Comment: Kitchen maids step out to business and up to leadership

It was 3:00 pm in the afternoon last Ramazan when someone called and asked me to do a translation. He said that I could charge for the work. I told him to mail it to me so that I could have a look.

What I got was a five page contract with legal terms to be translated from English to Dhivehi, and it had to be done by that night. I called up and quoted him my official price and he flipped out.

“Oh man,” he said, “you are crazy. I am doing this for a friend. Go to the kitchen. It is time to cook for breaking the fast.”

My mind raced! Would he have said something similar in the same tone to a man?

Kitchen maids step out to business and up to leadership!

I grew up with a mother who sold material and tailored to earn money. She worked from home. In many households while men are the official breadwinners, the women work from home to earn an income to make ends meet.

Today farmers in the islands are made up of 60 percent women. In other words, women in the Maldives have a long history of entrepreneurship. When I was growing up, there were a couple of ladies in trading and I saw them in the man’s world. I wonder how they felt and what kind of challenges they had. Today with Maldives advancing into the modern world, more Maldivian women have stepped out into the business world.

Globally, the 1920s were a turning point for women to move from traditional roles to modern ideas. In these years the role of women changed, with gender-defined work such as cooks, dressmakers and farm hands moving to professional and technical jobs like doctors, bankers, lawyers etc. Still today, even in the most developed countries, there are conservatives who find it hard to digest this and feel a woman’s place is at home.

The prevalent environment in Maldives is tough for a woman who wants to run a business. I am a social entrepreneur and I started out on my own in 1999. As a woman I have experienced many hurdles, and I am going to highlight here common issues enterprising women face in the Maldives.

Women entrepreneurs find it a big challenge to get people to take them seriously. Women seeking loans beyond micro-financing have difficulties obtaining funds, even with collateral. I know the case of a woman who offered collateral of her two houses to the Bank of Maldives (managed by women) some years ago and she was refused a loan. When her husband went to the Bank with the same business plan and same collateral (with mortgage rights signed over by the woman), it was accepted.

When women hold meetings, many men do not listen to the business idea a woman is selling. Horrendous suggestions such as meeting late at night and in private environments are an indication of this lack of seriousness among men. It is often seen in the light of a favor she is asking. If I am accompanied by a male to a meeting, I still find him being addressed more than me though it is my business.

Sense of guilt

My female colleagues and entrepreneurs also speak of the “guilt issues” that come into play and which limit their success. Guilt for investing time away from the family, guilt for becoming more financially secure than family and friends, guilt for earning more than a spouse and guilt for being successful.

To make it worse, husbands and partners who cannot digest the success of a woman accuse her of receiving favours. Some people (men and women, friends and family) actually think that a woman who wants to start a business is just looking for something to do as a “hobby”.

Women are trained since childhood to work behind the scenes, to not make a fuss, and to take care of others first. Girls grow up in “female” roles with housework prioritised above studies, and the notion that she will marry a good man to have a life.

The contribution of women to financial stability is treated of secondary importance especially when that money is generated at home. Women’s contribution is not documented in the national statistics either. Women in entrepreneurship struggle to improve conditions that support enterprise development at national level.

The Women Entrepreneurs Council (WEC) was initially under the umbrella of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and was dissolved three years ago without the WEC itself being notified. The move was part of a calculated change in the Executive Board to push out chamber board members, including distinguished and dedicated men committed to economic development of the country. and who supported the Wec.

The media (including Minivan News) ignored the case (with evidence) that the WEC presented, and the report did not appear in the daily newspapers or on the television. The Registrar of the Home Ministry at the time ignored the evidence. The Attorney General (on a personal level) made an aimless attempt to look into the issue that compromised women. Today the documents lie on the table of the present Chamber President who considers an internal audit of the time (with the last five years) possible but has not had the time to look at them.

The documents are in the Ministry of Home Affairs waiting for the present Registrar’s attention. Three registrars have changed since the documents were submitted and the present Registrar has promised to lend us an ear.

The WEC was just beginning to stand on its feet with a successful trial record of development and half a million Rufiya in its account, a solid development plan for four years and a potential contract with UNDP, when the Council was crippled by the Board of the time.

Earlier this year, His Excellency the Vice President listened to the story but it remains one without an end. The President’s staff have been scheduling a meeting with the leadership of the ex-WEC for the last two and half years.

Women experience sexist banter, demeaning comments and exclusionary behavior and continue to push for conditions where they can do business in a politically and socially fair environment.

Assumptions about women, such as in my introductory paragraph, view women as inferior business professionals. Expectations on pricing and wages – with the implication that women lack professionalism – are abusive.

Women tend to devalue their skills, abilities and experience more than men do. Women must value their offerings in order for customers and prospects to value them. The ability to be compensated well for the value a woman provides lies squarely on her ability to look the customer/prospect in the eye and state, with confidence, that it’s worth the price she is charging. So my fees remain… discounts come only after quotation.

Ownership and control of an enterprise by a woman is a big thing. Most women entrepreneurs are very compassionate and caring people, thus bringing complimentary value to business. While women want to express their skill and talent to the world, they should also possess the qualities of devotion, innovation and the capabilities of management and control, lessons that can be learnt from enterprising men. Women are great networkers, tenacious, and are great at relationships, so there is no hurdle too big to overcome.

Once on an interview, a producer of a VillaTV program wanted the presenter to question me about whether a woman would have time to take care of her family obligations if she was engaged outside home. In my opinion, the word obligation puts conditions on women that are interpreted by someone else. A woman should define her priorities and balance her life between work and family. This is one of the hardest challenges for a woman entrepreneur even in developed countries.

To break the ice, women have to put themselves forward and overcome a lifetime of behavioral training – a daunting task for many of us. Men remove one hat before putting on another. Work is work, play is play and family is family. Women insist on wearing all their hats at once and are determined to balance them all. When we enter into business mode, we are still mothers, wives and friends. We are easily distracted by our many other priorities and find it challenging to focus all our attention on one area at a time. Focus ladies!

To be successful as an entrepreneur a woman must be independent, humble, highly successful at personal growth and, for the most part, non-emotional. As a male colleague noted the other day, one big challenge a woman has are the other women who don’t understand her – her values and drive.

It was evident at the Validation Workshop in October 2009 held in Holiday Inn where I sat at a round table with women from the Ministry of Health trying to bring in the perspective of women from private sector into the national plans. The barrier I faced was so impenetrable that I had to get the Counsel of UN facilitator to talk to them to include some of my suggestions.

Women must be bolder and demand respect by showing their success. To receive respect, women should be respectful. To be respectful, women should work with values and rules that shows her principles such as using formal friendly language (a great way to draw the line between personal and professional relationships), staying firm and focused in discussions displaying a professional attitude, keeping meetings to working hours and if necessary stretch to early evenings but not late night hours, setting the latest reachable hour to business contacts by phone, meet in open public places or office during working hours, establish a code for no physical relationships with staff and potential business partners, learn to draw the line when people get abusive or suggestive at meetings, stop mothering when dealing with male business colleagues (sorry ladies but I observe this happening) and dressing professionally.

Women should always be upfront and transparent about their professional experience and what they have accomplished. Upon doing so, people can no longer have ignorant assumptions of women. So women out there, it takes every core of your being to stand above these who choose to talk about people, so you can walk instead with those who prefer to discuss ideas.

Aminath Arif is the Founder of SALAAM School.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


12 thoughts on “Comment: Kitchen maids step out to business and up to leadership”

  1. I wonder if that guy who called you crazy thought that as a Muslim Woman you are to be subservient to him (seems he was so concerned about breaking fast on time...???)

    It is sad to see that some may use Islam as an excuse to oppress women.

    From what I understand, the Prophet (SAW) liberated the status of women by giving divorce rights and some legal protection. Gave as much rights as what could be struggled for, as what could be realized in the Jahil environment. To be true to the intention of Wahi (revelation) and the Sunnah, it is Islamic to continue that struggle for women to bring about equality and dignity for all Women.

  2. Life is not a bed of roses for women in Maldives just like the way it is in other parts of the world....The stereotyping that is apparant in maldives is a "disease" that is common all over the world, and more so in South Asia....Women’s capabilities are measured against the power that never flowed out and hence accumulated in the hands of the other gender....Things will never get better unless we get rid of the opressive traditions that is followed by the hypocrites who are in power, and whose actual pracctices do not reflect their promises and the purported image presented to the community and the media.....

  3. since time began.. men and women roles were different.. back then hunter gatherer time.. naturally,

    men hunted as they were strong and brave to face dangerous task in finding food, while women stayed

    back, preparing food and raising the off springs..

    civilisation and development, have led human beings to climb up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and women are no different.. men and women have an equal role to make our way of life better, which in the end will positively impact on the economy as well.

    culture and tradition could still be a barrier to open our minds to think differently towards females.. but eventually it will slowly change.. in such society few women who are ahead of their times will realise and believe in their capacity will thrive to suceed, in the process they will face challenges and set back..

  4. Very well said Ainthu!
    Specially the 2nd last paragraph explains the precautionary measures we take consciously to gain respect from male colleagues and superiors. Most men at work places dont take women seriously here.

    You are one good example of a typical Maldivian guy who doesnt respect women at all!!!!

  5. Family, society and ultimately the whole of mankind is treated by Islam on an ethical basis. Differentiation in sex is neither a credit nor a drawback for the sexes. Therefore, when we talk about status of woman in Islam it should not lead us to think that Islam has no specific guidelines, limitations, responsibilities and obligations for men. What makes one valuable and respectable in the eyes of Allah, the Creator of mankind and the universe, is neither one's prosperity, position, intelligence, physical strength nor beauty, but only one's Allah-consciousness and awareness (taqwa). However, since in the Western culture and in cultures influenced by it, there exists a disparity between men and women there is more need for stating Islam's position on important issues in a clear way.

    The history of Muslims is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century (B.C.)

    It is impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of woman by any decree of rule embodied in the Islamic Law, nor could anyone dare to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut legal rights of women given in Islamic Law.

    Throughout history, the reputation, chastity and maternal role of Muslim women were objects of admiration by impartial observers.

    It is also worthwhile to state that the status which women reached during the present era was not achieved due to the kindness of men or due to natural progress. It was rather achieved through a long struggle and sacrifice on woman's part and only when society needed her contribution and work, especially during the two world wars, and due to the escalation of technological change.

    In the case of Islam such compassionate and dignified status was decreed, not because it reflects the environment of the seventh century, nor under the threat or pressure of women and their organizations, but rather because of its intrinsic truthfulness.

    If this indicates anything, it would demonstrate the divine origin of the Qur'an and the truthfulness of the message of Islam, which, unlike human philosophies and ideologies, was far from proceeding from its human environment, a message which established such humane principles as neither grew obsolete during the course of time and after these many centuries, nor can become obsolete in the future. After all, this is the message of the All-Wise and all-knowing God whose wisdom and knowledge are far beyond the ultimate in human thought and progress.

  6. @Ammadey - you stole my words 🙂

    Many countries have gone through this change towards gender equality and equity. Our turn is most overdue and our women need to come out for this to happen.

    Most developed countries went through this in the 20th century. In the very west, even till as late as th 1920s, 'working women' was taboo. One would not be surprised how the 'unveiling' of the contraceptive trade shaded out this taboo in less than half a century! That was when she was able to come out from under the carpet and claim for her rights (and dignity!) since time immemorial.

    East is learning and many already have or is gaining level, while some are still stuck in between culture & religion. We should note how strange the word "Raeesa" still sounds to us. We should ask ourselves why!

  7. @ Dhon Kamana

    Now wot on earth are you talking?? yeah there are hard working Maldivian ladies working in farms, raising hens and the opposite gender of hens. Now there are equally smart women who do not work that hard also, but eat from "cooler side". They don't work that hard like weaving mats or raising hens in the farm; they just make a mockery of a farmer by teasing!!!

  8. @ Hassan

    Mockery of a farmer by teasing what? Hens or the opposite gender of hens???


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