SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region — Dutch-Kurdish entrepreneur Shapol Majid, 37, has set up a women’s lingerie shop in Sulaimani, which, thanks its popularity, is one of the few businesses untouched by the current recession in the Kurdistan Region.
What makes the shop in one of Sulaimani’s shopping centres unique is the concept of ‘for women, by women’, and the combination of well-made and fashionable underwear, recognisable sizes and professional help by female assistants.
Customers come from all over Iraq; some women in Baghdad even send their husbands when they travel to Kurdistan to buy new lingerie at Majid’s shop: “Our website explains to women how to take their measurements, and it won’t go wrong as our sizes are all European,” Majid says.
An important attraction is the service offered, says one of the customers, a young well-dressed local woman who refrains from mentioning her name for reasons of privacy.
“I feel no shame towards her,” she states, pointing to the shop’s assistant Hind Abdullah, 23, who has just assisted her in the fitting room while trying on a strapless bra. “She really helps me choose.”
“Elsewhere, you never know if there is a camera on the fitting room,” she adds. “We are an Islamic country, but mainly on the outside.”
Majid boasts an all-female staff. “Many women who come to the shop tell us how nice it is to finally buy from a woman. I taught my staff how to take the measurements and how to find the right sizes.”
The first month and a half she stayed herself, now her sister manages the shop and she keeps the management from the Netherlands by checking the computer system, managing the website and buying new stock.
Her lingerie is from the Netherlands, Britain and France, for reasons of quality and good fit, yet her shop is different from most in Europe.
Bras and panties are not only offered in colours and designs to the Kurdish and Arab taste, but the abundance of big cup sizes – going even up to G – is striking.
“Most of the Kurdish and Arabic women are more full in their build and their breasts are bigger than in Europe,” Majid explains, adding that wearing a wrong bra size can lead to back pain and issues with one’s posture.
It’s not only because men do not understand about the sizes of women’s underwear, or what a good fit feels like, for Majid working with women is also a matter of principle.
“I want women to feel safe, in the fitting room but also at work,” she says, stating that many women working in shops are victim to harassment by the owners, and are often underpaid.
But it goes also for herself as an entrepreneur: “Lingerie is a world where you can work as a woman, while in other sectors the competition with Kurdish men is harder.”
After living and studying in the Netherlands, Majid was surprised to find that emancipation in her fatherland only goes skin deep.
When she rented the space in the shopping centre, she was asked who her boss was: “They are convinced there must be a man. Or they ask you whose wife you are.”
Another customer has entered the shop, putting her sleeping baby on a chair for her husband to keep an eye on, while she tries on a corset, with the help of an assistant.
“I come here especially, as they sell products that I cannot buy elsewhere,” the woman states, leaving with the corset and a membership card for discount on future purchases.
An important feature in the shop, that attracts many costumers from all over the country, is the sexy lingerie in black lace.
“It sells very well. Many women buy it for their husbands,” Majid says. “Many Arab women start buying it when they are young, making a private stockpile.”
This kind of lingerie is part of the products Majid wants to produce in an atelier she is planning to set up in Kurdistan.
There, she wants to make her own brand, Khanem, meaning lady in most Middle East languages, as the lingerie should be exported there too.
Here again, Majid wants to work only with women, and preferably women who fled their homes and need the money to survive and look after their families.
At the same time, Majid is looking for female entrepreneurs who want to start a franchise of her Sulaimani shop elsewhere, like in Erbil or Baghdad.
She promises to help them with her knowledge and experience to make the business a success: “As marketing research was difficult in Kurdistan, I learned it all by myself, and now know what sells. The past two years were a pilot for me, now I know very well what I want.”