"I'll let you in on a secret," said Deem Al Bassam, 28. "You use Instagram to share photos, right? We are here (at home), using it as an e-commerce platform. You cannot imagine the number of businesses that are growing on Instagram."
Deem's sister, Rand Al Bassam, saw $10,000 worth of email orders for her turbans in one month after she launched on Instagram. She's since established an e-commerce platform for T4Turban.
The entrepreneurial siblings from Saudi Arabia—Deem owns a high-profile restaurant in Dubai called Switch—are part of a surprising trend: the growing number of women-owned businesses in the Middle East, a region that has long had one of the lowest rates of women's entrepreneurship. The trend is by no means uniform, and in some countries it is hampered by restrictive laws and cultural practices that make it hard for women to act independently.
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But women all over the Middle East are finding ways to start businesses that range from bakery stalls in bazaars to small manufacturing operations to venture capital–backed e-commerce companies. Technology from social media to crowdfunding is helping to spur the change. The women involved see themselves at the vanguard of a movement that is about more than economics.
"It's all about empowerment," said Mona Ataya, CEO of Dubai-based Mumzworld, a baby retailer that sells more than 100,000 products. Not only does the 40-employee website put information and purchasing power into the hands of women, Ataya serves as an example herself. "I would love to one day be able to have a grand exit and have Amazon purchase my company so that other women who have not had the initial courage to start a business would see. There is a trickle effect. A few women start, and more carry on."
Already, Ataya is a model for other women. Revenue for her site is growing at a rate of 50 percent, quarter over quarter. Though she would not disclose revenues, she said the average basket size is $135.
(Read more: Young, confident and leading)