The bread sellers on the streets of Sana’a are one example of Yemeni women with small businesses. For them, the working day begins before sunrise when they begin to make the bread. Each batch must be tested and then the best are selected. The women take the bread to specific spots in the city where they hope to entice hungry passers-by. When dealing with customers, the women work swiftly yet calmly.
By the afternoon, all the wares have been sold. The women count their money and immediately plan the day ahead, how to improve their sales techniques, how to earn just a little bit more.
One young woman, covered head to toe in swathes of black cloth and wearing gloves to keep men from touching her, sells a soft flatbread called lahoh near a busy cluster of downtown restaurants. Describing the difficulties of her job, Hafsa (her name has been changed in this article to protect her identity) said: “I have done this since I was a child—I can’t even remember my first day. Of course, in the beginning I was not alone. My grandmother came with me to teach me how to sell, how to deal with people, and how to protect and defend myself.”
Smiling, she said, “I remember my mother’s words on the day I first went to sell by myself. I told her not to worry about me, and she replied, ‘Don’t be foolish, do you think I would let you go if I was worried about you? You are not a child anymore, you are a woman. We have confidence in you, our trust in you is unlimited and you deserve it.’ I was just sixteen but the word ‘woman’ really affected me. I understood the concept of responsibility, not only for myself, but also for my family. I remember being so frightened, I could hardly speak! Now, though, I have the confidence to defend myself by shouting at clients who are rude. I know some people think it’s shameful, but in this job we need to protect ourselves. Our life is not easy.”
Despite the difficulties and even though she is not yet seventeen years old, Hafsa is very proficient with her work. With her face covered, she shows potential customers the quality of the bread in her basket. She stresses the importance of hygiene.
“I would like to stay at home but I don’t want to lead a boring life. My job is more interesting and exiting. When my sister, my sister in-law, and myself divided the work between us, I always preferred selling instead of making the bread. When I don’t work for a day I miss dealing with people, even the awkward ones. I feel a huge sense of success when I make money. Us bread sellers deserve respect for our business—I don’t know why society ignores our work and the effort we put into it.”
She spends the afternoons studying, even though she does not believe that an education will change her life. “The only way to stop being a seller here is to get married. Married women do not go out to sell, but single women do not dare to reject the orders of her brother or father. I don’t dare, I respect them. I have to help them—they also work hard.”
Another common small business for Yemeni women is selling clothes and jewelry. Fatouma, an old woman from Sana’a, sells clothes on the side of the street. She said, “I have been working for twenty years, ever since I divorced my husband. I have a brother who is very sick, and he has three children who must be provided for. I also have four children of my own, so I have no choice but to work.”
Sitting next to Fatouma is another old lady selling eggs. After her husband left her alone with their young child, she chose to work instead of turning to begging.
On the opposite side of the road, a woman sits selling qat. Among her fellow male vendors she has a reputation for supplying good quality leaf. She is also well known for her persuasive sales technique.
When comparing their work to those of their male counterparts, the women say, “We have the same joys, the same feeling of success, and we suffer the same pains of failure.”
Says Hafsa, the young woman selling lahoh, “We ask only for the respect which we deserve. Why are we not treated in the same way as the men working in the nearby shops? Each of us works for her family—we have no other choice.