In less than a year, ‘Girls at Dhabas’ (for our readers outside South Asia, it’s perhaps worth explaining that a dhaba is a roadside food stall) has developed from a single hashtag on Sadia Khatri’s Instagram account to a movement uniting thousands of women, all aiming to reimagine the way public spaces are used in Pakistan.
The Missing Slate’s Afshan Shafi met some of the key people behind Girls at Dhabas to discuss the origins of the project, the importance of reclaiming public spaces for women, and why the patriarchy can only win if it stops women from joining together…
How did the idea for Girls at Dhabas develop? Who were the founding members?
Atiya: Girls at Dhabas wasn’t a preconceived idea — its growth has been fairly organic. The hashtag gained momentum after Sadia started documenting photos of herself at dhabas on social media. #girlsatdhabas could very well be #girlsatXpublicspace … but since dhabas were a site of personal experience for many of us, we started with that hashtag. The hashtag has now come to symbolise a lot more in terms of the conversation around reimagining public space for women in Pakistan.
We are around ten girls across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad who manage the page, plan events in our cities and co-ordinate with different groups to raise some noise about women’s participation in public space. We put in time whenever we can.
Sadia: Also, a disclaimer: we are extremely wary of calling ourselves a movement, given our scope and reach. Our community is very small, insular, and class-privileged, and is likely to remain so for some time. Girls at Dhabas started ‘officially’ when I moved back to Karachi — I began thinking more about my half-baked relationship with the city. In the four years I lived abroad, I was lucky enough to get to roam around the world a bit. In South Hadley where I studied, I was limited only by the bus schedule and the amount of snow piled outside. This newfound mobility and space to think (compared to my life in Karachi) was a breath of fresh air. When I travelled to Nepal, I was experiencing Kathmandu’s streets in a way I had never experienced Karachi’s… exploring new neighbourhoods, having chai at tapris, roaming around aimlessly, renting a bicycle for a day….. there are pockets of the city one can only experience alone, and one needs to experience alone, and I think those pockets fuel and energise us for the rest of the day. Sometimes they just offer a moment of peace. For me, because I write, I discovered that these pockets were godsend for my creativity — I’ll explain. I think there is something amazing about just being outside without any set purpose in mind. When you’re alone even more so: you could end up striking a conversation with a stranger; you end up discovering a new place, writing a new poem; sometimes you spend hours sitting in once place watching strangers and processing your own thoughts..
Back in Karachi, I was almost always driven around by someone else, I hardly ever went out on my own or talked to strangers or read a book at a café as I did in other cities. I also hardly ever ran my own errands — it was assumed that my brother or father would take care of my daily tasks for me. In some sense, I had never even realised that I had the option of doing these things myself. A lot of these inhibitions and reservations came from my own fraught understanding of Karachi’s public spaces — sites that I had assumed were unsafe and dangerous for me as a woman. But let’s be honest: in Karachi the threat of being mugged or kidnapped or ‘disappeared’ is far greater than the threat of being raped on the streets. If Karachi is dangerous, it’s dangerous regardless of gender. Yes, there is harassment on the streets — which we’ve euphemistically started to call “eve teasing” — but that harassment won’t be prevented by locking women up inside even thicker walls.
I think a lot of girls who come from middle class families and live in cities are in a similar position. There are certain things we have it in our heads that we can’t do — not because we can’t do them, but simply because we have never considered the possibility that we could. That’s sort of the idea behind Girls at Dhabas — it wasn’t ever planned, but it certainly grew out of these ideas. After one such day of talking about Karachi, my friend and I posted a photo of me sitting at a dhaba and posted it online with the hashtag. I kept doing this for a few weeks, adding new photos, sometimes with commentary and sometimes as stand-alone visuals. They elicited a greater response than I anticipated and, soon after, a bunch of other girls started posting their own photos. When it seemed like the energy wasn’t dying and the idea was resonating with people, another friend in Lahore said, let’s make a Tumblr. We decided that even if no one else submitted photos or stories, we could keep the blog running just between the two of us. Make our own little feminist dent online (and offline). But other women did submit — and are still submitting. The Facebook page followed soon after, and well, now we are here.
What would you say are the major influences that help shape the vision of Girls at Dhabas? Are these influences textual, artistic, cinematic or shaped mostly by personal experience?
Sadia: Very much personal. If you think about it, it’s also a very selfish initiative: we recognise that we aren’t class-inclusive, and we have to work a lot before we can claim to be making serious dents in society — but again, that isn’t the point. Girls at Dhabas is very much about personal experiences, sharing personal stories, thinking about how we can change and impact our personal relationships with public spaces and open streets.
Yes, we are political, we use art, but that wasn’t a conscious decision when Girls at Dhabas started. We were coming from a place of sharing personal experiences of public spaces and how they frustrated us as women in the city. We haven’t even started talking about other genders, and other identities that are systematically excluded from public spaces — these spaces and how we occupy them (or don’t) are central to broader feminist discussions and goals, but for some reason are left behind in the conversation. So much so that the invisibility of women in public spaces has become dangerous by virtue of its normality.
We were acting on personal frustrations we faced as women navigating Karachi and Lahore, by simply sharing our stories — a political act in its own right — and saying, this is important too. People can’t always relate to political and feminist language, but they can relate to ordinary everyday stories. It’s a powerful way to help people push their boundaries, and hopefully re-think some of those gender socialisations we grow up with.
Our events and discussions come out of all that — yes, and we are still growing and defining ourselves — but at the heart of it, Girls at Dhabas is still about women sharing stories with each other and opening up more and saying, “OK, we have the power to change our stories.”
I also think of social media as an extension of public space — similar to physical public space, so that the moment you put something ‘out there’ or post it, it becomes political. Because you are asking people to pay attention to it. We are very consciously feminist, and are particularly concerned with everyday feminism, the everyday political. The actions driven by routine and habits that perpetuate gender roles, the lifestyle choices we make, the interactions we have in our daily lives that affect our relationship with gender, and specifically, public space.
There isn’t anything about sitting at dhaba having chai that particularly screams: look at my politics. But it becomes political because public space is contentious and political; it becomes feminist because I am a woman who needs to go through a certain mental and physical effort to be in that space; it becomes art because it is playful, it focuses on the ways we create pleasure — ordinary pleasure — in the streets.
We don’t shy away from owing up to these isms, but I want to re-emphasize that Girls at Dhabas is an initiative centred in sharing, addressing and changing very real every day experiences. Call it chai-activism! Because it’s all these women coming together and saying, we can talk about this, we can take ownership — and the chai is the best catalyst for these conversations!
The women I met in my life, the feminists who have taught me feminism — these are mostly women in my circles, South Asian women who studied with me at Mount Holyoke college — these communities of women have perhaps been the greatest influence on the philosophy behind girls at dhabas, and especially how to approach our page and manage events.
How did the dhaba become a central motif of your movement? “Public space” is a primarily masculine notion in Pakistan, with women discouraged from participation. How long do you think it will take to ameliorate that situation?
Natasha: In addition to being public spaces, dhabas represent a break of sorts from the daily grind. Think of the way people might sit by streetside coffee shops to hang out, have a cup of coffee or chat.
Sadia: The act of taking the selfie or photograph is important, too, because it implies ownership of position and place. Women are frequently told to stay out of, or remain invisible in, public spaces, and the action of putting all those prescriptions aside to take your own photo in a space you are not traditionally supposed to be in — there is a moment of (re)clamation in there.
I also want to give you some of the back story to chai. Natasha (#gad founder) and I studied at Mount Holyoke college (we were a year apart), which is an all-women college. It is also very international, and my main friend group was a bunch of amazing women from all over South Asia. Aside from professors and mentors — who helped me think about politics and feminism intellectually — these women became crucial to my learning, because they helped me think about feminism and politics practically, and within the context of South Asia. I remember countless nights spent in one particular space: the college’s center for religion and spirituality, Eliot House.
Eliot House had become a sort of safe haven for us. Students from all faiths used the space for various events and meetings during the day, but in the evenings and the night it was usually emptier. So we would haul or books or movies there, and park ourselves in the lounge which is an incredible cozy haven filled with all sorts of religious hangings and trinkets. There was a kitchen we could use — for chai — that was my primary pull, I think. I remember hours in this space, talking about femininity, gender and sexuality in South Asia with these women. We’d talk about everything: the problems in that old Bollywood flick we all loved, how our social class privileged us in certain ways, the very specific beauty parlour culture and how it creates a space for women, our personal relationships, the privilege that came from studying in America, the discomfort with professors and readings that didn’t account for ‘context’, the latest roadblocks in our writing and art…
I laughed in that room, did silly things, managed to be productive, unproductive, broken down; I discussed everything under the sun and had some of my most intellectually riveting conversations. And all of that together made me understand and appreciate the politics of a women-only space in a way I had never thought possible before. We tend to assume that a closed space — one that excludes men — is hostile, uninviting and contrary to our movements. But in a patriarchal world, women are so rarely given the opportunity to dissociate, to laugh and learn in a space where they are not bound by the usual insecurities and by conditions that have become so normalized that we no longer think things can be another way…. It isn’t a contrary space at all, it is essential: we need to first build from within, and I mean this on a very personal, everyday level, before we can tackle the rest of the world. Patriarchy wins because it prevents women from coming together.
Before Mount Holyoke, Eliot House, and these chai circles, I had not allowed myself to own the power these spaces create, the comfort in being with other women. This sounds so simple, but it is the most radical lesson I have learned.