It's a rainy day in the West Bank village of Ajoul, and when the kids get out of school a few dart into Myassar Issa's mini-market to buy sweets before running home up the muddy hills leading out of the valley.
They're part of the steady stream of customers that have helped Mrs. Issa grow her shop since opening it with a micro-finance loan of $1,400 two years ago. Today she has repaid that loan and gotten another, doubled her merchandise, and gained a new sense of independence as the family breadwinner. Her husband has two other wives and can't provide for her and her three sons, who are eager to marry but don't have the financial means to do so.
"I could either sit and say, 'He has to pay, he has to pay,' and starve and let my children starve, or act. I had to act," says Issa, surrounded by stacks of Pringles, diapers, and a TV playing Egyptian soap operas. "I don't care what my in-laws say, all I care about is saving money so my sons can get married. When a person has an objective, nothing can break that person."
The West Bank economy is even more gloomy than the weather here; government workers recently went two months without getting salaries until Saudi Arabia kicked in $100 million to help ease what has been described as the worst financial crisis since the Palestinian Authority was founded in the 1990s. But despite the structural problems and widespread despair, female entrepreneurs such as Issa are finding creative ways to carve out a niche for themselves in the marketplace, boosting the economy as well as their confidence and independence.
"You cannot sit around and wait for the government to give you business," says Issa, who also has a side business raising 1,500 chickens. "No one is going to give you anything when you just sit around."
Samir Barghouthi of the Arab Center for Agricultural Development in Ramallah says statistics of female participation in business are hard to come by, but estimates that women entrepreneurs are increasing in number and today represent 5 to 10 percent of business owners in the formal sector and 30 percent in the informal sector
There is significant cultural resistance to women entrepreneurs, however – and not only from men. Sawsan Dweik, an interior designer and wife of a wealthy Palestinian business executive, says women are often the most critical.
"'Look at her, she's out of the house all day, not taking care of her husband and her kids,' they will say," Ms. Dweik says bitterly. But there is stiff resistance from men, as well, she adds. "The men feel that she is coming not only to challenge but to take what is theirs – to work, to earn money. She is trespassing."
Mr. Barghouthi sees it somewhat differently. "Of course, maybe they're not comfortable to see their women going outside the home for business," he says, "but they have no alternative."
A gym of their own
Such social strife finds no place at My First Gym, however. Girls who burst in after school have a full set of mini-gym equipment at their disposal, designed specially for kids. There's also a room of kid-sized stationary bikes from London for spin classes, a play area with huge squishy exercise balls and hula hoops, and a huge bowl of green apples in the fridge.
"I think that it is a good place for children ... to [develop] good habits, a new lifestyle," says owner Amani Harhash, one of nine sisters from East Jerusalem who are all professional women, including a lawyer, dentist, and interior designer. My First Gym is one of a number of opportunities in Ramallah, says Ms. Harhash, for children to "vent out all the negativism" of their society.
The gym, which opened in May 2012, employs four people – all women – and has 60 members who pay 200 shekels ($55) a month for access to all the equipment and the various classes, including yoga, aerobics, and ballet.
This is Harhash's third business; she started with a shop that sells maternity clothes and then opened a day care center, which employs five people, with the help of a bank loan.
"Not all women can stay at home with their kids, so we have to give them a place where they can depend on other people that their children are in a safe place while they are working," says Harhash, who studied business administration in Jordan. "It's a must."
Shyrine Ziadeh is a young woman who had dreamed of going to study abroad – her passion was ballet – but her parents encouraged her to finish her degree at Birzeit University near Ramallah first.
But she found there was a demand for her skills here at home, so she opened a ballet studio in downtown Ramallah in December 2011. "I think business is common sense," says Ms. Ziadeh, who especially loves the advertising and marketing side.
She has anywhere from 10-20 girls in her three classes, ranging from toddlers to young adults. The tuition is 200 shekels ($55) a month, but not all families can pay.
At first her family financed everything, and her brother helped arrange the rental of her top-floor studio space from the Orthodox Church nearby. Now she is able to cover the rent, although the church allows her to pay late when necessary, and she is paying back the money her family lent her. She wants to develop the business further, however, and is disappointed that no Palestinians have expressed interest in helping. (For more on the ballet center, read today's blog post here.)
But Ziadeh is undaunted, and puts her whole heart into her work, inspired by her late father.
"I'm doing this for him," she says. "He always wanted me to do something special."