RAS AL KHAIMAH // Cottage industries run by women in the emirate are booming, thanks to the use of the internet as a marketing tool. Education and technology are opening doors to women who want an outlet for their talents without compromising their traditional family responsibilities, and increasing numbers are working from home.
Soaad Mattar, 42, a mother of seven, runs a small business designing table cloths and beauty accessories. Twice a month she and 21 other home-based businesswomen meet at her daughter's house to sell their products. But she also believes the possibilities for home-based entrepreneurs have blossomed through technology that enables them to market their products across the Gulf. She works with a group of about 25 women in Ras al Khaimah to promote the growing cottage industries of the emirate.
"We have customers everywhere, in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar," Mrs Mattar said. "Now we stay at home and we can sell from the internet, our families and our neighbours. We don't have to have a shop. We have a choice." Over the past decade her customer base has expanded from friends and neighbours to three countries, thanks in large part to websites designed and run by Emirati women. "A lot of women come and say, 'I'm shy but I want to take part and join you.' Some make traditional food, some sell abayas, wedding dresses. Although it's a small place we make a big profit."
Mrs Mattar, whose 19-year-old daughter is following in her footsteps, designing veils and abayas, advertises through e-mails, SMS messages and websites, takes orders by phone and e-mail and has a merchant who flies across the Gulf to deliver her products. "I want to make my business bigger but not in a shop," she said. "I want to continue working from home. I am a housewife and I have other responsibilities."
It was these responsibilities that led Salha Salem, a mother of 11 children between the ages of 12 and 33, to start working from home. Mrs Salem, 48, called it the ideal for women who want to balance their business aspirations with family obligations. Her business started when her first children went to school. Friends, admiring her daughter's hair clips, began placing orders. Each year Mrs Salem would expand her list of products and she is now known for her blends of Emirati spices, coffee and traditional perfumes.
Over time she developed her own network of merchants who bring ingredients to her directly from India and sell her finished products throughout the Gulf. Mrs Salem began by volunteering at a local market and through time, friendships and determination, managed to build a strong reputation. Encouraged by her husband, she frequently visits schools and exhibitions to sell her wares. "Hamdullilah, I have a profit that is suitable. Working at home has a lot of advantages. I can take care of my home while I work. I feel very proud, especially when I see people ordering something from me. I did my own idea by myself and when people accept my ideas I feel very proud of my achievements."
Sendeyya Jumah and Tahani Qader, business and IT students at the RAK Women's College, believe technology can do even more for these cottage industries. When they graduate next year, they plan to start a marketing business for home-based entrepreneurs. "Because of our society a lot of women cannot work outside the home," said Ms Jumah. "But I think they thought if they work in the home they can take care of their children and at the same time do the business they dream of.
"Now, because of the development of technology, everything is easy. They use the internet to deliver to shops, SMS to advertise." Ms Qader said: "I think when women started to know about technology they said, 'This is the easy way. We can stay at home and do our business at the same time.' "Our traditions don't allow women to work in a mixed place. Also, most of them have babies and they don't want housemaids to take care of their children."
The brave new step by women is not without its challenges. "Who will encourage us?" asked Ms Qader. "In Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi you have different organisations to fund them and encourage them, but here in RAK you have to rely on yourself. They give us courses, but not funding." "If we have a real organisation and support for the businesses, funding them, encouraging them, give them different courses, tell them what is happening in other countries, it could help a lot," said Ms Jumah. "It will prove that women can do whatever they want.
"Maybe they studied at university and they don't have work. Maybe they are graduates, maybe they have a dream to achieve but they don't have a job. So maybe they start a business to improve themselves." Courses on technology would give home-based women the know-how to succeed. For many, working from home had become an economic necessity. Ms Jumah said: "Now a lot of women are divorced and are spinsters. Now there are a lot in RAK. They need someone to help them. Maybe their family can't help them. Working from home is a good way to take care of their children and do something to get a profit and help their family."
It helped that attitudes were changing. "Now they can accept women working. In the past when they [men] heard that a woman is working they didn't even marry her. Now it's one of the requirements for a marriage." For young women, the example of their mothers' entrepreneurship and their own technological savvy would guarantee home businesses a future. "We are graduates from college, we have more ideas, we can prove our talents more and I think we can achieve our goals whether we have support or not. The environment is changing."