Meet the women butchers cutting across barriers and breaking a traditional male bastion

As butchers at TenderCuts’ outlets in Chennai, Sudarvani, Chinna Ponnu and Hajeera are breaking barriers in the meat industry.
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That women are breaking stereotypes and entering every domain, even those traditionally dominated by men, is no longer surprising. They are taking on laborious, arduous jobs with grace and dignity, with a purpose of fulfilling their career aims and also contributing to their family income.

When you think butcher, you automatically picture a man standing behind the counter as you choose your choicest pieces of fish or meats. The cutting, cleaning and packing is not a very easy task, often involving physical labour and long hours.

However, these women at different outlets of TenderCuts, an omnichannel meat and seafood brand, are breaking the norm in many ways. They have taken up jobs as butchers, working diligently alongside men as they work different shifts, sometimes signing in as early as 5.30 in the morning. Their job entails standing at their stations for a long period of time as they go about their different tasks.

These women are not complaining. They are proud to be women butchers, for they believe any job comes with its own dignity. They are also happy to be earning and taking care of their families.

HerStory spoke to Sudarvani, Chinna Ponnu and Hajeera from different TenderCuts outlets in Chennai to understand what it means to break a stereotype and cut across barriers, literally.

Sudarvani

Thirty-four-year-old Sudarvani works as a butcher at TenderCuts’ at Thoraipakkam outlet in Chennai. She joined the company more than two years ago as a customer service executive. However, after seeing the butchers at work, she asked if she could be trained to become one.

“When I saw the butchers working in such a clean and hygienic environment, and seeing the whole process, from cutting, cleaning to packing, I thought I should become one too. Luckily, the company agreed and after a three-month training period, I joined the department as a butcher,” she says.

Sudarvani works on a nine-hour shift that alternates between early morning and afternoon. During her shift, apart from her butcher’s role, she also serves retail customers at the store.

“I feel safe and secure here. Moreover, I have the full support of my family,” she says.

However, when she told others that she was working as a butcher, they were quite taken back. “People asked me why I was working in a chicken kadai (shop) and wasn’t it back-breaking work. When a boy near my house expressed a desire to visit the place, I brought him along. He was surprised to see how different it was from a traditional butcher shop,” Sudarvani adds.

She says she is proud to be an equal contributor to the family’s income and fulfill the desires of her children. Her son wants to grow up and join the police force and her daughter aspires to become a doctor.

“I am happy with my job and hope to continue here,” she says.

Chinna Ponnu

The name chinna ponnu means young girl in Tamil. Forty-five-year-old Chinna Ponnu may no longer be young, but she learnt the ropes of the profession from a father who was a traditional butcher in their village in Tamil Nadu.

“I was the youngest of three girls in my family and used to tag along with my father to his butcher’s shop and do small tasks for him,” she recalls.

When her father passed away, both her sisters were already married, and Chinna Ponnu took on the mantle of becoming the traditional butcher. She says she was proud to be known as the “butcher’s daughter”. She got married after two years to a relative. After some years, the family had to move to Chennai where Chinna Ponnu worked odd jobs.

When she heard of a vacancy in TenderCuts, she decided to apply as it was the only job she knew well. Without knowing her proficiency in the field, they put her to cleaning prawns at the Thoraipakkam outlet.

“When the area sales manager heard of this, he was livid. He told the staff that I was a professional butcher, and I was immediately tasked with cutting and cleaning chicken, mutton and fish. That was 1.7 years ago, and there has been no looking back since,” says Chinna Ponnu.

“Everyone is happy with my work. My family is proud of me,” she adds.

Her dream is to go back to her village after a few years, reopen the butcher’s shop, and settle down there.

Hajeera

Like Chinna Ponnu, Hajeera too comes from a family of butchers. Both her husband and father are traditional butchers. However, she started helping her husband only five years ago.

“When I came to know of a vacancy for a butcher at TenderCuts at the Keelkatalai outlet in Chennai, I joined immediately. This was seven months ago, and since then I have learnt a lot,” says Hajeera.

She starts her job at 6am and leaves by 3pm after cutting, cleaning and packing meat.

“It’s not an easy job as it’s more physical in nature. But I enjoy it and all the benefits that come with it – salary, paid leave, etc,” she adds. As her husband is also a butcher, she says he understands the nature of her job.

“It’s so different from a traditional butcher place. It’s a sterile environment where all of us are require to wear caps, masks and gloves and the entire process is very hygienic,” she says.

Going forward, Hajeera says she wants to learn how to cut and clean big fish and is working towards it.

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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