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Women Drive Success Of Somali Mall In Minneapolis

By Adam Belz
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

A tax preparer in a shirt and tie dropped in on Bulbulo Mohamud’s cafe last week and said he believes it’s better for women to stay home and take care of children.

Mohamud, a mother of three in a red and black headscarf whose husband travels for work, poured a drink and looked at the man sideways. He was half-grinning, goading her. A European soccer game droned on a TV in the corner.

“You’re trying to make me mad,” she said.

It was an odd venue to argue for stay-at-home motherhood. Women who own businesses are driving the growth of Karmel Square at the corner of Pillsbury Avenue and Lake Street. The mall is probably the largest collection of Somali businesses in the U.S.

What began as a warren of stalls and storefronts in an old machine shop has grown into a second, four-story building along the Midtown Greenway. Inside are 175 clothing shops, hair salons, henna shops, restaurants and even a mosque. All but 25 are owned by women.

The mall is the scene of a rich paradox in Somali culture. The women who run the shops cover their heads, and many of them believe it is a man’s responsibility to pay bills for the family. Yet they are aggressive businesspeople, cherish financial independence and preside over a microeconomy at the core of the Twin Cities’ Somali community.

“Our man does not control us as people think. It’s not like that. We are free to do anything,” said Mohamud, who opened her cafe there four months ago. “If we decide to achieve something and make it clear, we can.”

Ubah Diriye grew up in Seattle from age 4, where her family settled in public housing in the 1990s. “It was very hard for my mother and father,” she said. “We started from the bottom.”

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