Iraqi furniture maker dismantles stereotypes

Using a hammer and saw, Nour al-Janabi builds her latest creation, a candy pink sofa, in her carpentry workshop in male-dominated and conservative Iraq.

“Initially, relatives criticized me,” says the 29-year-old carpenter and cabinet maker, who is also the mother of four children.

“They would say, ‘But you’re a woman… You’re an amateur… It’s a man’s job’.”

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

Their order book is full, with new lounges starting at a cool 700,000 dinars (around US$480).

Janabi has been making furniture for several years and started her company Nour Carpentry a few months ago. She recently moved operations from her home to a workshop where she has four employees – one of whom is her retired husband.

“But it’s not right to say it like that,” she said with a sheepish smile, her hijab covering her hair.

In oil-rich Iraq, women make up just 13.3 percent of the labor force, according to the World Bank, while 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 found that while most Iraqis consider tertiary education to be equally important for men and women, “attitudes towards equality in employment discriminate against women.”

Iraqi carpenter Nour al-Janabi displays a piece at her home furniture workshop in the Abu Dsheer district of Baghdad, November 13, 2022. (Photo by Sabah ARAR/AFP)

– “You make Iraq proud” –

Janabi attributes much of her success to do-it-yourself tutorials, which she first posted to Facebook to share her passion for carpentry and furniture making.

She uploads videos — about everything from upholstering an old sofa to using a grinder — to TikTok and Instagram, where she has more than 94,000 followers.

“I am the first Iraqi woman to practice this profession and break boundaries in this field,” she asserted, in a country still largely dominated by conservative attitudes towards the role of women in society and where those considered to be perceived independently, sometimes even considered immoral.

She said she gets comments from women and men who tell her, “You make Iraq proud and you’ve accomplished something.”

“God give you strength and health!” A user commented on a video in which Janabi presents a sofa decorated with floral patterns.

One of her clients, Abu Sayyad, stopped by to see how his sofa repairs were going – unperturbed by any prejudice others might have against dealing with a carpenter and business owner.

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Most working women in Iraq are teachers or nurses, although a small number have enlisted in the police or armed forces.

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

In a video broadcast by the military press service, she said she was “confronted with the unacceptance of women in the military.”

But she said she made it thanks to her “perseverance” and “passion”.

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