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.



I also have a problem with the cliched refrains and extreme generalizations that the GAD members seem to be churning out regularly on media platforms , such as that “Pakistan’s public space is hell for women”  , or feeding into the Western stereotypes of typecasting Pakistan as” a society where women are being constantly suffocated “. While such statements make great copy, they are easy generalizations that may often spin the truth. There is no denying the fact that intimidation and harassment towards women is a regular feature in our society, but this does not make the public spaces  ‘hell’ for a majority of Pakistani women, who can confidently be seen going around and ‘doing their thing’ inspite of all this. Women have been very much a part of the public culture in the past and continue to do so at present, it just depends of the social lens one looks through. Also as a person who often frequents very public spaces ( the urban kind that GAD presume to speak about) and has extensively traveled on public transportation in Pakistan , I would seriously like to contest that assertion.  As a hostel student at Kinnaird College in Lahore and later the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad in the 90’s, I spent nearly six years using public resources and spaces like many other young women like myself without feeling threatened in any sense of the word. Many years later I still feel the same way. Countless number of times I have travelled alone and with other women on taxis and rickshaws in cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore without giving it much thought, and I saw many other women around me doing the same thing. One sees women at the bus stops, taxi stands and even sitting along the roadside everyday. But  just because they don’t have the leisurely time to sit and enjoy tea and coffee perhaps makes them less ‘visible’ for the GAD?

Do the army of very visible, self-assured young sales women who man (pun intended) the posh boutiques and restaurants in affluent urban areas and the elitist spaces, such as like the Dolmen Mall in Karachi or Centaurus in Islamabad, seem to be ‘suffocated’ or working under any duress? Most of these women belong to the lower middle classes , use public transportation to arrive to work and are very visible in the public. Of course their class concerns are another story altogether but for the moment we are focused only on their gender. Most Pakistanis are also familiar with the bossy female supervisors and attendants at all fast food hangouts like McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut etc, who can be seen confidently ordering the subordinate men around. I have often wondered in amazement at these young women, many of whom can be seen working late in the night without a care, and that too in the company of men. Often times these girls will be wearing hijabs, but their socio-religious outlooks do not seem to take away from their agency or their visibility in the public spaces. These are random examples from the every public sphere in Pakistan and one can find innumerable examples of the ways in which women exert their presence everywhere.

Have the GAD also taken any road trips across Pakistan? We see GAD members posting pictures from Mianwali and Kalabagh. Surely on their way there they would have found a very visible presence of women in the semi-urban or rural settings in various capacities all across Pakistan. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge this is clearly refusing to look beyond their own class. Driving through rural Punjab one sees women everywhere, working in the fields, walking the cattle and many times enjoying warms cups of tea sitting on their charpoys along roadsides.  Film director Afia Nathanial recently told me that while shooting for her film Dukhtar in the Northern Areas like Gilgit and Skardu, she was shocked to find that a majority of carpenters in the area were women. The film sets used in the visuals of Nathaniel’s Dukhtar were all made by women.  An academic who recently visited rural Sindh mentioned his surprise at the fact that a majority of those involved in the construction of roads etc in rural Sindh were women. Not only are these women mobile and visible they are earning their wages independently of men, preferring to get paid through the Easy Paisa scheme that they access through their cellphones. These women’s quiet reclamation of both rural and urban public spaces shows that protest and contestation with social norms does not have to be overly loud , aggressive and brash and in-your-face.

In her research on Pakistani women in No Shame for the Sun, Shahla Haeri once  famously said that inspite of the fact that there are separate schools, colleges, banks etc as specifically designed spaces for women , the women in Pakistan refuse to be confined to limited spaces and outlooks, and continue to confidently make their presence felt equally in all spaces of Pakistan. Her work challenge notions of the “submissive” often “veiled” Pakistani woman as being victimized or unproductive. She takes up the strange refusal by feminists , Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to look at the life and experiences of lower and middle-class women in the Muslim world has led to the “general invisibility of professional women in the academic literature as well as the general discussion”  which, as Haeri’s account show, “ironically contrasts with their visibility in their home countries” and their  “public” presences in their male-dominated societies.

Not surprisingly because of their connective presence over social media and their radical tactics the GAD have quickly become poster girls for’liberated Pakistani women’, whose activism has featured on mainstream international news outlets like the New York Times, NBC, The Telegraph etc with cutesy captions such as ‘Starting a Revolution one Chai cup at a Time’, ‘Conquering One Dhaba at a Time’,  ‘ Taking Selfies in Male Spaces to Fight Inequality‘etc. The GAD blog regularly features visuals, which inadvertently or consciously, showcase the symbols of a Westernized globalized modernity and conform to the Westernized stereotypical images of  ’empowered’ and ‘independent’ women wearing jeans, smoking Marlboro lights and reading the lasted issue of Cosmopolitan or Elle.

We Meet to Sleep to fight fear with trust. We Meet to Sleep to assert our right over public space and our bodies. We meet to define our own relationship with our city and its spaces. We meet to challenge the narrative of women’s safety that is warped by ideas of safety and surveillance. We meet to ask to shift the narrative to one of ownership and the right to risk. We meet to assert our right as women over pleasure, loiter and fun. #Karachi #MeetToSleep

While the GAD activists seem to use their social media skills strategically , they also seem to consider themselves to be ‘global  citizens’ who actively take cues from and cultivate ties with other feminist  and activist groups around the world. As has been the experience with such endeavors such trans-nationalization both expands and intensifies online activism but also inflates the scale and scope of various forms of activism, often in detrimental ways. It would be useful to take into account the failed radical experience  of groups like Code Pink in the Middle East. which oftentimes reinforce and feed into very orientalist and racist discourse. The glorification of role of social media through the language of first world feminism for enabling such endeavors as the GAD is very evident.   In many ways however the Euro-American narratives of the significant empowering role of the globalized social media are reminiscent of the colonial civilizing narratives that introduced modernity in the colonies as facilitated by Western tools. Without falling into the usual trap of becoming appropriated by the differently placed first world feminist agendas and the hegemonic forces of globalization, the GAD must meaningfully recognize the social and cultural contingencies if they want to be successful.

Imposing such first world feminism onto a very third world context may well back fire. My sincere advice would be to take into consideration a nuanced understanding of the culture that they are operating in rather than an outright confrontational one. At the risk of sounding like a didactic academic, there is always a contextual and historical perspective that informs the present outlooks in any public sphere around the world. Trying to create abrupt visible disruptions without meaningfully taking into account the existing dynamics in a society can never be beneficial and may even end up being harmful by discrediting and stereotyping the young women behind GAD as being elitist and cantankerous. Emrys Schoemaker, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics doing research internet usage in Pakistan also recently pointed out that activities originating on social media, such as those undertaken by GAD , “will become a challenge for Pakistani society to adjust to” and acknowledged that social media, rather than challenging social conventions also reinforces social norms. “#GirlsAtDhabas may only empower a certain Pakistani woman. It is difficult to imagine how the woman who is earning a pittance selling plastic bags to a factory owner, for example, will be ‘empowered’ by #GirlsatDhabas or social media.”

I’m also not sure if I agree with the assertion that it would be unfair or unreasonable to label GAD as elitist, as if belonging to elite segments of the society is a crime or a malaise. It simply points towards their social location in the society. And by acknowledging their position as such, the GAD can meaningfully and creatively negotiate their space for young girls in that segment of the society, rather than making grand claims to speak for all women in Pakistan. It was also be fair to point out the drinking chai at Dhabas is a ‘leisurely pastime’ which women from the lower middle classes and other underprivileged segments may not have the luxury or the time and opportunity to indulge in.  It is however totally unfair to compare or judge GAD against male contemporaries but just because “No male-dominated organisation is ever held up to such scrutiny, or had their agenda dictated to them” , does not mean that one should refrain from any meaningful critique altogether.

Freedom cannot be achieved by suddenly imposing alien values and symbols in public spaces, instead it comes from an organic osmotic efforts toward meaningful negotiations with existing social and cultural conditions. In this sense such arguments about ‘liberation’ are self limiting because they show the very limited urban, elite , space and language the GAD are engaging with. It should be clarified that the public spaces that the GAD are trying to reclaim are specifically urban, middle class spaces and hangouts which have recently become fashionable for the elite and upper middle classes. Ironically it is the enlightened and liberated women like us who are perhaps not visible enough in their surrounding public spaces. Perhaps GAD should take cues from the Pakistani women who have already reclaimed public sphere and who have made a place for themselves by challenging gender inequality in their own way and are thus already very visible daily in public spaces.

The need of the moment for GAD is to be cognizant of the social dynamics outside their own class and to be sensitive to cultural nuances.   I say this because I feel that the GAD as a platform can do very useful things for young urban Pakistani women and can bring a welcome change in the public sphere. Their intervention in the Table N0.5 episode is an affirmation of this fact. The last thing we would want is be stigmatized privileged, ‘Western-returned’  urban women ( as they already are being ridiculed for) and for their efforts to be written off as meaningless or harmless theatrics by a small group of  irrelevant women.

lahore final

A though-provoking poster reading, ‘What will people say? We are the people, what will we say ?’


( All images courtesy – )


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