Bohra digital entrepreneurship shows how religious communities can help women thrive

Bohra women are using social media to access business opportunities while maintaining their religious traditions. (Georgia de Lotz/Unsplash)
Bohra women are using social media to access business opportunities while maintaining their religious traditions. (Georgia de Lotz/Unsplash)

Women from religious communities around the world, like the Dawoodi Bohras, are harnessing the potential of social media platforms to set up or expand their businesses and build entrepreneurial networks. The ease of access, wide reach and collaborative nature of these platforms is providing more women with financial opportunities previously unavailable to them.

Research shows that religion can impact women’s abilities to launch, operate and sustain a business. Religious attitudes towards entrepreneurship affect the support, financial or emotional, that women get from their families and communities.

But religious requirements can also provide the basis for entrepreneurship. Norms and customs around modesty or specific religious dress code can become valuable sources of income for female-led enterprises.

Yet, many women struggle to build businesses or form networks due to gender segregation rules that discourage working outside the home and make it logistically challenging.

Accessing opportunities

Using social media has helped many women navigate these issues by enabling them to conduct their business from the privacy of their homes. They have been proven to offer women more opportunities to connect personally and professionally.

The interactive nature of these platforms blurs social and geographical boundaries to form virtual communities. Through platforms, women can engage in dialogue and build networks of collaboration that provide support and feedback.

Social media is providing women in religious communities new entrepreneurial opportunities. (Shutterstock)
Social media is providing women in religious communities new entrepreneurial opportunities. (Shutterstock)

At the same time they can overcome many real-life difficulties and barriers. For many women, these virtual spaces compensate for the invisibility and lack of agency many of them often experience in professional contexts.

Online platforms help women balance their domestic and family responsibilities while enabling them to become financially independent. All-female platforms are created by traders to avoid the involvement and control of men which also helps them navigate the rules of gender segregation.

Read more: Sudanese women are using social media to trade -- and break gender barriers

Many Orthodox Jewish women have used social media to build businesses and connections within their own communities while keeping in line with expectations around modesty. Women like Sarah Haskell, who goes by the handle @thatrelatablejew, create content that educates people about Judaism and also combats negative stereotypes about Orthodox Jewish women.

Muslim women all over the world also utilized the marketing potential of social media to create a modest fashion industry by reclaiming of the hijab. Many reappropriate symbols or phrases with negative connotations towards Islam such as “Muslim extremist” to sell t-shirts with the words “extreme Muslim” as a form of optimism-driven commodification.

They assert their identity while combating negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women. Entrepreneurial networks also function as a form of empowerment to overcome issues faced by them due to Islamophobia.

Bohra entrepreneurship

Dawoodi Bohras are a religious community known for their trading activities and entrepreneurial spirit. The community numbers around one million, living mainly in India with smaller diasporas around the world.

For Bohra women, work is a source of income as well as part of their religion and a way to give their lives meaning. This idea is based on historical examples of women such as the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadija who was known to be a tradeswoman as well as principles of equality that consider both men and women working together to ensure happiness and prosperity.

Indian Dawoodi Bohra women walk along a street in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Indian Dawoodi Bohra women walk along a street in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Traditionally, Bohra women would either market their products from home or operate physical stores. However, the rise of digital entrepreneurship allows them to expand online. Their ventures range from designing and selling the community’s unique religious dresses to accompanying accessories such as skullcaps, prayer mats, bags, jewelry as well as other items like food, toys, décor and religious teaching aids.

Some women sell exclusively online or as an extension of their physical businesses. They have their own websites or use different social media platforms and form online groups where women can interact, advertise their products and receive guidance and mentoring.

Support from community institutions is what differentiates Bohra women’s entrepreneurial activities on social media. Due to its entrepreneurial outlook and eager embrace of digital media, the community provides women with financial aid, online training and workshops and virtual bazaars which help them succeed.

During COVID-19 pandemic closures the community’s official business department, Al-Tijaarat Al-Raabehah, helped many entrepreneurs move to digital marketing.

The Dawoodi Bohra model shows how community support of digital entrepreneurship can help women achieve financial independence and success while respecting religious norms and beliefs.

Although these are small ventures in terms of demand and reach, social media platforms have helped Bohra women expand their realms of possibility and create strong networks across the globe.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Arwa Hussain, Concordia University. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.

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Arwa Hussain receives funding from the Fonds de recherche du Québec