Editor’s note: “International Business Corner” is a weekly column written by Joan Keston that provides information for people involved in or considering international operations. Keston is an international business consultant. Over the next several months she will be writing about important issues that international businesses face as they compete in the 21st century global business environment.

This article is part of a series that discusses women working in international business.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Women suffer great discrimination and even brutality in some Muslim cultures. We are witnessing the effects of extremism and terrorism that are joining religion and politics in a battle for power. There are huge differences as well among Muslim countries, spanning several different regions, cultures and stages of development.

The status of women is greatly affected and determined by the nature of the family, its class, wealth and level of education. The region or culture also greatly affects this status, and the underlying culture that interprets the Koran.

I have been a guest at Muslim homes in Algeria, Europe and the US and have been greatly and surprisingly impressed by the position of the women in these homes. I have also known women in Paris who would never consider moving back to their homes in North Africa.

During the time that I lived and worked in Brazil, my company did a great deal of business in North Africa. My company was a small Brazilian trading company. So here I was, an American representing a Brazilian company in North Africa.

Being Female

To begin with, the manner of doing business in North Africa is very different from that in the US. It is relationship based to the extreme and according to Transparency International one of the more corrupt regions of the world. I did not work with or see any professional women in business, but I did meet several women who were professionals. I also met with and knew several women from wealthy and educated families who were respected and politically active.

The rules were so different and foreign to me. I took the approach of respecting and adapting to the cultural surroundings without letting it affect my being. Of course I was operating from a position of freedom, not being a native, nor being an employee within that culture.

Our company had a very important business contact in Algeria and I had been an important participant in developing that relationship. However this man would not discuss business directly with me. One time my male partner and I we were having drinks with this man and my male partner went to the men’s room. All discussion ceased until he returned. On another occasion this man requested my presence in Europe for a meeting. He met with my male partner and asked about my opinion, but I was sent shopping with his wife. We were guests at his home for Ramadan dinner, which was an honor, and also traveled with the family in a very natural and congenial setting. My role was understood in a family setting, and although my opinion was requested and evidently respected, my presence in a business setting was not accepted.

Being American

After the terrorism and anti-American actions in Iran, one of the primary areas for terrorism was Algeria. I traveled to Algeria many times as conditions worsened. All woman and children of the American diplomats were evacuated.

I was told that European looking women were considered prostitutes and at one point European looking women were being arbitrarily killed in taxi cabs along with the driver. The last time that I was in Algeria, I remained in the hotel due to several taxi cab drivers’ refusal to have me in their cars.

I had also been attacked and dragged down the street in mid-day in Algiers. It was an attempted robbery, but the frightening part was that nobody did anything to help. They just watched.

I have had many experiences that have left me feeling a great deal of frustration and compassion for the complexity of the political, economic and social issues in these countries.

About the author: Joan Keston is the Managing Principal of Keston & Associates, Ltd., an international business consulting firm located in Raleigh, NC, and a Partner at Paladin and Associates, Inc. She has 25 years of experience with mature as well as entrepreneurial companies, domestically and internationally, coupled with an executive managerial and legal background. Her firm facilitates international business transactions, and assists companies establish, grow and integrate their international operations. She can be reached at (919) 881-7764 and jkeston@kestonassociates.com.