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Building A Better Future
By Nargis Rahman |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
A gathering for the oral history interviewees following the completion of Nargis' event
Twenty years ago if you drove through metro Detroit, you would not see Bangladeshi women leading businesses in the public eye. Rather, they were oftentimes seen as supportive roles to men. However in this generation with social media creating an equal playing field for those who want to create new businesses on the side or test the market before opening a brick and mortar, they can do so from the comfort of their homes.

Women in Bangladeshi culture generally are expected to be the caretakers of family - as daughters, wives, daughter-in-laws, mothers, and as a grandparent - first before taking on other ambitious roles. However, this generation with social media has created new unique opportunities for women to fulfill their roles and take on businesses, spearheading their passion projects in full force. In some cases they are able to qualify for small business loans and grants.

In Hamtramck, a city surrounded by Detroit where I grew up, positive stories about Bangladeshis quoted men with businesses along Conant Avenue, which was named Bangladesh Avenue in 2008 because of their contribution to business development. I noticed that not only did women not own businesses, but women entrepreneurs were not highlighted in the mainstream news (or with less pomper).

When I began to notice more and more women opening service oriented businesses - from henna artists to wedding decorators to make up artists, I was inspired to seek out more such stories and include voices of people with shared lived experiences I have had, and who, like me, strive for a better future.

Over the course of nine months, and as part of the South Asian American Digital Archive fellowship, I had the opportunity to conduct 10 interviews with 13 women to learn what inspired them to become entrepreneurs, what struggles they faced, and how they overcame them. I learned that while many of them feel they took a deep-dive into their dreams, they are still figuring out things as they go along. All are deeply committed to uplifting their community while taking care of their families and creating a pathway for other women to follow their passions.

Social media played a big part in helping women from Hamtramck create visibility for their businesses. Gone were the days of relying only on word-of-mouth. Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs found creative ways to run their businesses while still retaining their nine- to- five jobs or tending to their families, and - in some cases, doing both.
Photo courtesy of Fariha Ahmed
One woman who took a leap of faith to launch her businesses online is Fariha Ahmed of Farihennart, who opened her business in 2016 via Instagram.

“It’s never too early or too late to start doing something you enjoy doing,” she said. “You should never give up on your dreams and also... always push and believe in yourself. That’s exactly what I did and, Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) I came a long way. Inshallah (God willing) I continue to do so.”

Ahmed says while it's hard to be a Bangladeshi woman entrepreneur, it’s also rewarding. “It’s harder for a female to be an entrepreneur in the desi community because there are so many responsibilities that come with it and people may talk and there is a lot of criticism but you will just have to ignore it and do what you like and show everyone what you’re capable of,” she said.

While some of these women were able to eventually open brick-and-mortars, I found that others had been doing business from home for many years before Etsy shops, Facebook pages or Instagram accounts became popular. Some have service-oriented jobs where they meet clients where they are, or have porch pick-ups, these women have found creative ways to pursue entrepreneurship.

Begum Rafique, owner of Ummah Fashion in Hamtramck, sold clothes and books from her home for 17 years before opening up shop and is also on Instagram as @ummahoutfitter.
Photography by Afaf J. Saleh
“All of us need to work,” she said.” No work should be undermined. If you stick with something honestly and you give dignity and hard work, then InshaAllah... you can do many things if you are serious, if you have commitment... InshaAllah day by day you will be success.”

In my conversations, I had hoped to hear that these women entrepreneurs feel that they are no longer struggling to make a name for themselves in a male-dominated space. Instead I learned these women still need and deserve strong community support and resources in order to expand and grow.

Mafruza Begum, who opened Mersiha Home Healthcare Services in 2014 after her father suffered from a stroke and was unable to find adequate culturally- sensitive services, says that when she started her business, people questioned her ability to lead, people did not take her seriously because she was young. Sadly, such hurdles are often shared by the other Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs.
Photography by Afaf J. Saleh
“Being a woman in a man dominated city where majority of businesses are owned by our male Bengalis… older male Bengali uncles and bhais and such and they are not used to…. seeing a female out there cause it kind of breaks cultural bias. They expect us to be at home looking after the kids, in the kitchen… and here I am being a female and I am out there, and I have opened a place of business that’s an office that’s open to the public.”

She says the work is rewarding, despite the obstacles.

Muntaha Qureshi, owner of Bridal Insignia, says that all the calculated risks are worth it.

“First and foremost, take that step, take that step to kind of go for it because I feel like if you never do, then there's all these doubts, and you're never, you never would find out where you know how far you can take something, or how far, or what it could be, what the potential could be.”

I wanted this fellowship project to be a community effort: one in which people submitted suggested names of people to interview via my Instagram page, learned about the women, listened to what they have to say to support them. I am happy to say that suggestions poured in. One of my goals was also to extend beyond narrating oral histories; I wanted to have a ripple effect and to inspire other women to pursue their passions.



To that end, a few of the stories were published in Model D, a local publication in Michigan, while others were published in MetroMode, Haute Hijab, and the Yemeni American News. I was able to collaborate with Bengalis of New York to host a special podcast series of these stories. That podcast is called Bangladeshi Women Entrepreneurs, and can be found on all podcast platforms.

Our project ended with a virtual event where we showcased the stories of these dynamic women, and their contributions to the local Metro Detroit community, to show that whether pharmacist, attorney, IT developer, or a clothing designer, these women are here to change the scene and redefine what it means to be Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs.

Nargis Hakim Rahman is a Bangladeshi American Muslim writer. She is passionate about community journalism in the greater Detroit area. She hopes to give American Muslims and minorities a voice in the press. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.