by  Rana Askoul

smallbusinessYou can find the most untraditional things in the most traditional of places. There is one such story on a small side street in Sharjah. For many, it might not be that big of a deal, but I found it to be inspiring: three women who, in their own ways, challenge perceptions.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove up to Sharjah to get my hair done. My mum had recently introduced me to a friend, Jamila (meaning “beautiful” in Arabic), who owns a beauty parlour there.

Jamila is Palestinian, about 60 and has been running her business since she was about 25. She does everything herself at her modest business. She’s a great hairdresser, and she relies heavily on a clientele base established over many years.

Many of her original clients are older and perhaps don’t come as often as they once did. But she inherited their daughters, daughter-in-laws and nieces, and her business is as strong as ever.

On that day, as I was having my hair done, an older women walked into the parlour. She greeted me, went into a side room and started her prayers. When she finished, she came across and asked if I was hungry. I said yes. She left and came back with these amazing pastries.

As I munched a few, I offered to pay for them, but she was a bit offended. Rihab was her name, meaning “magnanimous” in Arabic, and Jamila told me her story.

Rihab came to Sharjah five years ago, fleeing Baghdad after her husband was killed. Raising five kids, she opened a small restaurant serving pastries, Iraqi food and sandwiches. She has clients who drive all the way from Dubai for takeaway and she also caters for large groups as well. She has a thriving business, with five men working for her.

Half an hour went by, and I was still waiting for my hair dye to settle. Another friend of Jamila walked in, carrying a parcel of fresh meat, and greeted everyone. Women started asking her what she was planning to cook for lunch. She answered, and said the best butcher shop in Sharjah is right around the corner.

So an hour later, and there I was waiting in a queue at the butcher’s. The place was packed, with an older woman sitting behind the counter taking orders from customers and dispatching them to around 10 male butchers.

As I waited, I struck up a conversation with the woman, commenting on how busy the place was and how that could only be a sign of quality. She thanked me with a proud smile on her face, said her name was Muna, meaning ” wish or desire” in Arabic, and that she was the shop owner.

Muna moved to Sharjah with her husband in the 1980s, fleeing Lebanon’s civil war. With a small amount of money inherited from her father, she decided to open the butcher shop. Given most Arabs’ preference for meat, she thought, the business could only grow. I later learnt that Muna’s business had been so successful that she had made substantial property investments in Lebanon.

As I drove back to Dubai, I couldn’t help but marvel about these three women’s stories. In a world that is still recovering from the recent economic recession, we keep hearing how the road to economic recovery will be fuelled by the small and medium businesses.

The younger generation is obsessed with entrepreneurship. Governments are throwing money at institutions to help young entrepreneurs learn how to set up businesses, incubate them and grow them. Everyone is talking about innovation and new frontiers.

Yet, on a small side street in Sharjah, three older Arab women are already running successful traditional businesses. I wonder how many more are succeeding, not because of loans, courses, press releases or media interviews – just hard work.

Perhaps the road to economic recovery will be charted by women like these. Perhaps we need women like them to talk to the younger generation about focusing on hard work and perseverance and a bit less on marketing, personal brands and social networks? As I drove back to Dubai, I couldn’t help but wonder.

This article was originally written by  Rana Askoul for