When Zinah Saleh received her bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Baghdad in 2011, she seemed set up for a successful career.
But neither she nor her friends, despite in-demand degrees, were able to land jobs. “They chose only men,” she says. “Here in Baghdad, not many women have a chance to get a job.”
In Iraq, especially since the war, employers prefer to hire men. Traditional roles remain entrenched there, with men considered breadwinners and women caretakers who stay home with children. That reality can be especially difficult for women who are unmarried, widowed or refugees of the violence that continues to tear apart large parts of the country, especially if they lack family financial support.
Saleh, who is 28 years old, says that, by local standards, she is considered too old to be a bride. She also comes from an educated, worldly family — her father is an engineer, her mother a homemaker and her siblings live and work abroad — and she had no intention of staying home.
After university, she volunteered with Alrawdh, a local humanitarian organization that supported refugees and war widows and worked to end child marriage. But she wanted a job and financial freedom for herself — as well as for other Iraqi women. So in 2013 she decided to start an all-female business, Ishtar Handmade Soap.
“I believe that we fight poverty by providing jobs to women, not men,” she says, because when you lift a woman out of poverty, you lift up her whole family.
A Passion for All-Natural Soap
“I love soap making. I love everything that is natural,” says Saleh, who learned to make soap through online classes. And she gained new energy to dive into the all-natural soap business after a friend was diagnosed with a blood cancer and was told that carcinogens in cosmetics were to blame.
At first, Saleh made soaps for friends and family, but she also saw a business opportunity. After the war, Iraq was flooded with cheap products from China and elsewhere that caused skin problems, she says. Her homemade soaps, made from pure and natural ingredients, helped people get healthy.
[Related: See the full list of the women entrepreneurs on The Passionate & Purposeful list]
To sharpen her business skills, in 2014 she participated in a 6-month entrepreneurship program for women from the Middle East/North Africa region and Sweden called She Entrepreneur by the Swedish Institute, held in Stockholm and Tunisia. There, she was given leadership training, help developing her business plan and marketing strategy, and two mentors from the cosmetics industry.
In the Middle East, “not many people let their daughters travel alone, but [my parents] supported me and let me do that,” Saleh says. “When I returned to Iraq, I was ready to start this business.”
“We are the first company in Iraq that cares about eco-friendly products,” and the only one that’s run solely by women, she says.
A Purpose in Creating Jobs for Women
Saleh also cares about giving jobs to women in dire need. Currently, she has eight full-time employees and 12 part-timers who help with special sales. Two of her employees are refugees from Mosul, where residents have lived under ISIS rule for 3 years and Iraq’s military has been fighting hard for the last 6 months to reclaim the city. Most recently, she hired a woman who posted a lament on Facebook that she would have to quit college for lack of funds. “I hired her so she can continue her studies,” Saleh says.
The company does not yet have a central workshop, so employees make soap, shower gels and shampoos at their own homes, using local olive oil and shea and cocoa butters sourced from America. Other employees handle packaging, administrative work and social media marketing — Ishtar Handmade Soap has more than 43,000 Facebook fans.
They fulfill online orders from all over Iraq and sell products at weekly bazaars, where they set up tables in gardens, restaurants and other gathering spots. The bazaars, which also feature accessories and other women-made products, pushed cultural boundaries at first, she says, but have since been embraced by the public.
“We sell over 2,000 items each month. We are making money that supports all of us,” Saleh says. Sales today total about $5,000 a month, up from about $1,000 a month when Ishtar Handmade Soap started.
“All the women who are working for us, we changed their lives,” Saleh says. “Now they are strong, independent women. When I see them, I just want to help more and more women.”
Indeed, the business’ gains, plus a bank loan, are paving the way for expansion. The company will open its first store this summer in Baghdad’s Babylon Mall. And Saleh plans to expand to other Iraqi cities, starting with Basra in the south of the country, where she expects to begin selling products in a local cosmetics shop this month and open her own store next year. She also dreams of selling her products internationally.
Getting bigger, she says, will let her hire more women — her goal is 100 in the next 2 years — and change more lives. “We give hope to all women in the Middle East and encourage them to have their own business — and not wait for a job opportunity but create it and help other women.”
Why should we include you in The Passionate & Purposeful?
“I believe in the power of change and I believe that each one of us was born to make a good change. I and many other women in the Middle East struggle to have a job and not be driven by a society that asks us to be married and controlled by men who should pay for us and feed us. I believe that I was born to tell the society that women can create their own destiny and that they can work just like men and change lives. I believe that we should not be victims just because we were born in a war zone or a society that prefers men over women. Being a victim is a choice that I will not take and neither will the women with me.”