“I was in my thirties, trying to maintain a small business in Nouakchott. It was very difficult. People would frown upon me and other women entrepreneurs. To them, we were women who dealt with men, who travelled without their families to bring goods. In their eyes, we were bad women,” Lematt Bent Makeya, founder of Mauritania’s first women’s market, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Receiving us in her house in an upscale area of the Mauritanian capital, Makeya continued her story with pride: “This wasn’t the only problem. We were also suffering at the hands of shop owners. They were not taking us seriously. They were imposing abusive conditions on us as they preferred renting their shops to men. One day, I said to myself: enough, I have to change this. And I did,” she said.
Everything started twenty years ago, when Makeya decided to find a solution to the difficulties she, and other Mauritanian women entrepreneurs were facing. She invited eight businesswomen for dinner and spoke to them about her idea.
Sitting in a big chair in her spacious reception, Makeya told us: “I told them that the only way forward for us was to join efforts and work together. We needed to be independent. The only way to do this was to establish our own space. So we decided to create a market where only women would allowed to own or rent the shops.”
“It was a strange idea at the time. No one believed in it and no one offered to help. We decided again to count on ourselves. We succeeded in securing a loan from a bank. We looked for an appropriate piece of land and we bought it. Then, we started building the premises of what is known today as the women’s market,” she said.
Shop owners chatting in Shanqeet Women only Market (Photo: Khadija Noreen)
The success of the idea
What started twenty years ago as a small retail space counts today more than 240 shops over two floors. The market is located in the same district as Makeya’s house, in the heart of Nouakchott. Officially, it is called Shanqeet Market, written clearly on the main entrance. However, people in Nouakchott seem to have forgotten the official name and just call it the “women’s market.”
In the windows of the market’s small shops, all kind of goods can be found for the entire family, including the men. “It was never intended as an exclusive place for women’s shopping,” said Makeya. “We didn’t want to create a new form of segregation, quite the opposite.”
The market gets busy in the evenings, and stays open past midnight to accommodate the lifestyle of many Mauritanians who prefer to go out after sunset.
Following their success with the space, Makeya and her colleagues thought about the next step: creating a union for businesswomen and women entrepreneurs. Today, that union counts around 7,000 women as members, with Makeya their elected leader.
The women only market in the heart of Nowakshot (Photo: Khadija Moreen)
An opportunity for men as well
While men are not allowed to own shops in the women’s market, most of the workers are men. Here, traditional roles are inverted: women own and men work for them. By hiring men in their businesses, Lematt and her colleagues wanted to break another social stigma held against women entrepreneurs.
Zidan comes from the southern city of Silbabi. He is 27 years old and has been working in the women’s market for five years.
We met Zidan in front of the shop where he works. He was sitting on the floor on a small carpet, as is the custom in Mauritania, with his back against the wall resting on a cushion. Zidan was preparing tea for himself and a friend using a small kit. Around the market, there are many similar scenes of tea gathering while the workers wait for customers.
“When I came to Nouakchott, I started working for one of my relatives who has a shop downtown. Then, some friends told me about the [women’s] market. I decided to leave my job and look for another opportunity here. In the end, I prefer working for women. They treat us with respect. They bring us small presents when they travel and they pay us without any delays,” Zidan said.
Ouzwenya Sidi Baba is one of the women who owns shops in the market. When she wanted to open her own business, her husband objected fiercely.
“I was banned from leaving home,” Sidi Baba told us. “He was so furious. He said that people look badly at women entrepreneurs. He also thought that people would say he isn’t able to sustain me. It took many months to finally convince him. It was his aunt who supported me and helped convince him to let me try.”
Sidi Baba now runs a successful business. She owns not one, but two shops and has been awarded the ‘Woman of the Year’ award by the Nouakchott City Council for women with high achievements.
Zidan is having a tea break with his friends in front of the shop he works in. (Photo: Khadija Moreen)
A long way to go
Statistics for women’s participation in the Mauritanian economy do not exist. However, the women’s market, which has survived now for two decades, and the success of Makeya and her colleagues illustrate the determination of some Mauritanian women to challenge the social stigma which surrounds them.
But all is not yet won. The social change is very slow. Moreover, the business world itself is reluctant to acknowledge the contribution of women. A quick look at the large commercial organisations in the country shows that businesswomen have still a long way to go.
In 2016, the National Union of Entrepreneurs counted only eight women among its 135 members. Its executive board does not include a single woman among its 13 members.
Mohamed OuldSidi, who sits on the union’s executive board, does not deny the difficulties. According to him, the contribution of women in the financial sector is growing and “will definitely be acknowledged one day.” For Makeya and her colleagues, that day is a long time coming.
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