How two Yemeni women are revolutionising Taiz’s food scene

Meet Nisreen Dhirar and Faiza Haidrah who have defied gender stereotypes in Yemen by opening a restaurant in Taiz.

“We broke the norm that opening restaurants are for men only,” Nisreen tells The New Arab. “We tried convincing society that women can also work in restaurants. There is no shame in it.”

Nisreen and Faiza are university graduates, and their education armed them with the confidence to plan and execute their collective business ideas regardless of the challenges. 

The two did not receive any financial support to launch their restaurant, Baytooty Restaurant, as Nisreen explains, “Financially, the project began with our savings. We tried to provide for the business on our own.”

This project has allowed Nisreen and Faiza to learn more about this field and become financially independent, as well as be able to create jobs for other women. “It feels great to be an entrepreneur and self-sufficient,” adds Nisreen.

Nisreen Dhirar and Faiza Haidrah’s Baytooti Restaurant in Taiz, Yemen
[Baytooty Facebook page]

In a conservative society like Yemen, it is hard to persuade a father or a mother to allow their daughters to work in a restaurant. They have several justifications for adopting such a stance. That was a prime challenge Faiza and Nisreen faced when preparing to open the restaurant.

“Finding female staff was challenging. No one was ready to let their daughter, sister, or wife work in a restaurant, Faiza tells The New Arab. “But they changed their position when they understood Nisreen and I were responsible for managing the restaurant.”

An encouraging experience: Yasser Abdu’s encounter at Bayooti restaurant

Yasser Abdu, a 40-year-old resident of Taiz City, told The New Arab it seemed “strange” when he entered Baytooti restaurant for the first time in January this year and found an all-female staff. 

“I ordered lunch, which was brought to the table by a waitress wearing a long jacket. It was strange because I had not seen that in Taiz city before.”

He added, “The food was delicious, and the restaurant looked neat. It has two separate sections for male and female customers. I don’t know the female managers of this business, but I am proud of them.” 

Abdu considers the success of Faiza and Nisreen as an “encouraging example” for Yemeni women who want to open or run their food service facilities in Taiz province or elsewhere in Yemen.

Nawal Mohammed, a university student in Taiz, said the presence of this women-owned restaurant in Taiz city is “inspiring”.

“It made me think about opening a cafe providing light meals, particularly a variety of fruit juice and sandwiches. The staff will be all women.”

She added, “If women in Taiz or other Yemeni provinces have been successful doctors, nurses, and professors, they also can manage food service businesses. It is only the social norms that put limits on our abilities.”

War’s impact: How conflict drives women to become breadwinners

Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2015, leading to multiple economic ordeals, particularly currency devaluation, rising inflation, and job loss. 

Many of the casualties of the war were the breadwinners of their families. With their departure, households were left without a breadwinner, compelling women to bear new burdens and seek work to earn a living.

Huda Nasser, a 20-year-old high school graduate, has been working as a waitress in a restaurant in Sanaa since August last year. Her friends described her as “courageous” as this job in Yemen is dominated by men.

Huda admits that her family’s financial conditions led her to accept the waitress job.  

“My father allowed me to work as a waitress in the Families Section in the restaurant, and this means the customers I serve are women with their husbands or brothers or children. I do not enter the section where only men are served.”   

She added, “Social restrictions on women’s work in restaurants are decades old. However, the war, along with the tough economic conditions, pushed women to accept jobs which were once considered hard or unsuitable.”

Navigating obstacles: Nisreen and Faiza’s resilience amid Yemen’s economic hardships

Keeping a business afloat is a considerable challenge in a country beset by war and political instability for almost ten years.

Yemen’s warring sides, the Iran-backed Houthi group and the Saudi-supported Yemeni government, have engaged in an economic war besides their military battles. This has created misery for civilians and formidable challenges for entrepreneurs.

Many businesses have ceased operations or relocated to other countries, escaping the unsafe environment and heavy taxation imposed by armed groups.

Despite the multiple hurdles businesses face in Yemen, Nisreen and Faiza try to overcome the difficulties their project is encountering.

“The price hikes, currency instability, and shortage of basic services such as electricity, water and cooking gas are among the major difficulties we are facing,” Nisreen explains. 

“But we do our best to tackle troubles facing our business and keep offering customers delicious meals.”

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