Feminism over chai

When Sadia Khatri Instagrammed a picture of herself and her friends at a dhaba, she had no idea #girlsatdhabas would become a thing in Pakistan

April 16, 2016 04:30 pm | Updated 06:25 pm IST

'Girls at Dhabas' aims to encourage women in Pakistan to reclaim the ownership of public spaces.

'Girls at Dhabas' aims to encourage women in Pakistan to reclaim the ownership of public spaces.

A Tumblr blog from Pakistan has been making waves and trending on social media around the world. The blog, ‘Girls at Dhabas’, features photos of women hanging out at dhabas , drinking chai , eating, reading, and just being as an act of liberation. It all began when Karachi-based Sadia Khatri posted on Instagram a photograph of her hanging out with some friends at a dhaba , drinking chai , with the hashtag #girlsatdhabas. It was soon trending. Some suggested that Khatri turn it into a series. A Tumblr account was started and soon women from all over Pakistan began sending photographs of themselves in tea shops and other public places, engaged in activities traditionally considered ‘male’, like riding motorcycles, cycling, playing cricket or driving rickshaws. The idea was for women to reappear on streets. In an interview, Khatri speaks about mobility, unlearning gender identities, and drawing inspiration from feminists in India. Excerpts:

What is the idea behind selfies at dhabas ?

In addition to being a public space, dhabas represent a break of sorts from the daily grind without having to necessarily buy the experience. It is like people sitting at streetside coffee shops or in other public spaces simply to hang out — have a cup of coffee or chat. Taking a selfie or photograph is important, too, because it implies ownership of the space. Women are frequently told to stay out of, or remain invisible in public spaces. Putting all those prescriptions aside to take your own photo in a space you are traditionally not supposed to be in — there is a moment of reclamation there.

‘Girls at Dhabas’ wasn’t necessarily a preconceived idea. Our growth has been very organic. The hashtag found resonance after we started documenting photos at dhabas . 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 10 girls across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad who manage the page, plan events in our city and co-ordinate with different groups to raise some noise about women’s participation in public space.

We come from varying socio-economic backgrounds and work across fields. Some of us are working full-time, some are in undergrad or grad school, one is a journalist, another, a filmmaker, teacher, graphic designer, and several work with NGOs and research collectives.

Have you been influenced by parallel movements in India?

We have definitely found a lot of strength from ‘Why Loiter?’, as well as other groups such as BLANK NOISE and ‘Feminism in India’. It’s reassuring to know this work isn’t being done in isolation. It’s particularly encouraging to know that there is a history and context to gender dynamics in public spaces in South Asia that many people are trying to battle. Since starting the group, we have connected with feminists, rights workers, NGOs, anthropologists, designers, businesswomen and social workers. It is incredible and relieving to know there is a bigger support group and resource base than we realised, that so much more can be done when we do it together.

Even in terms of situating ourselves as a group, ‘Why Loiter?’ turned out to be an essential resource. Reading the book, we felt like Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade (members of ‘Why Loiter?’) had taken all of our thoughts and articulated them with logic, reason and relevance. Soon After the hashtag #girlsatdhabas received a lot of attention, they reached out to us and we have been in touch, trying to scheme some cross-border collaborations. In December, we hosted #WhyLoiter simultaneously as the folks organised it in India, both online and offline. Since ‘Why Loiter?’ has been around for a while, it is more instantly recognisable than something like #girlsatdhabas. We are definitely taking a lot of cues from them.

What has been the reaction like so far?

For the most part, it’s been fantastic. Submissions haven’t stopped coming in. Girls and women are very enthusiastic about the page and what it stands for. We are constantly getting more stories and ideas and requests for collaborations — which shows that the issue of gender and public space resonates with a lot of women. The best are the messages from women, even young girls in school, thanking us for bringing up issues of everyday misogyny.

“I’m so glad I’m not the only one who feels like this,” they say. There is a lack of spaces, online and offline, where feminists can connect with each other. The response we’ve got convinces us that we need to keep the community going, because it is clearly filling a gap.

A few months ago, some postgraduate students emailed us because they were doing a project on urban space in Karachi and wanted some context on how to view street norms from the context of gender. We had some fantastic conversations with them, and their project conversely has given us new food for thought.

Have you been able to involve men?

There have been a few men actively involved with #girlsatdhabas from the beginning — a circle of friends that has been supportive by helping us with male allies and being there as a sounding board.

The conversation has to take place among all genders because public spaces affect us in different ways, and our interaction with it affects others’ interactions. Amongst our friends, for example, we have discussions about how men, who are extremely comfortable in public space, might be contributing to creating a hostile environment for women. What are the ways in which they can be conscious of their behaviour? How can men interact with other men and make them more sensitive to issues of gender in public space, and gender norms generally.

Audience wise, men are probably the biggest critics of #girlsatdhabas. There is the popular argument based on religion, where we are told our narrative doesn’t fit into the one Islam has prescribed for women; there is the quick dismissal by elite, progressive and ‘secular’ men who feel threatened and can’t figure out why women want to sit at a dhaba and have chai , why it is even an issue — but there’s a long way to go before any of those mindsets can be eradicated or addressed.

We are trying to ‘educate’ by example and personal stories because a series of online and offline arguments have convinced us that getting into a ‘debate ’ takes the conversation nowhere.

Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on issues affecting women’s issues, youth, environment and urban subcultures.

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