Al Ain // At 47, Mariam al Daheri is on top of the world. She has, she says, turned her life around and reinvented herself. Until three years ago, she spent most of her days at home, taking care of her nieces and nephews.
During her spare time, she sewed traditional, colourful Emirati dresses for the women in her family, and clothes with elaborate designs for the children. With the help of the Al Ain branch of the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen Council, part of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mrs al Daheri has turned her hobby into a thriving business - and discovered a renewed "sense of worth". "Now, when I get up in the morning, I have a purpose in life," she says.
"There are certain expectations of a woman in our society and as you get older your role decreases. So it felt great to have an active role and to make something of myself." Mrs al Daheri is a member of the council's Mubdi'ah - "being creative" - programme, which, since its launch in 2006, has given more than 200 women access to a range of courses, such as how to set up a business at home. There is also a free open shop in which they can show and sell their wares at Mubdi'ah Village in Al Ain's Zaafarn Mall.
There, the colourful souq counters display a wide array of products and services, from dates, perfumes and make-up to legal and domestic services and interior design, clothing of all kinds and even photocopying and typing services, which are among 19 professions supported and encouraged by the programme. The Mubdi'ah programme is designed to help Emirati women, including divorcees, widows, recent graduates and housewives, to develop businesses or hobbies they are pursuing at home.
Prompted partly by her own curiosity and encouraged by her husband and the rest of her family, Mrs al Daheri says she still had to overcome her embarrassment about selling things before she contacted the council. "Emirati women just don't do that, I thought, and so I was a bit shy about it and ashamed in the beginning," she says. "I remember the first day that I stood at my counter and I couldn't look people in the face, in their eyes, I was so embarrassed. "Then, slowly, as I got used to it, and people started complimenting me on my products, I felt very proud. I have realised there is no shame in work."
Mrs al Daheri, who works wearing her burqa, has even learnt a bit of English to communicate with the tourists who visit the souq. Her shop, Khayat Amirati - My Princess's Tailor - is stocked with creative clothing for women and children, with many items decorated with gold or silver thread - zirri and telli. Mrs al Daheri's story is typical of most of the other women who share the market space. Um Hamdan, 46, is married with 13 children. She is the owner of Hoboub al Musk, a perfume and incense shop, just across from Mrs al Daheri's. Her family was initially against her business endeavours, but once she proved herself she had their support.
"We were the first batch of women to be helped by the programme and so it was hard for us as there was a lot of scepticism from others that businesses by us would succeed. But it did. "We all know each other here and took up different business so we don't compete but complement each other. It is a family affair but in a more professional setting." Mrs Hamdan met Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, at one of the council's exhibitions, and was one of a number of women who received a Dh100,000 (US$27,000) grant from a donation he made to the organisation.
"I was so touched that His Highness believed in an old woman like me," she says. Business for all the women has its ups and downs. Mrs al Daheri has made as much as Dh40,000 a month, in other months she has made nothing. But whether times are good or bad, the women take it in their stride. "That is the life of an entrepreneur," says Mrs al Daheri. Besides, the experience has proved inspirational. Having not completed her education, Mrs al Daheri now intends to get her high school diploma.
"There is so much I want to do, and there are so many women like me here and in the rest of the Emirates," she says. "We just needed someone to believe in us." "Life should not end for a woman just because she got old or she has lost her husband," says Amira al Ahbabi, the head of the follow-up unit of the Al Ain branch of the council. The women pay an annual membership fee, ranging from Dh1,500 to Dh3,000. For this, the council issues different licences and helps to set up the businesses, and promote and market their products.
The products are promoted in exhibitions across the country and displayed during national holidays and other celebrations. "We try to promote their work in every way we can, and we encourage them to come up with creative ideas and ways of doing something with their spare time," says Ms al Ahbabi. Her telephone rarely stops ringing with enquiries from women. "There is growing interest by the women in the community with more and more contacting us each year," she says. "They see their neighbours and friends doing it and succeeding, and so they get inspired to do it themselves."