to do is to present a photo of her dress to Nafea, who will then make an accurate replica, according to Yasmin Soufan, one of her regular customers.

“I am very optimistic about the future," says Nafea. "I expect if the security and economic situation becomes more stable and people’s income increases, I will be able to turn my little workshop into a factory and employ other women who lost their husbands during the war.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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