By Sharmeen Gangat
Women from a country in the news for its dysfunction and poverty are reaching out to grasp economic opportunities in their new U.S. home, even as they stay true to traditional roots.
January 6, 2010
In Brooklyn, New York, a group of Yemeni women have become microentrepreneurs so that, among other goals, they can buy Metrocards for travel to a center where they learn English. Coming from the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula, one that has ranked lowest for the last four years on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, they refuse to let the current distressed economic climate in this country confine them to their homes.
These immigrant women—most of whom have been in the United States for less than two years—prepare greeting cards that they sell with the support of the organization that houses their project: the Arab American Family Support Center. As they work to improve their communications skills and gain economic independence, they defy Western notions that veiled women are conservative and insular. Such were the initial assumptions, for example, of a staff writer for the Observer, who was “dismayed” that her English-speaking translator for a story on Yemen women was fully veiled—though she realized as she got to know her that the issue of a veil was a “red herring.”
Deeply rooted in tradition, the women entrepreneurs in Brooklyn wear abayas (a loose black robe that covers them from head to toe) and sharshafs (a black skirt, cape, veil, and head covering). But the clothing does nothing to impede their work. Sho’a, for example, is fast and precise as she cuts the cardboard paper for the cards. Her English skills are impressive: she has almost mastered the language in less than a year’s time. However, she seems to prefer talking in Yemeni Arabic, a distinct dialect, as she bonds with her countrywomen. Their cheerful chatter is reminiscent of tafrutas, friendly afternoon gatherings of women in their native Yemen.
The women started their greeting card business after their husbands refused to buy them transportation passes because of the current economic woes. Without subway cards, they could not travel to the center. They shared their situation with the organization staff who, instead of providing monetary support, helped them become entrepreneurs with a grant that the women have since repaid out of their profits. Additional funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation provides business development and marketing expertise. Gina Vellani, the center’s adult education manager, serves as their guide, and the women are very fond of her. On my request, Gina arranges for me to talk with Wardah Al-Muntasser and Salwa Abdullah in a room adjacent to their makeshift workshop.
Wardah Al-Muntasser, who has been in the United States for almost 22 years, is determined to finally pass the U.S. citizenship exam with the help of civics classes offered at the center. In her household, the male members—her husband and two sons—are the breadwinners and she is the decision maker.
“I have told my husband that my sons’ money will not be remitted to his family in Yemen,” she confides to me. Her husband has been sending the money back “all his life,” she says, “but this can’t continue anymore.”
Compared to the aggressive Wardah, Salwa Abdullah is soft and demure, a lone Sudani among the Yemeni woman. Salwa wishes for economic independence as a means to support her recently laid-off husband. As she shares her story, she wipes tears away with the edges of her head covering.
The center also directs Salwa and others to a variety of educational opportunities available in the community—such as computer training, GED preparation and resume writing classes—to learn skills she needs for a secure financial future.
Salwa is highly motivated to take charge on the economic front, Wardah to guide her family’s social choices. Whatever their aspirations, they reflect a personal autonomy that has nothing to do with outward appearance—and one that’s bolstered by their meetings together at the center.