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Internet Entrepreneurship Is Getting Arab Women Into the Business World

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The Wall Street Journal reports on an interesting trend in the international tech community: one where 40% of the “pitch contests” of Middle East-based start-up/entrepreneur conference ArabNet in Beirut were presented by female entrepreneurs. Oasis 500, a program dedicated to developing digital startups in Jordan says that while only 25% of its applicants are women, 40% of those it accepts are women. In comparison, “while New York City has almost double the female founders of Silicon Valley and London, they still comprised just 20% of start-ups.” Why are women in the Arab world claiming greater percentages of online businesses?

The answer is both depressing and hope inspiring, depending on which way you look at it.

The depressing answer, as you might have guessed, is that the business owners WSJ talked do not have much freedom to get out of the house. Salwa Katkhuda of Oasis 500 mentioned the fact that Jordan lacks an affordable transit system available to women. But May Habib and Noura Saad, both entrepreneurs at the conference from Dubai and Jordan, respectively, both cited the freedom to work from home and continue their societally expected roles as mothers and housekeepers as being the major draw for women in their countries who want to get into business. “Working from home is not something common in the Arabic world,” said Saad.

Adbullah Alghadouni is CEO of the Glowork.net, a Saudi-Arabian site aimed at helping women find jobs in a nation where they are not legally allowed to drive. He shares this interesting statistic: 80% of the unemployed women that his company deals with have degrees. The hurdle for private companies is not that they don’t want women workers necessarily, but that they don’t want them so badly that they’ll figure out how to find them and build the expected segregated office space.

While internet entrepreneurship offers a way to get around some of the restrictions on women in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the Wall Street Journal does not seem to think it’s becoming a trend capable of real change. While most of the female presenters at ArabNet were young, they’d also mostly spent parts of their lives in the Western cultures of Europe, the U.S. or Australia. In Lebanon, for example, it’s still technically illegal for a married woman to travel or even open a bank account without her husband’s permission, and the region as a whole still has the world’s lowest percentage of women who are paid employees in nonagricultural jobs, 28%.

As WSJ says: “It would be ironic if a region that is castigated for its attitudes toward women actually turned out to be more welcoming of female entrepreneurs than those doing the castigating.”

Read the whole WSJ article here.

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