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When Heba Abo Elkheir was a little girl, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer, maybe even a judge. After earning a bachelor’s degree in law in her native Egypt, she married and soon became a mother of two children.
“Then it all stopped,” she said. “Not only did I want to sit at home, but it was also difficult to continue my studies or go to law.”
On the advice of her husband, Ms. Abo Elkheir, 31, started a YouTube cooking channel in early 2019, showcasing her home cooking in simple videos. It was neither novelty nor innovation that made her recipes popular – Egyptian classics like basbousa and macarona bil béchamel are her most popular, with more than six million views each – but reliability and simplicity.
In less than three years, she has amassed more than three million subscribers and has become not only an earner on par with her husband, but also one of the top three women to run food channels on YouTube in the Middle East-North Africa, or MENA, region .
The kitchen, historically the symbolic heart of domesticity in the Arab world, has often kept women in responsibilities in the home and kept out of the world of work. Only about 25 per cent of women in the Middle East are employed – the lowest number of its kind in the world, although female graduates in the region often outnumber their male counterparts.
But the rise of social media platforms, particularly YouTube, is changing the power dynamic for Arab women, allowing them to turn the kitchen into a source of income and influence.
“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said I wanted to go back to the law,” Ms Abo Elkheir said. “But now, no, I want to go abroad and become a licensed chef. I just find so much meaning in this work.”
Further west, in the coastal town of Nador, Morocco, Karima Boukar launched her YouTube channel in 2015. Users flocked to her dessert videos, which she described as simple but most importantly economical. Her most popular video, with more than 16 million views, is a coconut macaroon-inspired three-ingredient dessert, closely followed by a chocoflan and a cold-brew pudding. In six months, she amassed more than 100,000 subscribers. Today she has more than four million.
When Ms. Boukar, 35, learned in 2016 that her firstborn son had autism, she considered closing her channel to devote herself to him, but soon realized his medical care would be costly.
“I continued this channel to make money and help my son. And now he is – alhamdulillah – very, very well,” she said, using an expression meaning “Praise be to Allah”. Her videos are viewed an average of 400,000 times, earning her a monthly income in the low thousands of US dollars, a figure equivalent to Morocco’s annual gross domestic product per capita.
Food is one of the top four categories on YouTube in the MENA region, a company spokeswoman said. (The other three are lifestyle, music and, more recently, gaming.) Over the past five years, the region’s female-run channels have grown 30-fold from more than a million subscribers to 150 channels today.
“You know, I’ve always heard people make money off YouTube, but I never thought I’d be one of those people,” said Ola Tashman, whose cooking channel has more than 2.5 million subscribers.
Born in Jordan, Ms Tashman, 38, started her YouTube channel in 2018 while living in Saudi Arabia with her husband. She is an accountant by training, but was not allowed to work there because she was not a Saudi citizen. (She has since returned to Jordan.)
Ms. Tashman began posting cooking videos to deal with the frustration of having her career aspirations being stymied and to reenact the meals she missed from home, such as her ma’amoul (Eid biscuits) and shushbarak Mother (a lamb dumpling cooked in yoghurt sauce). .
“I never expected my audience to grow so much,” she said. But once she realized she could turn a profit, she redoubled her efforts, invested in better cameras and quickly saw her audience grow.
For most of these women, cooking was already a hobby or something they did for their families, although their reasons for doing it online varied. However, it was exciting for everyone to see an activity traditionally seen as feminine being taken seriously and respected by those around them. And realizing that their work can be rewarding has enabled women to gain financial independence, respect and meaning.
“Financial freedom is beautiful,” Ms. Tashman said. “My whole personality has changed. I feel bigger in front of me.”
Even her children no longer complain when she puts dinner on the table late. “My husband is also very supportive, because in order to be successful, a house cannot lean to one side. And now we are truly equal partners.”
Muna Al-Amsha, who fled the Syrian civil war with her husband and five children in 2016 and settled in Iraqi Kurdistan, also enjoyed some of these advantages. As refugees, she and her husband struggled to find work. At the suggestion of a friend, she began posting videos of traditional Syrian recipes, from numerous kibbeh variations to countless mezze.
“It took me about a year to start earning a good income, but eventually I was earning several hundred dollars a month,” Ms. Al-Amsha said. “For several years we depended solely on my income.”
Creators’ per-view earnings, a function of what advertisers pay YouTube, vary by region. Because many of Ms. Al-Amsha’s early subscribers were from Syria, her views did not bring her as much value as they would if they were based elsewhere. But the stream of refugees that drove many Syrians all over the world has now given her an income that is sufficient to cover her family’s rent and expenses.
Financial security, while fundamental, is just one of the rewards these women enjoy. You also feel like you are contributing to a larger community.
“I benefit financially, which is great and important,” said Ms. Boukar, the Moroccan vlogger who runs the dessert channel. “But my self-esteem and my personality have really changed. Now I feel a lot better, a lot more confident, and when I meet people I feel like I’ve contributed.”
This feeling of giving is also a driving force for Mrs. Al-Amsha.
“Young women, many of them newlyweds away from home or forced to leave Syria like me, told me I was like a mother to them and taught them how to cook,” she said. “When you hear that, your heart melts. You feel really honored and important to do this for so many people.”
In fact, community members build connections and a sense of affinity with these content creators, even without ever seeing them.
“Often people don’t even sign up for the recipes,” says Ms. Abo Elkheir, the popular vlogger from Egypt, who doesn’t show her face in her videos. “They just want to switch off and relax and they tell me they watch my videos because they like listening to my voice and what I say.”
Ms. Tashman regularly receives requests for popular or viral recipes. “When I tell my followers it’s all over YouTube, they insist, ‘But we want it from you, your way.'”
Who exactly are these loyal viewers? According to Google data, millennials are YouTube’s largest audience in the Middle East-North Africa region, with watch time surpassed only by millennials in the United States. For these online chefs in particular, women made up about three-quarters of the subscriber base.
This large and loyal base has helped these content creators remain somewhat immune to the infamous incessant algorithm changes by social media platforms. But the increasingly crowded space was still a challenge for many of them to navigate.
“It’s not like it used to be where I would have 50,000 additional subscribers in one day,” Ms. Boukar said. “Views have also waned. But my income has not been affected because I work with food companies. That’s actually my bigger source of income.”
But regardless of income and views, these women have forged meaningful connections with other Arab women around the world.
Ms Abo Elkheir said the messages she received from supporters often brought tears to her eyes.
“When someone tells me my recipes work, that they liked them, it’s like I’m not just making things for myself, I’m actually reaching out and helping people,” she said. “It makes me feel like there’s value in my presence in life, that I’m doing something important.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.