As we celebrate Women's History Month we look into the legacy of centuries of entrepreneurship among Muslim women. There is no better expression of that legacy than the "Mashtal," a North American Business Expo: By Women, For Women which recently took place at the Dawoodi Bohra Al Masjid Al Jamali mosque in Ontario, California, and which brought together over 40 Muslim women entrepreneurs. We talked to the organizers of the Expo – Batul Fidaali, Habiba Marvi, and Fareeda Zakir – about the Expo and how the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Dawoodi Bohras has fostered an entrepreneurial ecosystem and informed their personal journeys.
(Pictured above from left to right: Batul Fidaali, Habiba Marvi, and Fareeda Zakir)
Q: Before we dive into the Expo, let's talk about the role (past and present) of Muslim women as business owners, especially in the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam each of you practices.
Fareeda: The word Bohra literally translates to trader or businessperson. Through generations, we have remained a business community. Around the world, the Dawoodi Bohras are known to be professionals and businesspeople, with a reputation for honesty, trustworthiness, and fairness that we deeply value. And, despite many preconceived notions about Muslim women, women really play a crucial role in our businesses. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad's wife was a businesswoman at a time in history when society was male dominated. So, from that very beginning entrepreneurship has been part of who we – as Muslim women – are.
Habiba: When I started working my husband and I lived in Las Vegas, and one of my coworkers asked me if my husband allowed me to work. I thought: What sort of question is that? But it shows the misperception about Muslim women. I had to explain to my coworker that my husband and I work as partners in our marriage where we support each other's decisions and encourage each other to pursue any profession we desire.
Batul: The Expo was led by the sister of our spiritual leader. From the get-go, she emphasized that our women don't need to be empowered. We are already empowered. The problem is with society and the roles that we have been assigned by society. Our leadership always emphasizes that women are strong and powerful, just like men. Our whole community – not just men – is business minded. And that is part of our core belief system.
Fareeda: It's worth noting that, as much as this is a business story, it's also an immigrant story. A lot of our community members have migrated for business. For instance, my grandparents migrated from Yemen and India to East Africa, and then my parents immigrated from Kenya to California to set up their business. It's really been business that has driven us to different parts of the world. We have a profound respect for the hard work and effort put in by our parents and grandparents to build businesses that are passed down over generations. These multigenerational businesses allow women to be exposed to business at a very young age.
Q: Tell us how the Expo builds on that tradition of entrepreneurship and the significance of the recent Expo in Ontario.
Batul: The Expo was a one-day event, held on a Sunday. Because we had women come from all over the U.S., and even from Dubai and India, we planned special events on Saturday for the exhibitors. We had a workshop with motivational speakers and a special dinner that evening to celebrate so many of the women who traveled from far away just for one day. We also ran a few programs concurrently with the Expo.
Habiba: On Sunday, for the Expo, we had a vast turnout – friends, family, people from other Muslim communities. Even the Mayor of Irvine, California, who is Muslim, visited the Expo. A lot of people other than from the Bohra community attended. I think our headline "By Women, For Women" was a big draw. I also think it was a good way to educate people about our culture, to show who we are, and to demonstrate the big impact we have in the communities around us despite being a smaller sect. We had businesses offering a wide range of products, including jewelry, kids' crafts, products from Pakistan and India, coffee from Yemen, and organic beauty products and businesses offering real estate and printing services. And, we also had two authors on Amazon selling their books at the Expo. Alongside the vendor exhibits we had an extensive food court set up by our community kitchen featuring foods like the rice dish biryani, samosas, and the popular dessert falooda. We also had a dedicated area for kids with activities and treats to keep them entertained.
Q: At Project W we share your belief in the power that derives from women supporting women. Can you talk about the significance of the name "Mashtal" and how the power generated at the Mashtal can be harnessed to elevate women?
Habiba: The literal translation of "Mashtal" is a nursery of plants. If you plant a seed and nurture it with the right nutrients, the seed grows into a tree. Just like a business, which if nurtured, will grow and be fruitful.
Fareeda: "Mashtal" also has broader implications -- planting the seed of entrepreneurship in the minds of other women who had not thought about that as an option. That's the power of representation. That's the power of sisterhood. When you see women like you who are entrepreneurs, it certainly becomes a possibility. After the Expo I heard from one business owner who came with her daughter from New Jersey. Having made lots of sales, the Expo was a great success for her business. But what she found priceless was the opportunity to expose her daughter to all these women like her who were in business for themselves. When you see that others like you are doing something, you believe you can, too. Although our main goal in creating the Expo was to provide opportunity for the women business owners, the impact of the Expo went far beyond that, planting the seeds for the next generation of women entrepreneurs.
Q: Women entrepreneurs of all backgrounds face challenges their male counterparts don't. But Muslim women, particularly those who wear head coverings and modest dress, must face even greater challenges. Can you share some of your experiences and how you deal with the challenges?
Habiba: My husband is a teacher, and his job took us to Las Vegas, which is the last place I thought I would end up. People in Vegas don't often see people like me. Women in our sect wear a rida which is brightly colored two-piece dress, consisting of a long skirt from the waist to the ankle and a top that covers the head and chest with an opening for the face. Because of my covering, people would always ask me who I was and where I came from. Now that we live in California, where people are more aware of the diverse communities around them, I get fewer questions like those. I work in an advertising agency, so I understand the power of looks and how you present yourself. But I also understand the power of staying true to your own roots and the importance of being accepted for your skills and qualifications and not what you wear. If, because of what I wear, I have been able to educate even a small percentage of people about who I am, I feel I have made an impact.
Fareeda: I run a commercial and residential glass, mirror and glazing business. My customers are in the construction industry, and you just don't see women on job sites, let alone women in a rida. One time I visited a big job site with one of my lead installers to check out some of the glazing work my team was doing. As we were inspecting the site, three men came running out of a construction trailer asking me if I was lost. I wish I could say that I had the perfect answer in the moment, but I was completely shocked. But then my installer – a guy in his 50s – stepped up, looked the construction managers in the eye and said, "She's not lost, she's the boss." Driving home, I was wondering what should I have been wearing? Should my work boots have been more visible? What would have made them see me as the person in charge? I am very familiar with the industry. As a child, I napped in the same office where I now work. We talked shop around the dinner table. My father taught me to be strong and never think of myself as an outsider in the industry. So, I hope that showing up at a construction site in a rida will make it easier for the next person who may not be seen for who she is or what she is capable of.
Batul: I'm an architectural technologist and in school getting a bachelor's degree in architecture. Like Fareeda, I work in the construction field and have faced the same kind of bias. The first questions I often get asked are: Is my clothing safe? Is it a safety hazard? Over time, I have learned to turn this into a positive. I realize I stand out just being who I am. I don't have to do anything to get attention, I already have it. Now that I've gotten your attention, I take that forward and showcase what I know.
Q: What lessons can you share with women -- particularly women of color or women who are not in the majority – about following their entrepreneurial dreams?
Batul: Meeting all the women entrepreneurs at the Expo and listening to the inspirational speakers, I learned that the only thing stopping you from becoming an entrepreneur is yourself. Believe in yourself first. If you don't believe in yourself, no one else will. Once you believe in yourself, you can overcome your fears about how to succeed. Put yourself first, even if you're working for someone. Then, all you need to do is maintain a business mindset and the possibilities are endless.
Habiba: It takes discipline to run a business. Organizing and putting on the Expo was a very big challenge for me. I'm not the most punctual person on the earth, so I had to focus on creating a schedule and ensuring I was able to dedicate the time required. We have many religious obligations and observations and managing those while building a business – or planning an Expo -- takes discipline. I learned the importance of knowing where I wanted to be in six months. Strategy and discipline matter when you want to see your business grow.
Fareeda: I think of the challenges as steppingstones rather than obstacles, as a path to the next bigger, better thing. Our spiritual leader, His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, sees unlimited potential in all of us, especially women. With faith and a strong sisterhood, we are empowered to be authentically who we are. There is power in that authenticity as we navigate the business world. I believe we should unapologetically take up space. If we do that, if we are who we are, then we make it easier for the next woman to do the same. And, if we harness the power that comes with entrepreneurship, there is no limit to what we can do.