Iraqi furniture maker breaks stereotypes

Using a hammer and saw, Noor al-Janabi builds his latest creation, a candy pink sofa, in his carpentry shop in male-dominated conservative Iraq.

“At first, my relatives criticized me,” said the 29-year-old carpenter and furniture maker, mother of four.

“They said: “But you are a woman… You are an amateur… This is a man’s craft.”

The sofas and armchairs upholstered in velvet or faux leather, which she designs, manufactures and repairs in her workshop in southern Baghdad, move from rustic to Louis XV style.

Her order book is full, with new salons starting at 700,000 dinars (about $480).

Janaby has been making furniture for several years and opened her Nour Carpentry business a few months ago. She recently moved operations from her home to a house-turned-workshop where she has four employees, one of whom is her retired husband.

“But you can’t say that,” she said with an embarrassed smile, her hijab hiding her hair.

In oil-rich Iraq, women make up just 13.3 percent of the workforce, according to the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum ranked the country 154 out of 156 in its latest Global Gender Gap Report.

A study published last year by two UN agencies notes that while most Iraqis consider higher education equally important for men and women, “attitudes towards equal employment rights discriminate against women.”

'But you're a woman': Iraqi furniture maker breaks stereotypes
Iraqi carpenter Nur al-Janabi displays furniture in his home workshop in the Abu Dshir district of Baghdad, November 13, 2022. (Photo by Sabah ARAR/AFP)

– “You make Iraq proud” –

Janaby attributes her success mainly to tutorials, which she first posted on Facebook to share her passion for carpentry and furniture making.

She uploads videos on everything from re-stuffing an old couch to using a grinder, and on TikTok and Instagram, where she has over 94,000 followers.

“I am the first Iraqi woman to run this business and overcome barriers in this area,” she said in a country where conservative views on the role of women in society still prevail, and where those who are considered too independent sometimes even considered immoral.

She said she gets comments from women and men who tell her, “You make Iraq proud of you and you have achieved something.”

“God give you strength and health!” one user commented on a video of Janabi presenting a sofa adorned with a floral pattern.

One of her clients, Abu Sajjad, stopped by to see how his sofa was being repaired, unfazed by the prejudices some others might have against associating with a female carpenter and business owner.

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The majority of working women in Iraq are teachers or nurses, although a small number have joined the police or the armed forces.

One of them is Angham al-Tamimi, who this year became the first female army general.

In a video broadcast by the press service of the armed forces, she stated that she “faced the rejection of women in the army.”

But she said she succeeded because of her “persistence” and “passion”.