Women in Mosul find independence through food business


In the heart of Mosul, Iraq, Abir Jassem skillfully prepares stuffed vegetables in a bustling kitchen. This kitchen is not just a place of culinary creation; it represents a remarkable transformation in the lives of single mothers like Jassem, who have been striving for financial stability in the aftermath of years of turmoil.

At 37 years old, Abir Jassem, who tragically lost her husband during the dark days when Mosul was under the grip of the Islamic State (IS) group, had to find employment to provide for her children. She expressed, “If I didn’t work, we wouldn’t have anything to eat.” Today, she is one of approximately 30 employees at “Taste of Mosul,” a catering service established in 2017, shortly after the liberation of Mosul from IS militants.

This unique venture not only celebrates Mosul’s local delicacies but also empowers women who are widowed or divorced, facing the challenges of rebuilding their lives in Iraq’s largely conservative and patriarchal society. For individuals like Jassem, who faced resistance from their families to work in mixed-gender spaces, this catering business has offered a lifeline to independence.

Jassem now earns 15,000 dinars ($11) a day by preparing delectable meals, which are promptly delivered to clients. Her specialty, Mosul-style kibbeh, a minced meat dish, carries a taste that she proudly claims is unrivaled by Syrians or Lebanese.

The determination of these women shines through as they gather around a large blue table, rolling vine leaves, stuffing peppers with orange-colored rice, and crafting meat fritters.

However, the struggle for female employment persists in Iraq, where only slightly over 10 percent of the country’s 13 million working-age women are part of the job market, as per a July 2022 report by the International Labour Organization. The end of the Mosul conflict in the summer of 2017 brought about a surge in “war widows,” women left without their husbands, who were often the primary breadwinners for their families.

Recognizing the pressing need for economic opportunities, Mahiya Youssef, 58, initiated “Taste of Mosul” to enable women to enter the workforce in the city’s post-war landscape. Youssef, a mother of five, started the project with just two cooks but has since expanded its reach, providing employment not only for widows but also for young graduates.

The menu offers appetizers and main dishes ranging from $1 to $10, with monthly profits exceeding $3,000. Youssef envisions further growth and is contemplating opening a restaurant or launching similar projects in different regions of Iraq.

Youssef’s passion lies in resurrecting forgotten recipes, like hindiya, a spicy zucchini stew with kibbeh, or ouroug, fried balls of flour, meat, and vegetables, which are rarely found in modern restaurants.

Among her employees is Makarem Abdel Rahman, a woman who lost her husband in 2004 when he was kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants. In her 50s, she now delivers food using her car, a choice that has faced some criticism from certain relatives. Nevertheless, she perseveres, describing “Taste of Mosul” as her “second home.”

Many clients have become devoted patrons, with some ordering meals from “Taste of Mosul” repeatedly. Taha Ghanem, a 28-year-old cafe owner, praises the “unique flavors” of Mosul’s cuisine and relies on this service, even though he is far from home due to work commitments. He embodies the enduring appeal of this remarkable endeavor that not only preserves culinary traditions but also empowers the resilient women of Mosul.

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