“Female entrepreneurship has been increasing dramatically over the past 30 years” (Davis & Abdiyeva, 2012). However, gender discrimination still presents a hindrance for North African women entrepreneurs, in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. In these countries, women are not considered as primary contributors to the economy even though they contribute greatly to the development of societies as main caretakers of the family. That is why, they needed to prove themselves as more than family-oriented individuals concept of entrepreneurship appeared in North Africa because it presented a chance for women to prove themselves in those patriarchal societies. Most importantly, the gender discrimination against these women entrepreneurs is due to multiple sociocultural, educational, legal and institutional challenges that stop them from improving their lives and consolidating their status in society as leaders and not followers. However, North African women entrepreneurs have been eluding all obstacles standing in between them and their goals. Furthermore, their dedication to this cause has made them create more employment opportunities (International Finance Corporation, 2007). These women entrepreneurs not only help themselves but also other women in order to become independent. To sum up, women entrepreneurs have succeeded in accomplishing their goals and defying all expectations in spite of the many cultural, educational and legal barriers facing them.
A- Background on women’s economic contributions in North Africa
As a developing country, Morocco has provided the best conditions and environment for women’s entrepreneurship to grow and flourish. Entrepreneurship appeared out of necessity and need for women’s independency in this traditionally patriarchal society. This concept presented an escape from sociocultural stereotypes that have degraded women’s value for centuries. However, these women have encountered many obstacles due to the negative stereotype of women in the country which only considers them as “dominated minority” that cannot be put on the same level as men (Gray & Finley-Hervey, 2005, p. 204). Consequently, women have been deprived of their right to freedom, work and education. In fact, according to Joni Seager, an activist and scholar of feminist geography, gender and the environment, “Morocco has the highest percentage of illiterate women in the Muslim world” (as cited in Gray & Finley-Hervey, 2005, p. 204). In spite of all of that, Moroccan women have succeeded at being part of the workforce. For instance, according to Fatima Sadiqi (2010), a senior professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies, “as of 2007, nearly 27 percent of women participated in the workforce” (p. 250). Most importantly, Moroccan women entrepreneurs have been able to not only help themselves, but to also provide jobs for other women. (perceived management skills)
Tunisia is another North African developing country where female entrepreneurs face more problems than their male fellows. Although entrepreneurship is relatively new in Tunisia, it is growing rapidly thanks to the educational advancements made along with the access to new markets. Despite that, entrepreneurs in Tunisia are considered to be inactive and latent. In fact, Imed Drine, a macroeconomist and econometrician, and Mouna Grach (2012), the reason behind that is the high unemployment rate among the young educated Tunisians (p. 455). Additionally, the Tunisian woman entrepreneur feels coerced into submitting to traditional norms where she has to put family first. That is why Lilia Ben Salem (2010), a Tunisian sociologist and researcher, explains that “As a result, women who are strongly attached to their traditional domestic role suffer career setbacks, and those who concentrate on their career either utilize family and social support or rely on paid domestic help” (p. 391).
Consequently, women choose to stay single in order to focus on their businesses and work which later on affects the family structure.
Egypt is one of the most important countries in North Africa when it comes to women’s entrepreneurship. In fact, according to the World bank (2007), “about 20 percent of companies in Egypt are owned by women” ( as cited in Nasr, 2010, p. 37). However, the participation rate of women in the economy is still lower than average, especially of educated women. In fact, the World Bank (2013) provides an explanation to that which is the participation rate of uneducated women that is higher compared to educated ones (p. 65). On the other hand, the high level of economic growth in Egypt should be reflected on the level of women taking part in economic activities. However, that is not the case which can only be explained through the type of activities and distribution of their participation in multiple fields (World Bank, 2013, p. 64). Accordingly, the idea of increasing economic growth levels to improve Egyptian women’s participation in the economy can be easily refuted. Also, Egyptian women suffer from familial duties and responsibilities like all women across the globe and especially in North Africa. As explained by Sahar Nasr (2010), the minister of investment and international cooperation in Egypt, “this situation is especially pronounced in parts of Egypt where there is a lack of good-quality social services, such as childcare centers. In this respect, Egyptian women’s time constraints are similar to those of women elsewhere in the world” (p. 40). To sum up, Egypt has a high growth rate that should be accompanied by an increase in women’s participation in the economy in order to eliminate the gender gap.
B- Factors influencing women’s entrepreneurship in North Africa
The emergence of women’s role as business-owners in North Africa presented a cultural shock. That is why, it is necessary to understand the factors influencing women entrepreneurship in the region, especially in such highly-gendered societies.
1- Cultural Factors
A man is considered as the breadwinner, the leader and the decision maker in the family. Women have been raised to follow the man’s orders without any objection as they are taught that it is their sole purpose of existence revolves around satisfying the man’s needs whether he is the father, husband or brother. Another reason is the stereotype that women are weak and fragile and they cannot compete with men in the workforce. They are considered as stupid, ignorant and unequal.
b- Women in the family
A woman may never consider roles other than the traditional feminine roles as mother and wife. The family role of women, including child-bearing, sick care and all other domestic work, determines the early socialization of females and their educational and occupational choices. The struggles in Arab society over the construction of identities and heritage is tied to efforts to preserve the family and community.
i. Priority to family
The worst aspect of cultural implications is the concept of family. Women face a huge dilemma if they succeed at being part of the workforce or be entrepreneurs. That hard choice would be to either get married or work. In patriotic societies, women cannot work and be married because the woman has to be a housewife and take care of her husband and family.
ii. Religious limitations
The idea of the family’s priority over work is highly supported by some religious ideologies that take away women’s freedom and only consider them as housewives in order to maintain the value of family as a concept. North Africa is a religiously rich environment that is home to many religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism. With a majority Muslim population, most of the religious laws follow Islamic teachings that are sometimes misunderstood.
2- Educational Problems
Education is a key part of strategies to improve individuals’ well-being and societies’ economic and social development. In North Africa, access to education has improved dramatically over the past few decades, and there have been a number of encouraging trends in girls’ and women’s education. However, great challenges remain. Many girls are still excluded from education, and many more are enrolled in school but learning too little to prepare them for 21st-century job markets.
a- Access to education
Access to education has improved dramatically, and the illiteracy rate among the region’s young adults is continuously decreasing. More women are now pursuing higher education, reflecting their ability to graduate from secondary school. But illiteracy remains high in some countries. There are still wide gender gaps in parts of the region, and the quality of the education is a major concern throughout the region.
Illiteracy is one the biggest problems in North Africa which affects the whole population. For instance, around 13 million young adults are illiterate; fully one-third of them live in Egypt, which has both a high illiteracy rate and a large population. Also, despite the Egyptian government’s success in reducing the adult illiteracy rate from 60 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 1995, the increase in the population’s size meant that the number of illiterate Egyptians grew from 16 million to 19 million. A similar trend has been visible in Morocco.
ii. Rare High education attainment
b- Educational systems’ failure
It is not enough to make education more widely available; the quality of the education also needs to be improved. Arguing that the poor quality of education in North African countries has led to a significant mismatch between the labor market’s needs and graduates’ skills, the 2002 Arab Human Development Report points out that education in the region often fails to teach students to analyze information or think innovatively.
3- Political and Institutional Implications
Although well-established in North Africa, women’s entrepreneurship has not reached its full potential. The shortage of small female-owned firms in the region suggests high barriers to entry into the formal sector due to discriminatory factors, especially legal and institutional. Therefore, “Reforming the business climate to reduce barriers to opening and closing firms would benefit all” (Chamlou, Klapper & Muzi, 2008, p. 58)
a- Legal barriers
Many gender-based differential treatments exist under the law mainly caused by the dual-role of of the state which consists of promoting economic growth while still maintaining social norms. Also, another reason would be the gendered laws that may affect business’ neutral ones.
b- Discrimination in the business world
While the investment environment in North Africa is the same for men and women, women entrepreneurs in some countries perceive some constraints that are more binding than they are to men. These barriers restrain the ability of firms to grow to their potential, inflicting costs that will ultimately be paid by all.
i. No help or assistance
Women entrepreneurs in the MENA region are highly optimistic when it comes to the growth of their businesses. However, they still need guidance and assistance in certain aspects of company management. For example, these women could benefit from workshops or training programs in order for them to better understand the business world and to continuously get updated about new technologies or policies. Therefore, business assistance programs should be reinforced, promoted, and publicly acknowledged in order to value success stories and exemplify successful female entrepreneurs.
ii. Lack of resources
The different challenges that face these entrepreneurs are mostly related to their limited entrepreneurship skills and training. Inadequate access to finance is a key issue in North Africa, as in other developing regions. Also, this funding issue is considered a huge setback that mostly faces women entrepreneurs, especially for start-ups. That is why, an adequate amount of financial capital is especially important during the start-up phase of a business as it provides a woman entrepreneur with more flexibility to focus on the management and growth of her business.
C- Women entrepreneurs defying expectations
It is true that all the factors previously-mentioned do affect the success of a business. However, North African women entrepreneurs have continuously shocked the world with their success and stable growth deying all expectations. They keep on proving that those factors do present an obstacle that should be surpassed.
1- Empowerment of women entrepreneurs
The main outcome of entrepreneurship is not the financial profits, but, in fact, is the empowerment women get. It gives them a power and consolidates their presence as economic distributors and as decision-makers instead of a “dominated minority.”
There are mixed expectations when it comes to women entrepreneurs. Some believe that they are doomed to failure and would not succeed at all. Another group thinks that these women will succeed but only to a certain extent because of the many factors hindering their growth. The last group trusts that they will succeed and defy all expectations thanks to their dedication and devotion.
Women entrepreneurs have always been expected to fail miserably because of the common ideology of them being incompetent and unequal to men. Underestimation and undervaluation of a woman entrepreneur was quite popular due to the cultural factors that reinforce it. The failure was mainly thought to be because of incompetence and lack of knowledge. However, it turned out that in most of the cases of failure, lack of financial support and access to markets was the main reason.
ii. Relative Success
As some entrepreneurial initiatives led by women fail, others do succeed. However, their success is less than male-owned businesses due to many financial and institutional factors. As previously mentioned, factors such as entrepreneurial training and access to financial funding can play a vital role in the success of a business or its failure. Also, this relative success prevents women entrepreneurs from reaching their full potential and growing their business.
b- Impact on women and society
North African women entrepreneurs do not only impact their lives, but also other women and even society. Their initiatives provide an example to other women to follow or be part of it. Also, it challenges the sociocultural norms of society which results in a push towards change and adaptation to the new situation.
i. Empowerment of other women
Some of the studies conducted have proved that women entrepreneurs in North African countries employ a high share of women and well-educated workers than male-owned firms. They consider their business as an opportunity to save other women who cannot afford starting their own business. Therefore, they provide a hope and an empowerment for women pushing them to put all their energy into work in order to improve their lives.
With empowerment comes independence as a manifestation of social and financial stability. Women usually relied on male members to provide for them and the family in patriarchal societies such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. However, they have gained a new symbolic power through entrepreneurship which allows them to financially support their families.
2- Examples of successful North African women entrepreneurs
In spite of all obstacle and limitations, women entrepreneurs still succeed and prove that dedication is the key to achieving any goal. That is why it is necessary to provide examples of women who have defied all expectations and used the obstacles as a motivation tool to push themselves harder. For this part, two Moroccan entrepreneurs have been chosen as simple examples of how an idea of change can flourish into promising future. These women, whose names are altered for privacy reasons, have in common one thing which is taking a negative situation from their life and using entrepreneurship as a solution for it.
a- Leila Doukkal
Annoyed by the harassment from her boss and her commitment to a job she does not like, Leila Doukkal decides to start her own business. She was a 26 years old young woman who graduated from a school of commerce. She opened a retail store which she financed using her own savings, as well as her parents’, due to the lack of financial support from local banks. Leila says that when one starts their own venture, they are exposed to great risk. b- Fatima Derrabi
Fatima Derrabi is a 24 years old Moroccan entrepreneur whose She experienced difficult times finding a job in because almost no one understood or valued her profession and skills, especially her relatives and friends in Morocco. Eventually, a friend suggested that she work as a freelance artist for his agency. Since then, she works independently for advertising agencies and magazines. She says, one should have a high level of self-confidence and should never give up searching for new opportunity.