In a quiet corner of her house, which is bustling with visitors, a sixty-year-old woman is sitting, smiling and welcoming her guests, sharing her wisdom and confidence, and telling an inspiring story full of challenges and achievements. Despite the difficulties and risks she faced, she was able to stand by the men in the business world and proved that hard work and determination can achieve the impossible.
Zulaikha Al-Bahsani or Om Saed as she likes to be called, is one of the most famous livestock traders in Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut governorate, eastern Yemen.
She was able to enter the world of import and export as the first woman in Mukalla and managed to turn the ordeal of the civil war in Somalia, where she was born and raised, and leave her job (medicine), into a thriving business running two farms in east and west Mukalla as a successful livestock trader.
Challenges Shaped Her First Steps
At the outbreak of the Somali civil war in the early 1990s, Zulaikha recounts that she had to leave her job as a doctor as a result of threats to doctors, traders and people of social standing, by kidnapping or killing, only to leave Somalia with her husband and head to her ancestors’ country of "Yemen".
Zulaikha says that she chose to practice trade when she came to Yemen for two reasons: One is that her ancestors who came from Hadhramaut were traders in Somalia, and the other is that she could no longer practice medicine because of her poor eyesight.
The first steps of her business began in 1994 through trade with some local products such as honey, ghee and frankincense, followed by importing livestock from Somalia and selling it in the local market, where they started with dozens of livestock, but today own thousands of sheep, cows and camels, and their business covers different areas of Hadhramaut governorate.
A sixty-year-old woman is distinguished by her ability to cope with surprisingly difficult challenges, she possesses unique experience and understands the depth of the secrets of the world of international trade. She confidently talks about markets and products, shares inspiring stories of her animals and how she invests in the development of her farms and improving the quality of the products.
Zulaikha faced reservations and societal challenges that considered the business field limited to men, however, she did not succumb to the prevailing beliefs and did not let restrictions limit her determination.
Instead, she used these reservations as a motive to prove her abilities and strength. At the beginning of her work she faced piracy problems in Somalia, but this did not stop her from her goal and she continued to work hard until today she owns a VIP membership with the Hadhramaut Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as she owns "Om Saed Foundation" for Sale and Trade of Livestock and she also has a group of ships that she rents to male traders to bring their goods on it to import gasoline, cars and food.
Zulaikha stresses that honesty in trade is the key to success in business and emphasises that now, women can enter this field because of their patience and endurance, as they have become educated and difficult to deceive.
On the same path, influenced by Zulaikha’s experience, twenty-year-old Mona Baktyyan entered the world of entrepreneurship. Only two years after her graduation she was able to establish her own company, "Mona Trading and Services Co. Ltd.", as she was working during her university studies, which gained her experience and relationships through which she was able to open her own business.
As for the difficulties encountered, Mona says: "For a young girl to open a private enterprise as a public services office is a difficulty in itself in a male, business-monopolistic society, such a step requires great audacity.".
Mona stresses the changes in Yemeni society in recent years that have made it acceptable for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship and commerce and to compete with men, attributing this to the economic conditions that affected the majority of citizens after the war, which contributed significantly to women's entry into the labour market as well as to the expansion of education among women.
According to a new statistic from the Bureau of Industry and Commerce in Hadhramaut Governorate, the number of women with a commercial register is 210, while those who hold membership in the Chamber of Commerce are much more. Nour al-Morshidi, Director of the Women's Department at the Bureau of Industry and Commerce, attributes this to changes in culture and social trends, where the role of women in work and the economy is more recognized, in addition to the increasing level of education and the availability of professional training opportunities that give them the skills and abilities necessary to undertake special projects and to engage into the business sector in general.
"We have women who work in the import of electrical materials, export and contracting, and we, at the Bureau of Industry and Trade, only provide them with logistical support," Nour says.
The majority of Yemeni business women suffer from the burden of fees imposed on them and the lack of government facilities for women like their female counterparts in other Arab countries, where women enjoy facilities by their governments, such as the abolition of any tariffs, taxes and levies that drive women's projects to compete and give them the ability to continue.
Faiza Bani, a businesswoman with a sewing workshop and Chair of the Hadhramaout Businesswomen's Forum, suggests that women's enterprises that employ labour should be exempted from taxes to encourage businesswomen to continue their projects and ensure their success. "We communicate with businesswomen from outside Yemen, who have facilities from their country's governments, especially women who export local products" Bani adds.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she was able to pick up the thread and start her project at the workshop by making masks and "protective uniforms" used by medical staff in hospitals during the pandemic.
Samiha Habbshi, an entrepreneurship trainer with many local organisations, believes that the most significant difficulties facing businesswomen in Yemen is the lack of soft financing and lending banks, through which women can improve their products to be suitable for export. As most women producers suffer from a lack of possibilities to improve their product from incubators and consultations because they are unable to pay. Even if they get a soft loan from a bank or financing funds, it is often in the local currency, and one of the most common problems for businesswomen and even male traders is the fluctuation of the exchange rate.
Thus the role of women in trade is not only an economic empowerment but also a promotion of diversity, expansion of prospects for success and the overthrow of societal and cultural structures of violence. Therefore, enhancing women's representation and empowerment in the field of business is a wise investment to build a more advanced and prosperous society.