The All-Female Coffeeshop Movement Coming to a Boil


In Pakistan, public space is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Girls at Dhabas wants to change that, beginning with the first female-run cafe in Karachi.

On 25 April this year, a woman was gunned down on a sidewalk in Pakistan on her way home from the Karachi arts cafe she founded. Just seven years earlier, this leading social activist had told Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, about her big dream: She hoped to “change the world for the better through the internet.”

“Do you know Sabeen Mahmud?” 24-year-old Sadia Khatri asks me on Skype six months later from her home in Karachi. “The night of her murder I was at a dhaba[the name given to roadside tea shops in Pakistan and India] with a friend having daal.” As usual, Khatri was the only woman there and the men were confused. A friend snapped her in-situ and, curious to see what might happen online, Khatri posted the result with the hashtag #GirlsAtDhabas. She was completely unaware that her friend had just been killed across town. On the night that Sabeen Mahmud’s dream was extinguished, another flame was lit as Khatri’s hashtag took off.

Just like Mahmud, Khatri hopes to change things for the better with the help of the internet. Her selfie paved the way for a Tumblr that encourages all Desi women to submit photos of themselves enjoying their steaming cups of chai and traditional halwa puri breakfasts at roadside dhabas, just like men do. As a result, Khatri co-founded Girls at Dhabas: A burgeoning movement for women all over south Asia, keen to snap themselves drinking chai and playing street cricket in Karachi, riding scooters in Bangladesh, and driving pink feminist rickshaws in Lahore. With every joyous selfie published, the social traditions that tightly bind their freedom are being stretched and redefined.

In their own words, Girls at Dhabas identify themselves as “Desi feminists and women defining public spaces on our own terms and whims.” For women like Khatri, a dhaba isn’t just a roadside tea stall, it’s a symbol of her social immobility. Dhabas, like coffee shops in the west, are popular social hangouts, but in Pakistan these tea stalls are traditionally served by men for men. There may not be any ‘men only’ signs hung-up outside Pakistan’s street dhabas, but disapproving eyes do the talking.

When I ask Khatri how they react when she joins them, she answers: “A few of them will turn their head and look at you—confused more than anything else—and maybe they’ll stare for a minute or two.” With her elfin cropped hair, shirts and jeans, Khatri doesn’t just go where she wants, she dresses the way she likes, too. “I do get, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?” sometimes from a random old man,” she laughs. “I am open to those conversations. I sit down with them and talk it out.”

It isn’t an attitude confined to dhabas alone. As Khatri explains, women are omitted from pretty much all public spaces in Pakistan and it continues to hinder their self development. The World Bank may have measured the Pakistani female population at 49 percent in 2014, but that’s where gender equality ends. In Pakistan’s bustling metropolitan cities, such as Karachi and Lahore, the streets are walked by men—and men alone.

In Pakistan public space tends to be highly segregated, especially in the cities. You’ll see maybe one woman and 50 men.

“In Pakistan public space tends to be highly segregated, especially in the cities,” Khatri explains. “You’ll see maybe one woman and 50 men. It’s something that honestly disturbs me. I feel this claustrophobia in terms of going out on the streets. I’m not the only one, there are so many women who complain of it every day.”

When a woman is spotted out and about, she’s usually accompanied by another woman or a male chaperone. In the rare event that she’s walking alone, it’s usually because she’s a working woman and travel isn’t a choice: It’s a necessity. Intersecting the gender divide in Pakistan are powerful class lines that control women’s movements with equal force. Working class women will always hurry and never loiter. Standing on the sidewalk just isn’t an option. On the other side of the coin, “an upper class woman may have intellectual freedom but at the end of the day her driver is shuttling her from one place to another,” says Khatri.

The threat of street harassment is another potential barrier for women who do venture out. “There’s this idea that here is south Asian women don’t belong on the streets because the streets are not safe and you might get raped,” Khatri tells me. “But if you look at the statistics, most assaults that occur against women are usually inside the house or by someone they know—not by a stranger on the street. And yet we’ve made the home this safe space for the woman when in fact she’s safer on the street.”

Sadia Khatri sips some chai at a dhaba. Photo courtesy of Girls at Dhabas

According to a 2012 study from Rutgers, a sexual health and reproductive rights organization, 66 percent of Pakistani women had experienced sexual violence. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that there had been thousands of honor killings in the country over the last decade. It is just one of many issues that contributed to its ranking of 141st (out of a total 142 countries) in the 2014 Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum, which ranks countries according to their gender inequality in four critical areas: economic opportunity, educational access, political representation and life expectancy.

Women may be safer on the street, but that isn’t to say public safety isn’t also a prevailing problem. “Yes, harassment exists,” Khatri confirms when asked. In south Asia they call it ‘Eve teasing,’ a seemingly benign slang term for an escalating range of abusive behaviour that can involve catcalling, sexually suggestive propositioning, brushing, or groping. Despite this, Khatri insists, “We’re not encouraging women to put themselves in unsafe situations, we’re just saying this is your city too and there are ways you can claim it.”

No one is physically stopping you from going—it’s just a social perception in everyone’s minds that can be changed.

Girls at Dhabas’ latest campaign, however, isn’t content with simply claiming what’s already out there. In the girls’ own words they plan to “overthrow dhaba patriarchy by not just claiming public space but owning it.” They’ve got a new hashtag—#dhabaforwomen—and a crowdfunding site, too. The pitch is simple: to set up Karachi’s first female-run dhaba within the next year, providing an inclusive, safe, and welcoming space for women and minorities. In one month, they’ve raised $2,639 out of their $10,000 goal.

Girls at Dhabas are keen to model themselves on a women-owned dhaba that already exists and has proved successful in Hyderabad, a city located in the Sindh province of Pakistan. The Khanabadosh Writers’ Café offers the women who visit a chance to enjoy social activities that most men in Pakistan take for granted, such as film screenings and gigs. As Khatri explains, the aim of the game is to get as many women outside as possible. “Until they’re out they don’t know they can come out,” she underlines.

And that’s the key point. Girls at Dhabas is as much about encouraging women to literally step outside the box—their homes—as it is challenging patriarchal beliefs. “No one is physically stopping you from going—it’s just a social perception in everyone’s minds that can be changed,” Khatri explains. “For me, it might be tea drinking but for someone else it might be travelling by herself in the north of Pakistan, something girls aren’t supposed to do.”

“If you see more women in a space visually, then hopefully you’ll feel safer, more encouraged and more comfortable. That’s the idea,” she laughs. “It’s very simple.”