Cooking up a storm

“My husband died, leaving me with ten children. The youngest was eight months old. I suddenly became financially responsible for all of them.” Rasha from Jordan explains some of the challenges these inspirational women faced before setting up their production kitchen.

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Written by Emma Langbridge

We are completely lost and therefore late for our appointment at a production kitchen on the outskirts of the city of Al-Mafraq. According to the satnav we are in the middle of nowhere, which seems about right. Sawsan, whose house the kitchen is based in, talks us through the deserted streets via phone and we eventually pull up outside her house.

Sawsan, aged 52, comes out to greet us in a bright pink robe and purple headscarf, strikingly different to her fellow business partners who are all dressed head to toe in black. She leads us into a courtyard where children are playing and then into a cramped room which has been converted into a kitchen where her four business partners are waiting.  One of the women, Samira, steps forward to greet us with hugs – she is beaming from ear to ear and clearly excited about our visit. 

As we sit down and start to introduce ourselves I tell the women, via my colleague Hazar who is translating, how honoured we are to meet such entrepreneurial and welcoming women. Samira, 43, immediately interrupts in Arabic saying “I don’t speak English and I have no idea what you are saying, but actually I understand everything!  We are so happy to welcome you here.”

When I ask how they all met, Sawsan explains: “Three of us have known each other since before we were married, it’s nearly forty years!  The others we met at bazaars and through our local community centre.” They tell us how they all learnt to cook through trial and error, including experimenting with new recipes found on the internet.  Their cooking skills become immediately apparent as they start laying out endless dishes on the small table in front of us.  It is not clear how all this food is going to fit on the table, least of all how we are going to eat it all.  Each woman has made a separate dish and is very proud of her own produce.  Samira has made the pizza and is loading large slices onto our plates.

sawsan with food

Sawsan, photo: CARE Nederland

My colleague Solange takes out her phone to photograph the food and immediately two of the women cover their faces with their burqas.  Once we reassure them that it is only the food being photographed, they relax and uncover their faces to reveal enormous smiles.

Most of the women have run a small cooking business from home and two of them had run a small restaurant which had to close for financial reasons. They have only come together recently to form this new production kitchen, following training and a grant from CARE. The grant has enabled them to turn what was an empty store room in Sawsan’s home into a fully functioning kitchen with fridges, a cooker and all the necessary equipment.  Samira explains: “We start work at 7am and we are very happy working together.  We are very proud of whatever we make.”

But despite this positivity it is clear that each and every woman has overcome significant problems to get where she is today. 48 year old Rasha tells her story: “14 years ago my husband died.  I was left with ten children, the youngest was eight months old, and I suddenly became financially responsible for all of them. I tried everything I could think of to earn money – selling clothes, baking pastries and running a restaurant.”

Rasha

Rasha, photo: CARE Nederland

63 year old Fadda tells a similar tale: “I got married at 15 years old and my husband died when I was 24, leaving me with five children. I worked in a garment factory for a while but the hours were long, the income was low and the conditions were terrible.  I found it difficult to feed my family so that we could all survive.” 

Samira adds: “None of us have had a stable income, we’ve all tried different things.  This new project has given us such stability.  Sawsan is doing us a big favour by offering this room for our business but ultimately we want to expand into a bigger place and scale up our food business.”

When we start talking about other barriers facing women in Jordan, 48 year old Mariam speaks out: “The only obstacle for Jordanian women is access to money.  There are no resources here in Jordan for women.  You have to be very persistent.  Most of us would do anything to become financially independent from our husbands so that we can buy what we want, when we want.” This sparks a heated debate amongst the five women.  Hazar struggles to keep up with the translation as all the women talk simultaneously about the multiple barriers facing Jordanian women.  The discussion ranges from access to finance to women’s liberty to husbands making all the decisions.  Despite the intensity of the debate, it remains amicable and the women clearly enjoy each other’s company and working together. 

At this point Sawsan’s daughter walks in with a toddler in her arms, she laughs as the women continue their lively debate and watches with interest, whilst trying to pacify her wriggling toddler.  The discussion comes to a rapid end as the women notice that not everything has been consumed.  They quickly start piling more food onto our plates, encouraging us to try each of their specially prepared dishes.  The food is delicious and it is clear that these women know not only how to make food but also how to sell it. 

Our visit has been a fascinating insight into the lives of a small group of passionate and determined Jordanian women and we wish them every success in their new venture as we head off into the unknown.

“We need to change the macho mind-set of the men in our country.”

Skillpower shares the powerful stories of women entrepreneurs from across the world. Global humanitarian and development organisation CARE is helping these women to become successful entrepreneurs. Amilcar Mirón is the Acting Country Director for CARE Guatemala and tells us in his own words about this important work.

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