A Middle East Answer to the Mommy Wars: Let Women Drive

By Elissa McCarter, CHF International

Microfinance Focus, May 2, 2012: The “mommy wars” have erupted once again, and Americans are asking a familiar question: “Can women really ‘have it all’?” Through my work with the largest network of microfinance lending in the Middle East, I’ve met a handful of women who are living the answer.

Women, who comprise approximately 83 percent of all microfinance participants worldwide, are excellent clients – usually, for example, they are better at paying back loans on time than men. But it goes beyond basic financial responsibility. The Arab women with whom I’ve worked have demonstrated a savvy understanding of how to mesh running a family with running a business – and in the process they are playing a key role in shaping economic development in their communities.

It starts with a basic premise: Let women drive. Literally.

I started working in microfinance 14 years ago. One of my first clients was an Armenian taxi driver named Tikush.  She had lost everything in the 1988 earthquake and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Her savings, her livelihood, her husband – all gone.  So what did she do? She turned her uncle’s old car into a taxi.

As the only female taxi driver in town, Tikush was the go-to driver for other women who needed to travel at night.  Women normally wouldn’t feel comfortable moving around past dark due to customary prohibitions. Tikush’s newfound mobility set her free, personally and financially, and helped her to empower others.

Fatima, a microfinance client in Jordan, received a loan designed to support secondary education – especially important for women who have had to leave school early to raise a family. She used the funds for driving lessons, performing so well that she eventually became a driving instructor at the school that taught her. Consequently, Fatima built a huge following of new female customers, all of whom wanted a female instructor to save them from embarrassment should they fail the parallel parking test.

The bravery these women show is incredible – especially in a region where some influential religious leaders warn that giving women the freedom to drive could lead to sexual promiscuity and other perceived social ills. Their stories are exceptional – but they don’t have to be.

Helping women realize their full potential as “drivers” of economic development – both in the Middle East and here at home – begins with providing encouraging role models. At CHF we recognize this, and our staff reflects it.

Despite the fact that career advancement is a major challenge for many Arab women, three of our four microfinance subsidiaries in the Middle East have women at CFO-level positions in a field typically dominated by men. All of them are working mothers who rose to the job on the basis of merit.

Sandy, a native Jordanian and mother of two, is the CFO of a microcredit company that extends loans for small and medium businesses, home improvement, and low-income families. At 33, she has 29 employees reporting to her already. But she’s not one to rest on her laurels: to advance her career, she is currently pursuing her MBA.

Born and raised in Ramallah, Nadin, a mother of three, directs financial operations at one of the largest microfinance providers in the West Bank and Gaza. She tells me how proud she is of successfully balancing family life with a rewarding career: building solid financial management systems to help Palestinian families launch businesses and purchase homes.

And in Beirut, Celine works long and stressful hours making sure that the complex financial reporting systems in Lebanon’s first non-bank financial institution for microfinance are running smoothly. Still, she leaves time and a bit of energy to play with her young baby at the end of each day.

Commentators are currently debating whether microfinance is directly linked to poverty reduction. With all due respect, I believe they’ve missed the point. For many working mothers in the Middle East, microfinance is about entrepreneurship and opportunities that would not otherwise be there. It is not simply about obtaining a job, but helping form a path for women to rise to the top.

It is called empowerment, and it indeed allows women to “have it all” - whether it involves letting women drive, or giving them the tools to drive economic development.

About the author:
McCarter is Vice President of the Office of Development Finance at CHF International. More than 80 percent of CHF International’s $157 million global microfinance portfolio is focused on four countries: Jordan, Lebanon, West Bank and Gaza, and Iraq.

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