Um Ahmed’s fingers work quickly, twisting and plaiting the palm leaf into sturdy shapes. Her hands, painted intricately with henna, are accustomed to making traditional food cover cones from brightly coloured fronds. “I am proud to say that, as a UAE woman, I have a variety of skills,” she says. Um Ahmed has been given the opportunity to put her skills to work through a new co-operative program in Sharjah, one of the seven United Arab Emirates.

“I believe that women should also take part in contributing to a household’s income,” she declares. “It is unfair to place the burden only on men.” Sharjah is proud of its credentials as the cultural centre of the United Arab Emirates. Boasting 17 museums, UNESCO has declared the state to be Arabia’s cultural capital.

After a visit to the eastern and central regions of the emirates, HH Sheikha Jawaher Al Qasimi, the wife of the ruler of Sharjah, saw the need to support women who keep traditional arts and crafts alive. Um Ahmed shares HH Sheikha Jawaher Al Qasimi’s ambition. “I would love to export our handicrafts outside the UAE, which is heavily reliant on imported goods,” she says.

To help her do so, Sharjah Women’s Business Council, together with the British-based charity Oxfam, established the Intilaqah Cooperative. Its aim was to promote entrepreneurship amongst the Emirate’s female population. The co-operative began in December 2011 with 50 members, and more are being encouraged to join. New members start by producing a feasibility study for their business idea and later receive advice on how to get the business started. Um Ahmed says, “I always tell my children and daughters-in-law to learn these skills, when they have free time.”

Story from “Building a Better World: 100 stories of co-operation”, published by the ICA.