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To find success, Arab women go west

01 May 2015 [10:39] - TODAY.AZ

One way to find success as a Middle Eastern woman? Head west.  

Over the past two decades, entrepreneurial women from the Middle East have thrived outside that often patriarchal region, including Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the first woman recipient of the prestigious Pritzker prize in architecture, and Lebanese-American celebrity fashion designer Reem Acra.

Running their businesses outside the Mideast has given these women greater economic opportunities, but they still face different challenges than their Western counterparts. Some trials are the same, such as the glass ceiling that halts many women from progressing up the management ladder. But expatriate women also face the challenge of coming from an immigrant community and, sometimes, the tug of home.

“A larger marketplace offers more opportunity, depending on what she wants to do. But as an immigrant, she’ll jump through different hoops,” said Renée Ahee, chief executive officer at the Arab American Women’s Business Council, an organisation that coaches Arab American women in business networking and negotiating skills.

Those trials start at home, well before a woman moves abroad.

“Women aren’t always encouraged by their families to go into business, but sons are given all kinds of support,” Ahee said. For Middle Eastern women who are first-generation or second-generation immigrants, this is particularly acute. 

The women who migrated and built their fortune abroad hope they’re paving the way for other young Middle Eastern women, both abroad and back home. Though no longer living in their home nations, having prominent professional women from the Middle East “uplifts the community,” said Ahee.

Here are some of their stories.

Fashion sense

In the midst of her country’s civil war, Reem Acra moved to New York in 1983 at age 20 after graduating from university in Beirut. With the support of her family, she jumped into one of the toughest businesses in one of the toughest cities — fashion in New York — and has been there ever since.  

While it might have been near-impossible to achieve the same success in Lebanon, New York wasn’t exactly a picnic.

“New York isn’t an easy place,” she said. “The competition is fierce.”

When Acra came to the US, there were few prominent women in her field, and she found she had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to prove herself. Today, her dresses are regularly spotted on Hollywood red carpets, worn by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Lopez.

Times have changed since those challenging first years, Acra said. Now she sees many young Lebanese women delaying marriage until they’re established in their careers. Some attend college in New York or elsewhere in the West. That’s something she rarely saw just 10 years ago. In part, she believes that’s because women, with the support of their families, have become more open to going abroad in search of success.

Out of Iraq

Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid has built her career around architecture.  Born in Baghdad in 1950, Hadid established her own firm in 1980 after she graduated from school.

Her work, known for its futuristic shapes, includes the London Aquatic Centre for the 2012 Olympics, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in the US and the Bridge Pavillion in Zaragoza, Spain. She has two projects under way in her native Iraq. Two years ago, her curvy design for the Qatar World Cup stadium was criticized for resembling a vagina, which she dismissed as sexist.

As a woman from the Middle East, the challenges she faced building her career were unique, she said.

“Some of the biggest difficulties that I faced were brought about not by my work, but by my existence as a woman, or as an Arab, or indeed, as an ‘Arab Woman’,” she said. “Ignorance and resistance, large or small, blatant or subtle, deliberate or — and perhaps worse — casual, not even recognised by their perpetrators. You work hard to overcome one, and then the other comes up. The moment my woman-ness is accepted, the Arab-ness seems to become a problem.”

While Hadid said it can be difficult to point to prejudice specifically, one experience stands out. When she won the competition to build the Cardiff Bay Opera House 20 years ago, there was much controversy about the win because she was a foreigner she recalled.  The award was withdrawn. Her firm then won again but the project was cancelled.

Also during the 1990s, Hadid said her firm did one design after another without winning anything. Still, she says, the experience led to a “repertoire which led to the remarkable projects we build today”.

Through most of her career, Hadid says she has not considered herself a role model. But in recent years, “I realised that it is critical I acknowledge the fact that I could influence others. So I think it’s important that I can — in some very modest way — help other women to have the courage and determination to achieve their ambitions,” she said.

Even with her success today— Hadid was the first woman ever to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004 — she still experiences resistance. “I think this keeps you on the go. It’s not as if I just appear somewhere and everybody says ‘yes’ to me — it’s still a struggle, despite having gone through it a hundred times,” she said.  “Now, I've broken beyond the barrier, but it’s always been a very long struggle.”

Women in tech

Rasha Khouri, a Palestinian-Lebanese who founded the online luxury fashion shopping website, Dia Diwan (currently offline while she plans the company’s next step) is one of a small number of women information technology entrepreneurs who have relocated to the West in the last few years — in large part because of better business opportunities.

Khouri, who has previously lived in Beirut, Dubai and London, is now working as a UK-based consultant. She sees her location as a good one for doing business in the West while being in close proximity to the Middle East.

She has also benefited from a strong support network for entrepreneurs, plus particular support for women entrepreneurs. This assistance is not as well-established in the Middle East, she said.

“I have access to role models and mentors who offer support, encouragement, and idea development and focus,” she said.

It’s also much easier to set up and run a business in the UK, she said. Challenges of setting up a business in the Middle East include a weak infrastructure — including slow and expensive internet, lack of capital and political instability.

For Lebanese entrepreneur Jessica Semaan, establishing her business — The Passion Co, an incubator for people to develop ideas — in San Francisco in 2014, meant being in the midst of a thriving ecosystem and a stable market. Still, Lebanon will be part of her future expansion plans. 

“I always say I’m an Arab woman entrepreneur. We always have a responsibility beyond ourselves to inspire more women to take the leap,” said Semaan. “You need to have the confidence you are good to go do it. There’s a lot of society pressure. But you have choice not to listen.”

Semann said she wants to figure out how to spread her own success to other women back home.  

“I’m planning on opening operations in Middle East, with the aim of encouraging women to go and do it,” she said.

/By BBC/


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