The Iron Woman

by Sheher Bano

“It was like a Doomsday for me when I finally decided to part ways with my husband. Had I not done so, he would have. The new love of my husband had conditioned to marry him only if he leaves me first.”

The 35-year-old slim structured Noreen Huda was narrating her story with exhausted eyes.

“Utterly dissatisfied, he had threatened to divorce me many times earlier too. But the fear of my mother-in-law, who used to love me a lot, held him back. After her death, he was free to do so,” she said.

Youngest among her five sisters and one brother, Noreen was married to Faheem* soon after she took her intermediate exams.

“My intermediate results came after my marriage.”

She was only 18 years old at the time of her wedding. Huda had no information about the man she was going to tie the nuptial knot with.

“Being the youngest one in the family, I believed that my elders had better sense to make the decision about my life,” she said in a simple tone.

The family found the match appropriate for her as the boy had good earning from his own estate agency.

“Like all eastern families, my father trusted his words and didn’t do any inquiry about his business or the job.”

It was only after the marriage that they get to know Faheem had a sort of partner like arrangement in that estate agency. Later when the actual owner left abroad, he was rendered jobless. He had no business of his own as he had given the impression.

The husband-wife relation turned sour when the financial crisis hit the family. Living in a joint family set up, they had to contribute to the overall family income. Financial crunch coupled with distrust turned the relation like a house on fire.

“Sixteen years of patience against blames of character-lessness, physical and mental toil to earn for my kids, who I wanted to educate in good educational institutions, was coming to an end albeit with new challenges,” she said.

Ms. Huda with the interviewer.

After the divorce, her husband took hold of her children – the axis of her struggle. But an optimistic as she was, her ultimate hope from Allah Almighty was her only shield. She kept praying and working for herself and her children.

“Soon my prayers were responded when he sent our children back to me. His new wife didn’t want to have any of his strings attached to me or the children. I was finally at peace.”

When she was married to Faheem, he had no job for seven years. With an intermediate degree, he would get odd jobs infactories for a short period of time.

“To help him I started working in EFU as sales agent and later in another company. I still remember I sold out a policy which brought me Rs 11000 out of which I saved Rs 5000 to do a beautician course,” she added.

After the course, Huda started giving services to the female staff of a private TV channel as a freelance beautician.

She would bring her lunch from here which she would share with her colleagues. One day, one of the staff members asked her to cook two chicken Karahi for a party.

“I arranged Rs 300 from somewhere and prepared the karahi. He liked it so much and paid me Rs 700 which was a real surprise for me. They asked me to bring daily lunch packs for them.  The increasing demands set my course towards a trade, which I had remotely thought of,” Huda said.

Huda’s story, like other struggling women of this country, is of trials and tribulations. She explored more clients on other TV channels as well. As the demand for lunch packs increased the staff gave her dinner orders too.

However, the new orders brought new challenges for Huda. The business now required investment, especially in the packing and delivery department.

“I  took a small loan of Rs 30,000 from Tameer Bank in lieu of small gold items with me to manage delivery of orders.”

In order to compensate for the increasing expenses, Huda got attached to the Women Development Foundation Pakistan (WDFP), a Lyari based NGO, working for women and children of slums areas of Karachi.

Working with WDFP gave a further boost to her business. Many well-known NGOs would order food from her.

“Besides supplying food to these NGOs, I would also supply lunch boxes to the adjoining areas of Baldia and Maripur,” added Huda.

Through WDFP, Huda got connected to Panah, a shelter home for women in Karachi, where she started taking baking and cooking classes for the residing girls. She taught them to cook some basic cooking items, through which they could earn and stand on their own feet once they go back home.

“Some of these girls, who later got married, told me that they are making kebab rolls at home and supplying those to railway stations and bus stands – putting their share in family income,” Huda said with pride in her voice.

As her business expanded, her husband’s taunts and blames also increased. This time her in-laws also joined in. They started her character assassination when she started serving Sehri and Iftari food at a TV channel. She had to go to channel twice in a day – once at Iftari time and then in the midnight to deliver food for Sehri.

“Besides blames, he would scold me as Sehri and Iftari preparation at home was also my duty,” she said.

Huda would work extra hard first to prepare Sehri and Iftari for the family and then to serve the order.

“The only help my husband would provide was to take payment from my clients but I never objected on this or put my claim on my hard-earned money.”

When the food business flourished, Huda quit her beautician services, though she continued to serve a few of her old clients. To further diversify her work, Huda also learned Yoga from an Institute. She is now giving Yoga lessons to a class of 25 girls at the WDFP.

Huda’s day starts at 5.00 am. She prepares lunch orders with the help of her widow sister. She has clients all over Karachi from her old clients at the TV channels, to other private orders at North Nazimabad to Clifton and to North Karachi.

“Thankfully in these eight years, I have been able to engage a rickshaw for delivery.”

After food preparation, she leaves the delivery task on her sister and heads towards Yoga class. She returns after two hours. It is time for household chores. Then she takes a quick nap after which she starts preparing dinner orders which she delivers herself. She comes back home at midnight.

“Thankfully, no one now doubts my character, ” she said with satisfaction in her eyes.

Huda’s most sought after dishes are a few Chinese varieties, various type of karahis and handis. While frozen parathas, koftas, shami kebabs, rolls, samosas, wonton are regular frozen items.

“My prices are always lesser than the market prices. After Eid, I am planning to supply food at banks and other offices too.”

Huda’s marketing at the moment is either through word of mouth or WhatsApp messages.

“Soon, I will make a FB page for my business promotion. I will use both conventional and social media marketing for my food business,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

From around the globe

In one of her articles, “Five Women-Led Companies Breaking Barriers In Food And Beverage Industry” printed on Forbes website on Feb 21, 2018, Julia B. Olayanju, quotes a report by Grand View Research according to which the global healthy snack market had a valuation of $21.1 billion at the end of 2016 with a projected 5.1% compound annual growth between 2017 and 2025. This significant market size and growth potential reflect the increasing consumer demand for healthy food – a trend that is bound to gain further momentum as more consumers come to terms with the importance of nourishing meals to overall well-being.

Pakistan in picture

Pakistan witnessed these changing trends as more and more women joined the job market in the last few decades. With the growth of social media, the concept spread far and wide.  There are dedicated websites which offer various catering and tiffin services to the customers looking for home-cooked food.

A tiffin service with name “The Cheetay Tiffin” claims that “yeh koi aam khan nahin yeh ghar ka khana hai” (this is not ordinary food, it is homemade food). This tiffin service was opened in the twin city of Islamabad and Rawalpindi and was meant to serve home-cooked culinary delights to the multitude of people who want to eat homemade and healthy food at affordable rates.

India’s best food delivery system

Our neighbor India boosts of the world’s best food delivery system through the famous Dabbawalas, who are providing nearly 80 million lunches to their customers in a year.

In Pakistan, the concept is in its infancy and is a little different from the very organized Indian Dabbawalas. It started off with delivering homemade lunch, made by the families of those office workers who couldn’t go home for their midday meal. Later, the service was also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who would pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back.

Empowering women of Pakistan

In Pakistan, the Indian concept of Dabbawalas is used by meal suppliers only, who cook food according to the choice of their clients and then deliver it. However, the drive encouraged women, like Huda, to come out of their fear of society and do different things.

The concept came in varied forms, for example, an Islamabad-based female entrepreneur, Madiha Hammid, recently launched a project  ‘Chefling Kitchen”, which digitally empowers women and gives them a platform to run a home-based food business. Chefling Kitchen connects the talented home-based women workers to offices, organizations, events, etc, where they can supply their homecooked food.

Changing roles of women

Pakistani women have come a long way. Right from reaching the coveted post of Prime Minister of the country to becoming speaker of the assembly, leader of the opposition, ministers, MNAs, MPAs, etc. they have been on powerful positions. They can be seen in professional roles as judges, generals in the armed forces, DIG of traffic, fighter pilots, artists, scientists, CEOs, presidents of banks, IT experts, businesswomen, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists and in sports, there are brilliant cricketers, squash and chess players, scuba divers, mountaineers, etc.

Women are now found in every field. They are coming out of their traditional roles and taking up professions which were earlier exclusive to men only. Some of these jobs are really interesting and reflect the changing trend of the women job market. For example, a young lady Rubab created history when she became the first Foodpanda’s fleet of delivery riders.

Then there is another example of Gulvash Khan who decided to leave her corporate job to pursue a venture that she was passionate about—a food delivery startup. She named it Aaromatic.

She mentioned in one of her interviews that cooking was her passion and it allowed her to make a career from her house.

“I had a passion for cooking. There is a huge scope for homemade food delivery set up in Karachi. Most importantly, it is a career which gives me the opportunity to look after my family especially kids while managing my business. Home-based work was the only solution for me.”

Another example is of Kalsoom who founded a set up called “Invest2Innovate”, also known as i2i, in 2011. Her startup connects budding entrepreneurs with investors and support in line with their belief that “entrepreneurs have the power to change the world”.

So, there is an unending list of women who are exploring the areas which earlier seemed impossible for them to step in. However, these new roles challenge the typical patriarchal set up of the society and their quest for empowerment invites raised eyebrows.

“We entered in a field which had been occupied by males for years, and that challenges their authority,” Huda opined.

These women say that a mindset change is required at all level. As Gulvash Zohaib puts it:

“The biggest problem lies with the mindset of our society which thinks that a woman must rely on her father, brother or husband for financial needs and in return, she must fulfill her duties towards family.”

Very few people realize that women also have dreams to follow, success to achieve, and a reputable name to earn.

“Business is generally attributed to men. The women who think to initiate any business are discouraged by their own family and friends who tell them that they cannot do it.”

“Another challenge for women is to get funds to start their business. Families usually don’t trust the business idea of women and have a fear that it would fail eventually so they usually do not provide them monetary help,” said Gulvash.

But things are changing. Women like Noreen Huda are struggling and making a mark. A Japanese funding agency also made a video on her to share her success story to a wider audience.

Huda has an aim to send her young son to NED University and daughter to a good school in Karachi.

“What else can be a delight for a mother to see her children attaining success in their fields of choice! Had I lost hope or plunged into trauma, I wouldn’t have been able to raise my children with dignity.”


*Names were changed to protect indentities of the individuals.

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Sheher Bano
Sheher Bano

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