Photography courtesy of Go Flour
TW: Mentions of sexual harassment.
A few months ago, my mama travelled to Pakistan with her parents. It was there that she came across a modest bakery tucked inside a crevice of one of the country’s busiest cities. Go Flour is situated in the centremost part of Lahore, surrounded by a canopy of tall trees, ground-level ferns and potted herbs including lemongrass, mint and ginger.
Though the bakery doesn’t boast high décor furniture or opulent interiors, it radiates a homely warmth of familiarity that welcomes those who pass it by. The almost labyrinthine structure of the outdoor area means that customers can explore the premises for themselves. Walking past the open kitchen, you’re bound to find yourself a seat at long wooden benches, perfect for catching some sun and biting into a freshly-baked piece of sweet apple caramel cake.
Go Flour was founded earlier in 2019 by seasoned entrepreneur Asma Shah and award-winning restaurateur Ahmed Chema. It’s a social enterprise that trains local women from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, teaching them how to bake, microfinance, hone their social media skills and make them more business savvy. By giving trainees access to education and employability skills, Go Flour invests forward – empowering Pakistani women with financial and social autonomy.
I speak to the founder Asma, who was born and brought up in Southgate in north London, moving to Lahore as a newly-wed in 1995. “I thought it was going to be a big adventure, because I always loved coming to Pakistan on holiday and I thought, you know, living here would be quite exciting.” She left her job in the UK and began working as a national product manager of a secondment for British Gas. Finding the laid-back, relaxed working lifestyle underwhelming, she decided to start up on her own.
Later that year, Asma and her husband went on a brief trip to Morocco. Riding on a teetering train from Casablanca to Rabat, she conceived her candle-making business, coining the name Candelicious. “I thought, ‘What can I do? I’ve got to go back and I’ve got to do something’ […] I wrote a business plan on the train.”
In 1996, she was manufacturing candles and importing home décor items. While travelling abroad Asma became aware of the deficit of women working in the wholesale food industry in Lahore compared to countries like the Philippines, Thailand and China. “I remember going to all these wholesale markets abroad where they would literally be run by women. I visited the wholesale market in Lahore as well, and you don’t see a single woman.” Asma’s observations might seem like an overstatement, but Pakistan has one of the lowest women labour participation rates in the world. A 2018 study by the World Bank stated approximately 24% of women in Pakistan were working in labour industries, compared to 57% in the UK.
“About 12 trainees have circulated the bakery since it opened, a few of whom have gone on to start their own businesses”
“What we face here, in the hospitality industry, is a male-dominated industry and male-dominated kitchens.” Asma’s not wrong – a 2017/18 study conducted by the Ministry of Statistics in Pakistan found that only 1.4% of working women are employed by the wholesale and retail trade industry, compared with 18.7% of working men.
Asma recalls how the gaping disparity between the number of men and women workers in the wholesale and retail sector does not bode well for women employees. She takes a deep breath and sighs down the phone, “One or two of my trainees have actually worked in restaurant kitchens and they’ve had to leave because of the sexism and because of the sexual harassment.”
The women-dominated structure of Go Flour means that women trainees are much more likely to continue to stay on. I ask Asma about why she believes that an enterprise like Go Flour is so important in the current retail industry in Pakistan. “They [women trainees] feel more comfortable here. They feel safe here. They feel that they can learn with confidence. They’re not always having to look behind them, that somebody is about to touch them or get too close.”
By providing a secure, family-orientated atmosphere for the trainees, Asma is giving women a place to thrive. About 12 trainees have circulated the bakery since it opened, a few of whom have gone on to start their own businesses. One has established a home-baking business, and another has set up a small canteen in a college nearby.
Most of the women who train in the bakery are single, divorced, or are carers for family members. Their social status might mean that they’re less likely to be able to find work, but Go Flour provides them with an opportunity to not only sustain themselves but learn some lifelong skills along the way.
One of the women who trains at Go Flour is 44-year-old Andleeb Khan, a lively and confident single mother of two who also cares for her father and her younger brother.
After five years of marriage, Andleeb and her husband got divorced – since then, she has been raising her two teenage sons. She works from 7.00am to 3.00pm whilst her children stay at home to look after her brother and father, before coming home to care for them herself. Even though she only started in July, she’s already experiencing the benefits of training.
“They [women trainees] feel more comfortable here. They feel safe here. They feel that they can learn with confidence”– Asma Shah
“Since I’ve come here and started my work here, I’ve been in a really happy and jolly mood. All my tensions and frustration have gone.” Andleeb wants to have a food-oriented business of her own in the future. “I would work here, and get lots of experience, say one or two years. Then I would start my own corporate business with Asma,” she says.“My kids are really happy.” I only speak with Andleeb for about ten minutes, but her abundant enthusiasm is palpable even over the phone.
Asma stays in touch with most of the women trainees she has worked with in the past, watching their entrepreneurial dreams flourish into reality. Members of the local community are just as enthusiastic about Go Flour, with some even donating ovens.
However, not everyone is as enamoured with Asma’s project. Some of the trainees at Go Flour have pressures from their family or their in-laws, and so it’s difficult for them to sustain their training. “People want to make out that these women are somehow being influenced in the wrong way by coming to work and learning new skills. There’s this patriarchal fear that women might become too independent and opinionated. A lot of the girls have had to leave for those reasons, and the father has just decided they don’t like what their daughter is doing.”
Patriarchal attitudes like the ones Asma is describing is why Go Flour is instrumental in changing the way that misogyny manifests itself at home and at work. “If we do have more women taking part in economic activity, you’re less likely to face all this misogyny that is prevalent here in Lahore, and in Pakistan in general.” Of course, the stifling of women’s progress by parochial men is not exclusive to Pakistan, it exists wherever institutional sexism does. The enterprise alone won’t stop misogyny – but it is giving women the resources to ward it off.
Ultimately, Asma hopes that her social enterprise, though small, changes the trainees’ lives for the better. Go Flour helps women zero-in on their potential and foster an invaluable sense of ambition. “I want them to be ambitious enough to stand on their own two feet […] I want them to actually change their lives and to become role models for other women around them.”