Little by little, women are taking up leadership roles in Syrian family firms.
Photos Carole al-Farah
Back in the 1980s, when Sonia Khandji Cachecho was still a little girl, she loved to sneak into her father’s office and watch him work. A few years later Cachecho was managing the office when her father was away on business trips. Taking on a leading role in the family company was not welcomed by all, however, and some older Damascene traders were even unwilling to do business with her.
“In the eighties, women were largely marginalised in the world of business and only the sons took over the family business,” Cachecho said. “My father, however, never discriminated between me and my brothers. He believed in a woman’s ability and encouraged me to continue my studies and work in the family business.”
Cachecho, backed unconditionally by her father, persevered in the family hair care and cosmetics business, eventually taking over the reins. Today, she also sits on the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and serves as president of the chamber’s businesswomen’s committee.
“Those business people who once frowned upon my work have changed their attitude,” she said. “I have even become an example they now ask their daughters to follow.”
Growing numbers of Syrian women are entering the world of business. Yasmina Azhari, deputy director of Maersk Line shipping services, said women have not only forced their way into leadership positions in many family businesses, but also in many employment fields traditionally dominated by men.
“The quality and quantity of women-led businesses has developed a lot during the past 10 years,” Azhari, who also set up the NGO Modernising and Activating Women’s Role in Economic Development (MAWRED) which helps female entrepreneurs launch business ventures, said.
Mariam Massouh, general manager of Massouh Trading Company, is part of a new breed of Syrian women who are now taking up senior leadership positions within their family company.
“Many people find it weird that I’m working in my family’s aluminium company,” she said. “They often tell me that aluminium is not feminine enough for women. But whether it is a small cosmetics shop or an aluminium company, at the end of the day business is business.”
Conservative social attitudes
It is not only in large family companies where women are playing a greater role. Leila Zayyat always wanted to become a fashion designer, going so far as to enroll in the Syrian branch of the ESMOD fashion institute. The sudden death of her father in 2004, however, forced Zayyat to switch careers and take over her father’s small snack shop in the Damascus suburb of Qassa. Her younger sister has also followed her into the small business. While it was not all that long ago that a young woman working as a food vendor would have been unimaginable, today the Zayyat sisters easily go about their work, supported by their customers and neighbouring business owners.
“People always hurry to help us because we are women,” Zayyat said.
Despite her success, Zayyat doubts her business would have been possible if she was living in a more conservative part of the country. Indeed, social attitudes loom as the biggest hurdle for women in business, family or otherwise.
“The law doesn’t discriminate between men and women in business, it is society that often hampers women when entering the world of business,” Azhari said. “I was encouraged in my business by the Lattakia Chamber of Commerce because they wanted to create an image of Lattakia as a civilised and open-minded governorate, but this is not the case everywhere in Syria.”
While supported by her local community, Zayyat believes her work reduces her marriage prospects. “Not all men will accept that their wife runs a snack bar,” she said.
Even if they do, creating a balance between family and business, though not impossible, is difficult to achieve. When she had children, Cachecho decided to put her career on hold.
“These days it is not that hard for women who do not want to stop working to continue because today women have servants to take care of the house while they are away,” Cachecho, who recently returned to the boardroom after a 12-year break, said. “But I didn’t want my children to grow up without me being there for them. If I wasn’t working in a family business, however, it would have been impossible for me to quit for 12 years and then come back.”
Women and the law
While Syrian law does not discriminate between men and women in business – Article 45 of the Syrian constitution “guarantees women all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effectively in political, social, cultural, and economic life” – a number of legal issues confront women working in family businesses.
Inheritance is a case in point, with inheritance laws making it more difficult for women to take over a business.
Inheritance laws fall under the Personal Status Code which makes women legal dependents of their fathers or husbands. These laws are also based on religious laws. For Muslim women, this means they only inherit half of what their brothers do in accordance with Islamic teaching.
According to Cachecho, however, this problem can be solved by converting family businesses into joint-stock companies. “This solves a lot of problems for the next generations within the family and for women in particular,” she said.
The fact that children take their father’s family name, rather than their mother’s, also makes it more difficult for women to maintain their family business across generations.
“Children carry their father’s name and therefore they often establish their own family business rather than continuing the mother’s family business,” Cachecho said.
According to Cachecho, only 9 percent of Syrian companies are registered in a woman’s name. Of this total, only 15 percent are family-run firms.
Despite these obstacles, Cachecho remains optimistic for the country’s businesswomen.
“There are a lot of opportunities for women to start their own business with a small budget,” she said. “Women from different social classes are now starting their own companies. While family businesses led by women are limited in number, our hope is that many of the new businesses created by women independent from their families will develop into women-led family businesses in the future.”
This article was published in Syria Todaymagazine.