WMC News & Features

Tea and selfies driving a revolution in Pakistan

Khatri Sadia

A women’s movement in Pakistan is using tea drinking as an act of rebellion.

Having a cup of tea does not exactly scream women’s rights. But when it is being sipped inside a dhaba in Pakistan, by a woman, it can become a loaded, defiant gesture. Dhabas are roadside eateries found on city outskirts and highways—a quintessentially male space where truck and bus drivers congregate. The people running it, the people serving, and the regulars—even the space they occupy, next to highways, usually—demarcate them as essentially male spaces.

The movement, called Girls at Dhabas, is claiming these spaces for women.

It all began on April 24, 2015, when Karachi-based journalist Sadia Khatri posted a selfie taken at a dhaba on Instagram under the hashtag #GirlsAtDhabas.

Khatri’s post struck a chord and started a discussion among her followers about the absence of women at dhabas. They found that many other women wanted to hang out at dhabas and claim them as a safe space for women.

The reaction spurred Khatri to start a Tumblr blog asking for submissions with the same hashtag. Over the course of a year, Girls at Dhabas has grown from a hashtag into a clarion call that has seen thousands of women reclaiming public spaces across Pakistan. The hashtag has now come to symbolize a lot more in terms of the conversation around reimagining public space for women in Pakistan. The movement has also made connections with feminists doing similar work throughout South Asia.

Khatri says that in addition to being public spaces, dhabas “represent a break of sorts from the daily grind. … 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—there is a moment of reclamation in there.”

Now leading the movement is a loosely organized group of about ten women across Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad who come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of them are working full-time, some are in undergrad or grad school. There’s a journalist, a filmmaker, a teacher, and a graphic designer in the group. Several work with NGOs and research collectives. They put in time as and when they can, managing the online presence on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, planning events in their cities, and coordinating with other groups to make noise about women’s participation in public space.

#GirlsAtDhabas has also sparked discussions (online and offline) about patriarchy and public spaces in Pakistan. A perusal of their Tumblr and Facebook pages throws up an eclectic mix of posts and photos. A girl sits reading a book, a cup of milky tea, a lighter and a half-eaten paratha on a table beside her. The caption says: “Badar commercial, Karachi. The street gets mad with cars and people at night, but offers the quietest reading spots in the morning.”

Dhabas aren’t the only spaces where photos are being sited. “The dhaba is just one site where women are outsiders. There are many others, and, depending on one’s specific identities, the dynamics change with every change of space,” says Khatri. “So we essentially encourage people to send in photos, stories, and narratives of experiences that defy gender norms in different real-world spaces.”

The Girls at Dhabas Facebook page has posts on interesting events such as #GirlsOnBikes, a bicycle-riding meet: “CALLING ALL GIRLS! Meet us this Sunday @ 10am for a bike ride through our cities. After the ride, we will be gathering for a dialogue over nashta [breakfast], in the company of all the amaze [sic] women who show up, and allies. Invite all your girlfrands [sic] and aunties!”

Although Girls at Dhabas started in Pakistan, they have been collaborating with feminists all over South Asia. “In that sense, we view our group as a South Asian one rather than a Pakistani one,” says Khatri. 

They have found enormous inspiration, support, and strength from feminist movements in India, and have been influenced by the ideas in the book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Published in 2011 by Mumbai-based sociologist Shilpa Phadke, journalist Sameera Khan, and architect Shilpa Ranade, the book has spawned a movement across Indian cities that organizes campaigns to encourage women to visibly and freely “loiter about” in public spaces—such as gardens, fairs, trains (after hours), and just about anywhere.

Girls at Dhabas found many similarities between women’s experiences in Mumbai and urban Pakistan. “We have definitely found a lot of strength through Why Loiter, as well as several other groups based in India—Blank Noise and Feminism in India, to name a few,” says Khatri. “It’s encouraging to know that there is a history and context to gender dynamics in public spaces in South Asia, that there is a bigger support group and resource base than we realized, that so much more can be done when we do it together.”

Last December, the annual Why Loiter? social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook included conversations, videos, and TweetChats from Pakistan on the art of loitering. Girls at Dhabas hosted #WhyLoiter events, online as well as offline, in Pakistan on the same days they were being held  in India.

The Twitter feeds of both movements have an ongoing conversation, which has helped remove the barriers of distance and geography. Several posts share stories of liberation and the struggle to reclaim public spaces.

“Is there a difference between Lahore and Islamabad in the opportunity to loiter?” asks @WhyLoiter in one. About Islamabad, Pakistan-based @bytesforallPK replies, “Beautiful city with a lot of places to loiter but it didn’t even have any buses until just a few months ago.”

@whyloiter: “No buses at all?”

@girlsatdhabas: “Funnily enough most women I know have never been on a bus. Considered unsafe/for the lower class. Same for lhr metro.”

@whyloiter: “How are poor women expected to commute?”

@girlsatdhabas: “Poor women expected to use buses or metro, which themselves are a nightmare. No space, men sitting in women’s section.”

@bytesforallPK: “Some of the buses in LHR are actually not that bad, but then I’ve been told to wear a dupatta by several women. :( ”

@whyloiter: “This ‘advice’ repeats itself across cities. Women being policed ‘for our own good.’”

Khatri intends to collaborate further with Why Loiter and has also begun a series of Twitter discussions to take the initiative to other areas in Pakistan. “The response from feminist collectives across the border has been reassuring and relieving. The connections we’ve made with activists and women have easily been the best part of the response,” she says.

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