Shapol Majid is the Founder of Khanem Fashion in Sulaimani. We talked to Shapol about her efforts to support female entrepreneurship and empowerment, the challenges of franchising a business in Iraq, and how her experience abroad influenced her goals and work ethic when she decided to start her business in her hometown of Sulaimani.
AEI: Could you briefly describe your business and what inspired you to start it here in Sulaimani?
SM: I have long committed myself to the empowerment of women. I have chosen to do this in a rather unusual way: by means of lingerie. A woman’s body can be her strength in many circumstances, but it can also be a vulnerability. This ambivalence is exceptionally apparent when it comes to wearing and showing lingerie. And for exactly this reason, lingerie has the potential to be a strong vehicle for empowerment. In a society that is mainly run by men, lingerie still exclusively belongs to the domain of women.
As a native of Sulaimani, I chose the city as a launching point for my lingerie business, Khanem Fashion. I was born here and went to school here, and an important part of my family still lives in the city. Although I currently live in the Netherlands, I have always kept a close connection to Kurdistan. My experiences living between Kurdistan and the Netherlands influenced my decision and goals in starting my business in Sulaimani and adapting it to the needs of women specifically in the region.
In much of the Western world, you can buy (quality and well-fitting) lingerie anywhere and feel safe while doing so; however, this is not always the case in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. There are almost no shops with discrete fitting rooms or sales ladies who will take your measurements to ensure a good fit. Khanem, my brand of lingerie, is therefore exclusively sold by female merchants in a woman-friendly environment. In our shop in Sulaimani, women can buy well-fitting, comfortable, and high quality garments without feeling intimidated or spied upon.
While all these factors are indeed important, “woman-friendly” means more than just ensuring a comfortable and safe shopping and fitting experience. Khanem Fashion is committed to women working in the entire chain of business, whether it involves selling, designing, or producing lingerie in a way that ensures their safety as much as the customers’. Khanem Fashion thus constitutes a safe and independent livelihood for every woman across all chains of the business. Khanem Fashion supports women locally by providing decent working conditions so they are empowered to care for themselves and their families. At present, Khanem Fashion personnel in Sulaimani are economically independent because they benefit from a safe work environment with fair pay.
AEI: How did your time in the Netherlands shape your business plan in Sulaimani and the Kurdistan Region?
SM: First of all, during my time studying Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utrecht and International Law in London, I learned to think analytically. More generally, my time abroad allowed me to expand my horizons and eventually start a career working for different government agencies and private companies in the Netherlands. Working for these highly professional employers in a variety of capacities has taught me to adopt a pragmatic and efficient working style that enables me to develop and execute long-term goals.
Since the early phase of my company, I have communicated with different Dutch agencies, including the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, the Institute for Socially Sustainable Enterprising (MVO), the Governmental Agency for Dutch Business (RVO), and the International Department of Municipality of Utrecht. From them, I have received a lot of useful advice about global enterprising and maintained a network with the Dutch national political representation in different countries. In Kurdistan, I am a frequent visitor of the Dutch embassy in Erbil, from whom I have received important financial support.
In addition to governmental initiatives, I have also received valuable information from collective initiatives set up by successful entrepreneurs—in particular, the Dutch ondernemersklankbord (OKB), or Entrepreneurial Soundboard—to share their knowledge and experience with up-starts free of charge. It has been very helpful to obtain invaluable advice from these professionals on matters related to starting a business, such as taxes, regulations, and import/export requirements.
Unfortunately, there are no such agencies or initiatives in Kurdistan. This meant that I had to learn and discover a lot by myself. I think it would be great if Kurdistan took note of the existing successes of such initiatives abroad to establish similar agencies here in the region. Since Kurdistan has experienced some economic improvement in recent years, I am convinced that there would be high demand for such agencies or networks.
AEI: What are the biggest obstacles you faced in starting your own business?
SM: One of the major obstacles to our development as a business was the (political) instability in the region. We opened our store in Sulaimani in 2014, and three months later, ISIS attacked Mosul. Refugees started pouring in and the economic crisis slowed sales considerably. The effects of these tragic events are still present. One example of this instability is the refusal of the central agency in Baghdad to recognize our registration in the Chamber of Commerce in Sulaimani (KRI). As a result, we recently were not able to open a bank account at the Trade Bank of Iraq (TBI). In response to my question about how to proceed, I was told to go to Baghdad to register the company again for a considerable amount of money. This procedure would have cost me around 50 USD in The Netherlands and about half an hour of my time. In Kurdistan, on the other hand, registering the store cost me about 6000 USD and took me more than six months. Registering the store in Baghdad would force me to pay this amount of money again, in addition to spending money on travel.
A different but equally troublesome result of the political situation is the lack of uniform tax regulation between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. This means that when we import goods to Kurdistan, we have to pay tariffs. When shipping these goods from the store to Baghdad or to other territories in federal Iraq, we have to pay tariffs again.
AEI: What are your plans for scaling up/expanding, and what do you think is the biggest challenge in general to scaling up/creating a franchise in Iraq and the KRI?
SM: Our vision is to start and produce our very own collection by and for women in 2019. Design, production, and management will all be run by women in the Kurdistan Region. Khanem wants to lead by example. From woman-friendly stores (for both customers and personnel) and franchise possibilities to the sewing in our atelier, Khanem will empower women in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region to work independently in a safe and supportive environment.
To bring our products to our customers, we are working on a plan to open additional stores in Erbil and Baghdad in 2020. Furthermore, we are striving to expand our operation online. Currently, we are experiencing considerable growth on the internet, so naturally this is one of our main focuses for 2019.