Defying the expected: Yemeni women in the formal economy

Published on 1 January 2015 in Business
Khalid Al-Karimi (writer), Khalid Al-Karimi (photographer)

Khalid Al-Karimi


Khalid Al-Karimi

Managing a shop makes Lena Ahmed financially independent and helps to support her family, but she also thinks there is more at stake. “I don’t just want to change myself, I want to help improve my entire society.”  (Photo by Khalid Al-Karimi)

Managing a shop makes Lena Ahmed financially independent and helps to support her family, but she also thinks there is more at stake. “I don’t just want to change myself, I want to help improve my entire society.” (Photo by Khalid Al-Karimi)

Walking into Queens Shop, Lena Ahmed, 34, can be found sitting at the storefront awaiting customers. Not wearing the face-covering niqab, it becomes clear she is a Yemeni woman. There are passersby who might object to it, but Lena, who is originally from Taiz, says she is proud to be managing a business on her own. When she accepted the position four months ago, her family was hesitant. “I don’t feel like I am doing anything wrong, though. I am convinced that not every tradition or custom is right,” she said.

Lena is not the only one at Queens Shop defying expectations, for the business is owned and financed by a Yemeni woman as well. Bushra Al-Kibsi, 40, opened her shop in June 2013. Located on Al-Dairy Street in the capital Sana’a, Queens Shop deals in women’s clothing, accessories, perfumes, and cosmetics.

Bushra holds a degree in commerce from the University of Sana’a and has wanted to open her own shop ever since graduating in 1992. “I wanted to increase my income and be self-dependent, and I thought starting my own business was the best way to do it,” she said.

Bushra began working in the capital’s Education Office after university, and with the help of her family she was eventually able to save enough money to start her business without taking a loan. She has no intention of leaving her current position, which is why she hired Lena to manage the business for her, although she regularly checks in on the shop.

Lena received a diploma in business administration in 2006, and hopes to follow in Bushra’s steps and one day open a business of her own. “I feel I am on the right path towards realizing bigger goals. With my determination and the support of my husband, who is a biology teacher, my ambition will not stop. I don’t just want to change myself, I want to help improve my entire society.”

Radfan Abdulhabib, Lena’s husband, says he encourages his wife to be successful in her business. “I don’t think work is only for men. I support her working and I want her to realize her dreams. Our life is interdependent, and cooperation between us is indispensable,” he said.

Looking around the shop, Lena estimates that the products on offer could be worth over two million Yemeni Ryals ($9300). “Our takings are not always the same, it varies from one day to another. Sales could reach YR100.000 ($500) in one day, but sometimes the whole day passes and I’ve sold nothing.”

Divided reactions

Accustomed to dealing only with men in shops, Sana’anis have different reactions to finding a woman like Lena serving them. “Different kinds of customers come to our store. Some express their surprise or congratulate me. Others say I am not a Yemeni. I don’t care about the negative criticism because not everyone holds the same opinion,” says Lena.  

Surprised to find an unveiled woman running a business and negotiating with customers, some assume Lena is not from Yemen because it is generally foreign women—particularly Filipino and African women—who feel at liberty to take on the role.

Fatima Mohammed is an Ethiopian woman who owns a shoe store in the capital, which she has been running for three years. “It is not shameful for me to work. In my country, many women work and they are not criticized by their families for it,” she said. “Just as men have to work, so do women, they are no different. It is not the same in Yemen, not everyone thinks a women should be working.”

Another shop owner from Ethiopia, who declined to give her name, explained that she is working because she finds being jobless more shameful. “It is not bad to work—it is bad to beg. In our culture, women should work and help the man. Making a living is not only a man’s job,” she said.

Fatima says she and others like her are spared the criticism that working Yemeni women receive because they are not held to the same standards.

Lena admits that some of her customers can be “disrespectful” and think they can take advantage of her because she is a woman. She says men will enter the shop and try to deceive her because they think she can’t haggle over prices like a man.

Nonetheless, Lena says most of her customers are respectful, and that she has never been harassed. There are also men who are openly supportive of her.

Sultan Abdulhamid, who works in a laundry shop next door to Lena, thinks she does a great job and is not against the idea of women entering the formal economy. “We live in different times, and women need to work beside their men. Cooperation helps stabilize family life,” he said.

Jamal Shahir, a resident of Sana’a who was passing by Queens Shop, said he would prefer his wife shopping at a business like Bushra’s. “Women feel more comfortable when dealing with a saleswoman, and I would feel more secure when my wife goes shopping, too,” he said. “These initiatives also give women the opportunity to work. I don’t think it’s shameful if a woman works and depends on herself.”

Nadia Ahmed, a recent graduate and regular customer at Queens Shop, says she was drawn to the shop because she saw a woman in charge of it. “I prefer to come to a shop like this, I feel more comfortable negotiating prices with her,” she said.

Um Ali, a school teacher in Sana’a, says it is particularly gratifying to deal with a saleswoman when buying clothes. “Having my dress measured is comfortable in Lena’s presence. It could never be the same with a salesman.”

According to Um Ali, some husbands prefer not to send their wives to public markets, and she says the Queens shop is, “a destination for those highly conservative spouses.”

Tradition and circumstance

While more conservative elements of society might be opposed to the idea of women entering the labor market or running their own businesses, Um Ali’s observation raises an interesting paradox. Attempts to categorize public opinion into two camps—one informed by religion and adverse to female emancipation, the other secular and progressive—may be misguided. Indeed, Bushra describes her father as a deeply pious man, and he has been very supportive of her business venture.

Recent decades have seen a large increase in the number of women entering the formal economy on a global scale, but countries in the Middle East and North Africa are lagging far behind. According to a 2013 World Bank report on gender inequality and development, over 50 percent of the female population aged 15 and above are participating in labor markets in every other region of the world, but the corresponding figure in the Middle East and North Africa is 25.2 percent. In Yemen, it is estimated that just five percent of women are involved in the country’s formal economy.

It is easy to assume that tradition or social customs explain this lag, but there is often more involved. “Not surprisingly,” the World Bank report reads, “the lowest participation rates are in fragile or conflict-affected states such as Iraq, Palestinian Territories, and the Republic of Yemen.”

If we consider female-owned businesses specifically, Bushra is not quite the anomaly she might seem in Sana’a. Only about ten percent of firms in Yemen are female-owned, but World Bank data (Enterprise Surveys 2003-2006) suggests that the number of businesses owned by individual males and individual females is almost equal, and that most women in Yemen own their firms individually.

It is also worth noting that less than half of firms, both male- and female-owned, are found in capital cities, and that in Yemen female-owned firms are significantly less likely to be located in the capital.

The data does not reveal how many female owners manage their own businesses, but it does show that female-owned firms are more likely to employ women at professional and managerial levels.

While Bushra and Lena say they are managing to keep the business afloat, they admit it can be difficult at times. It is not for a lack of family support or because of society’s expectations, however. It is rather to do with the shop’s location and the current security situation.

“We are located on Al-Dairy Street, a place notorious for sporadic marches and protests. The shop is not in a busy area like Jamal Street or Hael Street,” explained Lena. “The general security situation has also made people economical and more focused on meeting their basic needs,” she added.  

The fact that Bushra imports her garments from Turkey and America, where she has relatives, also makes business difficult because the prices are higher than usual. “Some customers want more affordable things, or they are unable to spend on dresses of finer quality. I think we should provide dresses that suit everyone’s budget,” said Lena.

Bushra and Lena run a business that is tied into a global economy and is affected by events near and far. A minority of women in Yemen are involved in the formal economy, and businesses like the Queen Shop help address the imbalance. Whether the biggest obstacles lie in tradition or circumstance, however, remains an open question, but it is clear that economic and political instability will need to subside before a real change can be effected.

Owned and managed by women, the Queen Shop on Al-Dairy street defies the expectations of many in Sana’a. (Photo by Khalid Al-Karimi)

Owned and managed by women, the Queen Shop on Al-Dairy street defies the expectations of many in Sana’a. (Photo by Khalid Al-Karimi)