Madeleine F White and Faruk Rasool
The Iraqi billionaire industrialist shares the secret of his success – Women’s Economic Empowerment!
We had risen early and were driving from Erbil through the mountains to Suli, welcomed by a glorious dawn. I had arrived from London the day before, and my colleagues Sura and Nigar from Baghdad and Sweden, respectively. We were in Iraq and therefore Iraqi women – one of us by geography, two of us by birth.
By 10am we had arrived at Asiacell’s HQ in Sulimania. Nigar, who had met with Kaka Faruk, whispered to me as we went in,
“Don’t forget he is a businessman; he might do good things, but he always wants to know there is a good business reason for him to get involved.”
With that piece of advice ringing in my ears, I went to shake hands with a man famous for taking risks, for making things happen and for building opportunity in places no-one had thought to look before.
My agenda is simple. I want to understand why and how he champions women’s economic empowerment. I am also keen to get his support for Nina. My first question tries to combine all these factors – and I also mention Asiacell’s Almas line.
It is clear from the outset that this quiet, slightly reticent man, with deeply set brown eyes has a very clear idea of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.
“Yes, the Almas line is very important and I am proud of it. In fact, it is a good example of Faruk Holdings’ overall strategy and viewpoint about the way we deal with women in society. It represents the fact that women make up 50% of our society. It also reflects their importance as a market and gives them the opportunity to connect in a way they can afford.
But I want to talk about politics first. In Iraq there are quotas that 25% of politicians should be made of women. However, often women in positions of political power are there because of connections, rather than competence. I believe this is wrong. There should be professionalism in all areas of life.”
I hadn’t planned on touching on politics – I try to get back to the private sector and ask whether, in Mr Faruk’s opinion, the private sector has the ability to drive political change?
He leans forward slightly.
“Please understand. In general, the private sector is very weak. In nearly all cases, private companies are attached to political parties. This means that there are very few independent voices. In order to understand this, you need to understand history.”
I get the sense of watching an onion being peeled back. Layer after layer. First, we speak about the top layer, the Almas line – but noting why it is created, why the private sector is so important. The question as to why women are needed so much (the meat as it were), is what we are getting to now.
“After toppling the Saddam regime, we had the first taste of democracy. This gave us a real vision of development and growth. There was a sense of hope, as well as a sense of opportunity. That is what the private sector thrives on. But you need to understand the difference between a coup (d’etat) and a revolution. Do you?”
I try to interject, still not quite sure where this is going. But again he fixes me, this time his gentleness becoming steelier. I don’t need his head of PR and interpreter Abdulla to tell me to wait. I just do. Sometimes one doesn’t need language.
“A coup doesn’t change the components of society or its structure. It just changes the faces in power. Everything else is the same. It is superficial. That is what happened in 2003.
However, revolution – now, revolution changes the entire ruling and political system of the country. This affects everyone. Everyone must change. The only true revolution I have lived through in Iraq happened in 1958.”
(Later I go back and do my research. Led by Iraqi army general Quasim, this was considered a watershed not just due to political implications, but also for social reform. Faruk is making a comparison and explaining why post-2003 things have carried on in the vein we see today.)
“1958 changed the personal status for women. They got real civil rights for the first time. Up until then, in law, two female testimonies were needed to argue against one man – that changed. Polygamy, in the widest sense, was outlawed and, importantly, women were given equal rights in terms of inheritance. When the Baath party came to power in 1963, all those reforms were destroyed. As Saddam Hussein rose to power, atrocities became common place and all the positive cultural changes started going backwards.
You must understand that 1958 is all-important, because this was the first time there were groups of women who came together; this was the first time it was a time of something nearing equality.
Now, take my history. I was at Baghdad University in the 60s and followed a socialist, even communist ideology. I volunteered as a Kurdish translator on a magazine for a women’s society. While I was working on this magazine, I realized that many leaders in Iraq were women. Women such as Mubejel Baban (one of the founders of the Iraqi Women’s League, Al-Rabita) were not just leaders of women; they were the best kind of leaders Iraq could hope for. It is here that I learned what true leadership was. Other contemporaries included Dr Naziha al-Dulaimi who, when she became Minister of Health, became the first female minister in the history of Iraq.
So now can you see how all this connects to my businesses? Yes, I do good. I give lots of funding to NGOs for women, supporting widows and women in all aspects of life. But it is the role women play in my companies that I want to share with you. I have women in senior leadership positions across all my companies; from HR, to marketing and finance, there are ten or more. I have them there because they are the best for those positions, because they help grow my companies and my profits. I believe in them.
I try to connect the private sector and government to create opportunities for Iraq, for example, by supporting loans for small businesses. Within this dialogue, I talk about the importance of women being involved in doing good business. I act upon it. My supply chain includes women. If you walk into any of my companies, you will see that I have real equality in my hiring policy, to the point where I often hire women rather than men with the same qualifications.
I sometimes make fun when I see a traditionally dressed woman amongst the modern outfits I prefer. In fact, maybe today heralds the time for another revolution. Business is a very important part of society. If half of society doesn’t contribute, or is allowed to show their true identity, that doesn’t make business sense. If we want to connect to international markets, if we want inward investment, we must embrace a common ideology, one of progress and inclusion. In a funny kind of way, the prophet Mohammed was exactly this kind of revolutionary. Even though I am a secular kind of person, I do see this connection.
He stops. There is silence. Then he says: I will support Nina. I ask if he will be Nina’s first champion: he says yes.
There isn’t much more to say, really, other than to note that as I walk out, he asks me to call him Faruk. In my work, I have met great people. I have met people with vision, passion and sheer determination to make a difference. It is rare that I meet someone who has the social standing, power and funds to deliver on real social change.
It is not only I who have felt this. As we have our photos taken, Nigar, Sura and I recognize the power of what has been said and of who has spoken. Faruk can inspire the changes he is making, reaching beyond local identity to champion global empowerment, because he understands that women are integral to a thriving economy and is demonstrating this in Iraq. He learned the meaning of leadership early on in his life. By recognizing the ‘Spirit of Enterprise at the Heart of Iraq’, Faruk himself is the natural leader of this economic revolution. The reason is quite simple: as Nigar says, he recognizes good business when he sees it!