As told to Sheharyar Rizwan, by Zahra Bibi
I’m Zahra Bibi and I’m Pakistan’s only female butcher, or at least the only one who faces customers at the counter. I’m not sure if there is any other woman in the country who works as a butcher at the front, facing customers and dealing with them firsthand. I think I’m the only one around.
I live in the small Samsani village of Johar Town. I come from a family of three sisters and two brothers but last year, one of my brothers passed away. Two of my sisters are happily married, so that leaves me, my mother, an elder brother and a sister-in-law in my family at home.
I was earlier working at an embroidery shop in a plaza in Model Bazaar near our house for four to five years, but had to quit because of their issues with payment.
Two years ago, I had gone to grab a roti from a tandoor when I thought I’d just say hi to a friend who worked at the Emporium Mall's supermarket, Carrefour (operated in Pakistan by Majid Al Futtaim).
She suggested I apply for a job here, which I did and got in. I thought I’ll do anything they’d ask me to, including security duty, but they placed me in the chicken butchery section.
Since I knew nothing about butchery obviously, I was trained for four to five months and now I regularly butcher around 15-16 whole chickens in a day from 9am to 6pm that come slaughtered from the slaughterhouse.
Domestic needs compelled me to get out of the house and start working after one of my brothers died. Nobody works for fun you see; there’s a need that makes everyone take up jobs. We live in a rented house and my other brother was the only breadwinner. It was time I helped him and my family.
I had no problems adjusting from the previous job to this. It seemed like a piece of cake; there was no difficulty. The training lasted four to five months with a French trainer. The process was slightly difficult because I had no idea what this was about and I started from scratch.
But the support from my boss, my senior Azam, the store's GM, Kyoung Mun Lee and butchery section manager Zohaib helped me overcome any fears and hurdles.
This was the reason that a few weeks into the training my confidence level shot up and now I love what I do. The work environment here is great with very friendly and encouraging people around.
My favourite task here is marinating. I also make sure that we all wear clean uniforms, as I’m a stickler for hygiene. I believe if we present ourselves satisfactorily, we’ll be able to handle customers in a better way.
In the initial days of training, I was hesitant only about handling those huge knives, which I hadn’t even touched before, but gradually I overcame that fear and now I’m a pro and can butcher a chicken under a minute. During training, I was the only woman there; no woman has been even trained for this job, let alone has worked.
Customers have been really happy to see me taking up such a job that was considered a man’s territory so far. But in my initial days after the training, there was just one man, who seemed very angry and refused outright to buy chicken from me, saying I was a woman and that this wasn’t a woman’s job.
I asked him if he thought women were any less than men and if there was any difference between a man and a woman in current times. But he was adamant so I stepped aside and asked a male colleague to deal with him. Besides that one person, there hasn’t been any customer that gave me a tough time.
There are some customers who don’t even want a new worker dealing with them. I’ve got repeat customer, who have specifically asked me to step up and butcher chicken for them because they liked my work and my skilfulness.
Now that I believe I have mastered butchering chicken, I told my boss I wanted to move to the harder section of beef and mutton. It’s hard because the equipment used there takes a lot more strength than it does for chicken. The boss appreciated my commitment and said gradually they’ll shift me there.
There will be a separate training session for that. But I have started practicing myself by just removing fat from small pieces of beef. I believe a person can achieve and learn anything if he/she is determined and committed. My seniors, Azam and Zohaib, have supported me a lot and given me feedback that I’m doing great. And now that I like doing this, I don’t want to quit. I’m proud of myself.
My family is also really proud of me and support me completely, which is why I have come so far. My mother supports me and prays for me a lot. In fact, recently during my younger sister’s wedding my family would joke with me that they’d get me all the chicken to butcher and cook.
My mamoo’s family and other relatives would especially come to the supermarket to watch me work and feel really happy about it. Some relatives even shop for meat from here. At home they tease me that I’m a qasain (female butcher). When I’m off from work and cooking at home, the household knives seem really tiny to me now as compared to the ones I use at work.
My female colleagues call me qasai, and I own the title proudly. They ask me why I chose this job where there’s a lot of stench, and I tell them they’re misunderstood. Some often tell me I stink because I spend so much time in the butchery, but I tell them not to disrespect someone’s work.
After seeing me work, some of my women colleagues even expressed interest in this job, but they never returned, saying they couldn’t work here. But I love working here, and want to become a butcher permanently. Some of my women colleagues joke with me that they’re scared of me now; the men have been really appreciative.
I firmly believe that women aren’t any less than men in any field, and I think I’ve proven that. Any woman who is willing and wants to do something for herself, her family should support her in whatever she chooses to do. I want to tell other women also that they shouldn’t hesitate in doing something, if at all they’re hesitant to take up unfamiliar jobs. The fact that butchery was always a man’s world did not deter or discourage me ever.
From here I don’t know where fate takes me. I feel now I can even train people for this job and would like to become the supervisor eventually -- I do see myself taking up the role one day. Life is unpredictable. so one doesn’t know what will happen even in the very next moment.