The thought of dhabas is evocative of 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, demarcates them as essentially male spaces.
‘Girls at dhabas’ then sounds like an anomaly, but some rad women in Karachi are claiming these spaces for women. A tumblr blog called Girls at Dhabas is as the title suggests, inviting submissions from women hanging out at dhabas.
This blog has been doing the rounds on social media off late. Coming as it does from Pakistan also makes it more curious for some.
The blog features pictures of women at dhabas, hanging out, drinking chai, eating, smoking, reading, just generally chilling, in an act of defiance and liberation.
The girls in the pictures have some serious swag and feminists on either side of the border are quite cheery about this blog.
The tumblr #GirlsAtDhabas and all the fabulous photographs reinforce the point that the desire to loiter for fun, is both desirable and ultimately productive. I was delighted to see the photographs from across the border.
—Shilpa Phadke, Author, Why Loiter
One of the pictures on the blog taken in a Pakistani restaurant in New York says,
Although aunties often make an appearance, they are usually with families. A group of girls chilling with halwa puri for hours there is not a common sight. We invite curious looks, often discomforting ones, because the space very much recreates south asian-gendered public space dynamics. But this is exactly what reclaiming public space is all about – resisting locally, resisting daily, resisting in whatever part of the world we are.
— Girls at Dhabas (caption on a photo)
There are some pictures of women hanging out at other places too.
In the debate for women’s rights, access to public space, is high on priority.
The Blank Noise project in India had similarly tried to reclaim park spaces for women, organising a ‘meet to sleep’ campaign. Stressing that parks need not be spaces that only men can sleep in.
Why Loiter, a book on women’s right to public spaces, also runs a campaign which calls upon women to “make a statement... to be in public space without purpose.”
For anyone interested in issues of gender and public space the book is an insight
“We need to redefine our understanding of violence in relation to public space—to see not sexual assault, but the denial of access to public space as the worst possible outcome for women. What we might demand then is that women’s right to be in public space be unquestioned. Choosing to take risks, even of possible sexual violence in public spaces, undermines a sexist structure where women’s virtue is prized over their desires or agency.”
– Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011)
In order to keep women ‘safe’ the popular narrative often hinges upon the idea that to stay safe women must stay home. Or at least avoid male dominated spaces. A flawed argument because some of the most terrible crimes happen in the ‘safety’ of homes.
Let’s take a cue from Pakistan and claim them dhabas in India too.