Girls at Dhabas and the Politics of Dissent

Recently came across this interesting image from the very middle-class environs of Mini-Market in Lahore, through rather celebratory tweets and posts on the Pakistani social media sphere.  The captions on the wall read ‘Freedom for All’ in Urdu with a broader script reading ‘fearless’, though its not overly clear if the intended message seeks ‘freedom’ for women to pass time leisurely or the ‘freedom’ for their images to appear publicly , or if the act of posting the graffiti itself is ‘fearless’ and if the images of the women in it are being shown as being fearless. Any which way the odd juxtaposition of these young, seemingly Westernized women  with a group of obviously under-privileged children came through as oddly out of place and an uncomfortable exercise of bringing something private into the public, a reaction that the painters are possibly aiming for. These images were painted across various cities in Pakistan as a part of the Fearless Pakistan campaign as a collaboration with the larger group Girls At Dhabas (GAD), started by a small group of young, urban, educated and affluent women in cities like Karachi, Lahore , Islamabad and Pindi. In the following days the idea behind this image became clear with the announcement of the Meet to Sleep campaign taking place in Pakistan, again at the behest of the GAD.

If the GAD and its collaborative umbrella groups’ members want to reclaim public spaces for women, more power to them. However rather than being a site of dissent, what this image captures looks more like a space of subversive spectacle. In what ways do the ideas of ‘women taking siestas in public spaces to reclaim them’ or the public images of women casually lounging around town become  vehicles of empowerment? Of course they attract attention, but are they getting the right message across? Will taking public naps or pasting these images publicly around town actually allow the young women of GAD to ‘reclaim’ public spaces? There is no dearth of commercial posters showcasing female fashion models in all kinds of poses, featured in every part of every city of Pakistan. By the same logic, given the large presence of these commercial advertisements with female models, women should have reclaimed public spaces in Pakistan a very long time ago. I sincerely admire the spirit and the underlying thought behind these efforts, however these approaches seem very problematic and superficial to say the least. Adding snazzy captions to such campaigns and images claiming ‘freedom for women’ may not bring freedom or agency in any real sense of the word but in a farcical way may end up objectifying women much in the same way as the commercial entertainment world does, an end which the GAD is  hopefully not working towards. Continue reading