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Girls at Dhabas: challenging issues of safety, or ‘respectability’ in urban Pakistan?

“You need to understand,” I told the reporter. “These are baby steps, but important steps, for fuller participation in the public sphere.”

Natasha Ansari
27 April 2018

Girls at Dhabas.

Girls at Dhabas. Photo: Facebook/Girls at Dhabas.

We are sitting at a dhaba – a roadside tea-shop in Pakistan often frequented by lower-to-middle income men. At our table: four women and camera crew. The reporter from ‘one of the most globally viewed’ [read: western], mainstream British outlets looks me in the eye: “So, how safe do you feel at the moment? We were just surrounded by a group of little boys [because of the cameras], do you think the situation can ever turn on you?"

I stare back blankly at her. I feel exhausted. I know the answer she wants – the answer her viewership perhaps wants to consume – but the response in my head is not going to satisfy the insinuations and assumptions neatly packed in the syntax of her question. I have already told her, in response to a previous question, that at most we get stares and have never had an overtly threatening encounter so far.

“I don’t have an answer to that,” I say. Before she can turn the mic to someone else, I add: “you need to understand: us intentionally sitting outside is not radical. These are baby steps, but important steps, for fuller participation in the public sphere.”

Safety is not the issue usually on my mind. No one is really bold enough to confront someone randomly, violently, in such a crowded, busy part of town. The threat I face, that can actually result in any (self-inflicted) damage, is from my parents, relatives and their social circles. And the construction of that threat is a loss of respectability. Not safety.

In another question, the reporter asks me: “So what is it about the tradition or culture that results in the exclusion of women in public?”

Me: “I am unsure to what extent it is the result of our own tradition/culture – but I often wonder to what extent the class dynamic that results in upper/middle-class women being shuttled from one private space to another is inherited from our colonial experience, when white women of the British Raj were shuttled from one private space to another, to “protect” them from the local, ”native” man?”

I don’t know if I managed to get across the weight of the nuances at hand, in those few seconds. I doubt these words even made it to the final edit of the interview. But I did lose sleep over her questions.

Girls at Dhabas.

Girls at Dhabas. Photo: Facebook/Girls at Dhabas.

I am part of a feminist collective called Girls at Dhabas, which has been actively raising conversations about women’s access to and participation in public spaces in Pakistan’s cities. These are complex issues, and we rely on personal narratives, storytelling, and social media to learn and create connections through shared experiences.

The project found widespread and rapid resonance in 2015; the hashtag #GirlsatDhabas went viral, and hundreds of women shared their photos and personal stories online. The conversation covered a range of issues related to public space (including cycling and street cricket). A collective of women emerged which has been actively involved in steering the initiative and organising demonstrations, protests and dialogues on the ground.

Gender and inclusive public space is one of few feminist concerns that (at some point) affects every woman. But, in extremely polarised, stratified cities, public space is contentious, and the inclusion of one marginalised group can easily mean the exclusion of another. Cultivating sensitivity, self-awareness and sisterhood is central to our politics.

We know that our reach and language limits our efforts and our audience. We are aware (sometimes even hyper-aware) of how our conversations currently come from a certain level of privilege, and happen in privileged spaces. We cannot even claim that these spaces are as 'inclusive' as they are sometimes thought to be.

Two years in, Girls at Dhabas still represents a starting point of sorts, but also a source of sustenance, representation and belonging for many of us involved.

A version of this article originally appeared in 2016, as a personal narrative on the Girls at Dhabas' Facebook page.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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