Naeema Zarif is an integrated media consultant offering expertise on conceptualisation. She produces both off-line and online projects, including print, web, audio and film. She is a supporter of open culture and creative commons and speaks frequently on behalf of the Lebanese creative commons community. She also provides visual and social strategic consultancy to various advocacy projects around the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The opinions expressed are her own.
Ever since the mid-1970s, thousands of Lebanese men fled and continue to flee civil war and occupation by foreign powers to try and improve their financial wellbeing.
This sad reality has been beneficial to women who have managed to make gains in the workforce, as a result.
Despite the fact that society in Lebanon became modernised before 1975, it is still quite common to overhear jibes about how “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” an expression that tends to ignite fury among women unacquainted with a certain Mrs Mona Rahal Sukkarieh who become successful as a result of her kitchen.
Mona was born in the Syrian capital Damascus and later met her Lebanese husband-to-be Khalid as an adult while studying pharmacy at Damascus University.
After three years pursuing academic studies, they got married and moved to a rural village Al Fakiha situated in the northeast of Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, near the Syrian border.
She was troubled by the Israeli–Lebanese conflict in 1982, and the subsequent scarce supply of consumer goods. she began producing food from local sources in keeping with traditions practiced by Middle Eastern women.
Mona succeeded in providing nutritious food for her family, but she was appalled by the living conditions of other women in her community.
Although women have limited access to employment and education induced by social gender inequality, Mona joined training courses provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association), to learn how to mass produce naturally processed food.
She wanted to help improve the economy of her region in spite of prejudicial social pressures.
Mona transferred her knowledge initially to 15 women and in 2002 started the Bekaa Cooperative “Tayybat ” where women purchase food from local farmers.
She expanded the network to include 1,600 women who produced over 80 items of naturally preserved products following health and safety guidelines. She also established distribution channels by exhibiting in local and international fairs.
Mona continues to struggle for access to credit.
"The Ministry of Agriculture has supported us in providing a legal framework and training courses for women around Lebanon, but still we haven't been able to cash a prize they granted us upon submitting a study a couple of years ago," Mona said.
"As for loans -- the interest rates are high and we are afraid that if we can't expand our sales then we will end up not being able to pay the resulting debt," she added.
The co-op was originally launched by donations ranging from home cookware and cooking utensils to small financial contributions from the women involved.
Mona had to resort to selling her jewelry to overcome barriers and maintain market credibility.
This proved to be an unsustainable way to conduct business over the long term.
Adding to her difficulties, the current conflict in Syria has affected her supply of food sources, which she says are of superior standards to the Lebanese equivalents due to the reluctance of government and local authorities to adopt policies and practices for safer and cleaner natural resources.
Now, with Lebanese women unable to participate in policy and decision making for cultural reasons, and men involved in conflict or fleeing from the country due to the political-economic climate, one can only speculate on the importance of supporting such entrepreneurial efforts in the hope of developing a stable economy and alleviating poverty in the region.