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.
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!