A room of their own by the roadside being hastagged, Facebooked and Tumbled.
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.