Please tell us more about your collaboration with the ‘Why Loiter?’ movement.
Sadia: Before anyone else, Why Loiter? from India reached out to us. Why Loiter?, for those who don’t know, is a similar initiative that started in Bombay, and there’s a book of the same name (which I recommend to everyone). In essence, #whyloiter is doing the same thing as #girlsatdhabas — encouraging women to step out of their comfort zones and own public space.
Interestingly, most of us didn’t know about Why Loiter? until months after we started Girls at Dhabas. A LUMS professor and friend had mentioned the book to us, and suggested we might want to take a look. Shilpa Phadke, one of the authors of ‘Why Loiter?’ got in touch with us soon after we ‘launched’ a FB page and twitter account. She wrote to us in solidarity. I ordered the book the following day.
It made sense that there were other initiatives like ours. But the community around Why Loiter? was incredible to find — and made us think, OK, maybe we can accomplish something on this side of the border too. By the community, I mean this sudden new crop of amazing women and feminists in our circles — most of whom we were meeting through twitter and social media. And most of these people/groups were based in India. One of the first publications to contact us was also based in Bombay. Pakistan, and especially the Pakistani feminist community, noticed Girls at Dhabas much later.
Among the first conversations we had with Shilpa was a discussion about how we must collaborate. There is power in cross-border solidarity, and I think of these older initiatives and groups as a sort of resource-base as well. For one, they have done much of the groundwork for the kind of activism Girls at Dhabas aims for. There are basics one needs to address first — explaining the concept before delving into large-scale protests, for example — and Why Loiter? gave us a sort of template to work around.
We started Girls at Dhabas in May, so that’s a good eight months spent seeing photos of girls drinking chai at dhabas, or loitering in outdoor public spaces on your newsfeed. It seemed about time we held a larger scale event — you have to understand that people are quick to dismiss Girls at Dhabas, saying dhaba hopping and issues of public space are inconsequential or “trivialise feminism”. But eight months in, we had enough following and audience, so when #WhyLoiter kickstarted in India on December 16, we joined in.
So we have co-run the loitering days, and will continue to arrange for loitering events; we’ve collaborated with them on several tweet chats discussing public spaces in Lahore and Karachi.
I want to add that every day we are meeting more women and feminists organising across the border. We did not expect this to be a result of Girls at Dhabas at all — but the number of relationships we are making with feminists across the border, is honestly incredible. We realise we’re not alone — shared problems seem less scary when they are more of us. And then, just in terms of having discussions and conversations within our circles. There are really enough of us to offer a support base to folks who want to join and or are just interested in learning more. It’s a growing space, but the fact that we are able to grow it in collaboration with women from other countries holds incredible power.
I’ve often heard the term ‘angry women’ used pejoratively for a woman who insists on making herself heard. How do you think anger serves a woman? What are the possibilities of trusting that anger?
Sadia: I don’t think women should rid themselves of anger. I think anger is crucial; it feeds emotion, action, and reflection. Processing the anger is important, and then thinking about how to channel it best… Unfortunately, there are too many situations where women are simply not taken seriously, and when their frustration yields anger they are dismissed as over-emotional. We have this idea that an angry woman is an emotional woman, as though her anger isn’t based on logic. I find this absurd and I think, in some sense, we still have to claim a right to anger, to expressing anger — but we do not have to replicate the methods of expressing anger that are dictated by patriarchy. Of course, if a man harasses you on the street, there is no need to stop and ‘dialogue’ with him. Be as angry as you want, verbally, physically, emotionally. Anger can be instructive, and in many ways, I think it helps us survive.
Where one can and should rethink that anger is when it’s getting us nowhere — the sentiment and emotion itself is very important, because at the end of the day anger is what fuels action, although we have to be cautious of where we channel that anger. Where and how to channel anger is, I think, something that women learn on their own: the more shit we face, the more we develop tactics and strategies around tone and speech.
The way that men talk about women is remarkably different from the way women, even in intimacy, talk about men. Do you think there will come a time when women will also speak in terms of commodifying and fetishizing the male body, or do you think this is a problematic aspiration?
Sadia: When I demand equality as a feminist, I am not imagining a future world where equality means women everywhere and all genders everywhere are acting, talking and thinking like men do today. To have the liberty to express oneself in a particular manner is not the same as the actual expression.
In my head, we are hopefully working towards a world that treats everyone on a basis of equality where commodification does not oppress anyone. I do think there will come a time when women will speak of men the way they do of women, although the same power dynamic will never hold… but patriarchy has ways of manifesting itself even in female relationships. It already does. Women are beginning to fetishize men (we already fetishize other women through an adopted male gaze), and I imagine there is power in claiming ownership of words the way men do every day. I don’t think language that fetishizes and commodifies should be an aspiration, however — though I think it will be result of socialisation. But even when we let our language and perceptions of attraction run loose in an attempt to experience the world on an equal footing as men, I hope our activism and feminism help us realise that we can break these patriarchal methods of objectification. How we react to commodification and fetishizing, for example, can be corrected without giving up power and comfort with language — my feminism works towards a world where we will have re-imagined ‘equal’ language.
You often share excerpts/ quotes from a variety of texts on social media. What particular texts would you say were a form of transformative reading? How important is literary engagement in identifying yourself as a feminist?
Atiya: In the current culture, women need to fight to be heard… Novels about women by women are very important: they enable us to hear a voice other than the one that only portrays women as objects (Martin Amis, Charles Bukowski, Philip Roth, I am looking at you).
Amna: For me personally, literary engagement is a huge part of why I identify as a feminist. However, I don’t believe that one needs to engage with literary texts in order to identify as a feminist. Reading texts by prominent (and not so prominent) feminists is a way to feel connected to the movement but it also allows us to explore the nuances of the issues that feminism wishes to highlight. Essentially reading helps us understand people and the world around us, and naturally literature is a medium that women turn to when they wish to make their voices heard.
Also, with regards to feminism and literature, I’ve become very interested in ‘chick lit’: a lot of really great fiction has been unfairly dismissed as ‘chick lit’, and I definitely want to read more of that work now.
Sadia: ‘Why Loiter?’ has been something of a bible and manual for us. It was relief to read through its pages — suddenly there were words and theories and actual studies we could quote to defend our simple fight: let’s have gender diversity in public spaces. Shilpa, Sameera and Shilpa do a particularly brilliant job of connecting the dots between violence and exclusion levelled at other identity groups, such as working class men, to the violence and exclusion levelled at women. This is a concept we are still struggling to explain to our audiences. Often, people say: you’re fighting for women, but what about boys who can’t go into places alone, what about family days?, and we try to explain that the fight is one and the same — women are excluded because men (especially those belonging to working classes) are considered a threat to their safety. If these identities were not so regimented (“working class man”, “elite woman”, “religious minority”) public space would welcome everyone, it would be open to everyone.
Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is another essay I go back to often: it was published in 1929, but it describes a world that sounds like Karachi not too long ago, and in many ways even the Karachi of today. Women rarely go around alone, and spaces are distinguished by class. Women do not roam around after dark. Women must have purpose, balance their family and work life, and forget leisure. Only upper class women have the leisure to write and make art… you’d think we would have come a long way from there. But women usually still don’t have a room of their own a space to think and just be, which men often get through public spaces, through hangouts with other men, in sport, shared hobbies, etc. These two texts are the first that come to mind.
Literary engagement is crucial! People also assume there is no desi feminism when there is enough writing, work and activism done — and being done — by feminists in South Asia. This was an assumption I held too, and one I am correcting, by doing the work of familiarizing myself with South Asian feminist histories and writings as a part of my activism.
In response to the “casual harassment” one might face in a public place in Pakistan, some women have said they wished they were “invisible” or “de-sexualized”. In some homes, a procedure of enforced modesty is followed. This often occurs in an ironic “hyper-sexualisation” of the female body where there is an hyper-awareness of one’s body as an object of sexuality. What repercussions do you think this has for an individual?
Sadia: There’s a ban against sleeveless in my home. I am also not allowed to wear anything that shows my ankles, or low-cut tops when in the company of family. I think you’ve gone to the heart of it: policing how a girl dresses, what she wears and doesn’t wear, is a result of (and in many ways has led to) the hyper-sexualisation of the female body. There is a reason men stare when I walk alone on the street — it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing: I’m a woman (visibly) and a woman by herself is instantly associated with sex. It is because of Pakistani society’s hyper segregation and its rigid ideas of gender interaction (or rather, lack of) that we’ve developed these associations. Because women are tied up with the notion of honour (again, another euphemism of controlling their sexuality), because women are supposed to be kept hidden, covered, quiet, when we do step out of the narrowly-defined boundaries and spaces prescribed to us, we are seen as an anomaly, as a threat — a woman dressing and roaming on her own will is one in control of her sexuality and her movement. But that isn’t a compliment: if you’re out on your own, especially at night, you must be either a loose woman or a sex worker, or one of those girls with a bad reputation, who other women should stay away from.
On an individual level, this means girls and young women grow up to understand that sexuality is not something they can own — that mobility is not in their control and is linked to izzat and reputation. Girls (and boys) internalise ideas of which spaces belong to whom, and how they must be occupied, so we don’t even think of venturing out into spaces we aren’t usually supposed to be in. What must this do to a person’s sanity, their understanding of themselves, their self-esteem, their confidence? We teach girls to remember that they are constantly in danger (again, because they a sex object), but also that if something happens to them, why didn’t they take better care? (again, because they, being the sexual object, attracted attention.) We teach girls to fix dupattas around their necks, to watch the length of their kameez, to not retaliate when harassed on the streets. All of these guidelines, for one, force women to place their izzat in their clothes, appearance and (lack of) expression of sexuality…. Secondly, these guidelines mean that as women, we are always experiencing the world on someone else’s terms, that we’re not even allowed to set our own rules from a perspective that doesn’t account for men’s gaze.
I think that one of the single most harmful phrases in our language would have to be “log kya kahein ge”? How would you elaborate on this phrase in the context of a woman’s life in modern day Pakistan?
Sadia: Again, I’d like to go back to your point about hyper-sexuality. The whole idea of “log kya kahaein ge” or “what will people think” is based on the (enforced) importance of upholding a reputation — and a girl’s reputation, once again, has everything to do with sex. My mother worries that some family member will see me smoking, or see me sleeveless, or see me hanging out with boys. Her logical assumption is that these relatives will think I am ‘one of those girls’ and then, what will they think of us, our family, and who will marry me. It’s absurd that my parent’s notion of honour is tied to mine and my sisters’ movements and dress. But it’s a reality for most women in urban Karachi — at least most of the women I have interacted with in my life here — and it has resulted in us learning to navigate these parental ‘issues’ by simply lying, or doing whatever we want in spaces outside the home, and in spaces where we know we can get away with it.
What behavior is anti-feminist but is unaware of itself as being so? How do you counter naysayers?
Sadia: Our chauvinist culture of men ‘protecting’ women to keep them safe… dictating their movement and behaviour under the guise of taking care of us and keeping us safe. Homophobia is still a problem in feminist communities, and discussions on sexuality often get pushed under the rug when they hit certain interpretations of Islam.
Discussing feminism using the language of the gender binary is anti-feminist… and that’s something I think we should seriously start becoming more conscious of, especially in Urdu. Then, language itself functions in sexist ways people don’t often realise. I have a hard time explaining to my male friends (and sometimes even female friends) that the word rape is problematic, that bhenchod (sisterfucker) and maderchod (motherfucker) are symptomatic of patriarchy manifested in everyday language. Language I think is one of the biggest perpetrators of sexism… think simply of the ways we phrase gender. Larkiyon ki tarah mat rou, mard nahi rotay, mard bano, grow a pair of balls… Our language is interspersed with these regimented ideas where masculine = physical strength, lack of emotions, justified anger, logical thinking and feminine = submissive, vain, emotional, physically weak. And we act like those are the only two genders that exist that people need to be fitted into.
What are your plans for the future? In what ways do you hope to spread awareness of your message?
Sadia: For one, we would like to have our dhaba up and running this year. Secondly, we see Girls at Dhabas as a community of women and feminists coming together, and we hope that community grows meaningfully over time. It is really a simple vision. There are so few spaces where women can gather and listen to each other offline — we’re hoping that the online energy spills over to offline spaces (spearheaded by events, calls to loiter etc.) in a manner where women are defining these spaces for themselves. Growing up, it would have helped me tremendously if I had had a circuit of women to connect with. So Girls at Dhabas is really quite a selfish move — the personal is the political, after all! We’re hoping to create the community we never had. And in some sense I think we’ve achieved that, although the community is small, loose, and still extremely disorganised. It will take a lot more women, men, transgenders, collectives, groups, to really achieve something meaningful and sustainable as far as our public spaces go — but we can start making dents, and we hope to be part of the bigger denting process as our communities’ activisms move forward!