A heavy truck pulled into Eakub Filling Station in the Lashkarpur area on Pabna City Bypass road for fuel on a February afternoon. A woman wearing a burqa came forward with a petrol gun.
After asking how much petrol the driver wanted, she started filling the tank up, keeping a close eye at the metre on the pump machine. Later, she wrote a receipt and submitted it to the cash counter.
It is not common to see a woman working in a filling station in Bangladesh. However, Eakub Filling Station is an exception. Set up by Square Group in 2002, it is the first filling station in the country to recruit women workers.
Thirty Six-year-old Popy Akter is one of the four women who joined the filling station soon after its initiation. She faced an interview and took training for the job when she was 18.
It was a whole new world for her. Before that, no woman had worked in a filling station. But she accepted the challenge.
"I had watched a movie titled "Meyerao Manush", which inspired me to go ahead. I wanted to show the society that women are no less important than men," said Popy, while filling up the truck.
Now, six women are working in the filling station. Every day Eakub Filling Station sells 27,000 litres of fuels to around 1,500 passenger and commercial vehicles. Like other women, Popy's job is to fill up the vehicles with petrol, writing the receipt and submitting it to the cash counter.
Square Group, one of the country's leading business conglomerates, set up its lone filling station mainly because their commercial vehicles carrying raw materials and products failed to get good quality fuel from other filling stations. They were also facing problems refuelling their vehicles on time for smooth operation of their supply chain.
Right before the recruitment of manpower, Anjan Chowdhury, managing director of Square Toiletries Limited, introduced a new concept. He wanted to recruit female workers in the new filling station.
"Our managing director wanted to empower women who are neglected in a family only because they do not have any income," said Abdul Hannan, assistant general manager of Square Toiletries Limited, sitting at his office in Pabna recently.
Popy joined the filling station after passing her SSC exam at Pabna Town Girls High School, which is the minimum educational qualification required to get the job.
In the beginning, people had a negative perception about them. Sometimes neighbours, as well as drivers and helpers of different vehicles, looked at them suspiciously.
"They thought it was not good for women to work in a filling station. Sometimes, they tried to tease us, but we protested," said Popy adding that the filling station authority took action if anyone behaved badly.
Now those attitudes have changed with time. Popy does not face any problem from the drivers and helpers because many of them have become familiar faces.
Popy got married after joining the filling station.
"My husband married me knowing that I work in the filling station. He never discouraged me. Rather he loves that I can contribute to the family," said Popy.
There is no night shift in the filling station. Duty is divided into two shifts between six in the morning to 10pm at night.
Like Popy, Julekha Akter was recruited in the same year, in 2002. She is a resident of the neighbouring Radhanagar area adjacent to Government Edward College.
She joined the filling station when she was a BA (Honours) student. She badly needed to earn money to carry on her studies and to contribute to her family. At the time, she was engaged in private tuition and tailoring to earn money.
"Though I was doing those things, my income was low. Then I heard that there is a job opportunity in the new filling station. I applied for the job and was recruited," remembers Julekha.
"Sometimes people used to make bad comments about us. But I took on the challenge thinking that everything will become tolerable one day," said Julekha.
Julekha believes more women should come into this profession if there is scope. "It is not a tough job."
"One day you will see that it is normal to see women working in filling stations. We are not doing anything bad, are we?"
Abdul Hannan, assistant general manager of Square Toiletries Limited, said, "Twenty years ago, the social context was very different and society was more conservative in those days. It was a daring job for a woman. They threw challenges at the male-dominated society."
He believes it has been possible only because the business conglomerate has provided a congenial workplace, environment and security for every single worker.
He said they are going to recruit two more women in the filling station soon.
However, the filling station is not the first project through which Square Group took initiatives to empower women. In 1995, Square Toiletries Limited recruited several women workers for the first time and they did well. After that, the company started to recruit more and more women.
Currently, around 65,000 workers are working in different companies in the group. Square Toiletries Limited and Square Food and Beverage Limited have recruited around 7,000 workers, of which 62 percent are women.
However, in winter they recruit more women as most of the products of Square Toiletries Limited are for winter. These workers are seasonally recruited from neighboring Government Edward College, Pabna.