Brewing Change, One Chai At A Time

 

Sadia Khatri fills us in on Girls At Dhabas, a brave new feminist project in Karachi.

By Chintan Girish Modi

My fondest memories of Pakistan are of sipping chai on street corners and sidewalks with friends newly made. On each occasion though, I remember feeling like that was a guilty pleasure because I did not see groups of women occupying the same spaces. It did not take very long to realize that the absence was part of a larger exclusion from public spaces – quite alive in India too.

When I heard of Girls At Dhabas, I was immediately hooked. Such a simple and powerful idea – encouraging women to come out and enjoy chai and conversation at neighbourhood tea stalls, breaking away from the unwritten rule that these places of leisure and social interaction were available only to men! From there Girls At Dhabas, has grown to organizing cricket matches, using social media to build networks of solidarity, and running a crowdfunding campaign to open their own dhaba for women in Karachi.

In the following interview, Sadia Khatri, co-founder of Girls At Dhabas, talks to us about the dhaba and the dream they are building.

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Depending on the lens one might want to look through, Girls At Dhabas could perhaps be described as an art project, or a political movement, or a social enterprise, or something else. What does it mean to you? How would you like people to think of it?

There isn’t anything about sitting at a dhaba having chai that particularly screams: look at my politics. But it becomes political because public space is contentious and political; it becomes feminist because I am a woman who needs to go through a certain mental and physical effort to be in that space; it becomes art because it is playful, it focuses on the ways we create pleasure – ordinary pleasure – in the streets.

When Girls At Dhabas started, we were coming from a place of sharing personal experiences of our relationships with our cities and with public spaces. These spaces, and how we occupy them (or don’t), are central to broader feminist discussions and goals, but for some reason are left behind in the conversation. So much so that the invisibility of women in public spaces has become dangerous by virtue of its normality. We were acting on personal frustrations we faced as women navigating Karachi and Lahore, by simply sharing our stories — an act political in its own right — and saying, this is important too. People can’t always relate to political and feminist language but they can to ordinary everyday stories. It’s a powerful way to help people push their boundaries, and hopefully re-think some of those gender socializations we grow up with.

I also think of social media as an extension of public space — similar to physical public space, so that the moment you put something ‘out there’, it becomes political because you are asking people to pay attention to it. We are very consciously feminist, and are particularly concerned with everyday feminism, the everyday political — the actions driven by routine and habits that perpetuate gender roles, the lifestyle choices we make, the interactions we have in our daily lives that affect our relationship with gender, and specifically, public space.

 

What is your favourite kind of chai? What does it taste like? What does it smell like?

I would have to say the chai my friend Sara makes. We call it Sara-chai. She was two years my senior in undergrad abroad, and caught me making chai in a microwave one fine day in our dining hall. I was scolded, and shown how to make it the right way. A few days later, I was taken to a kitchen where she made chai in a pot – in America – the way we do here, at home! That’s where all of this started, really.

Sara would make chai for us every time we hung out. This was a group of women from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka — and all of this chai-activism dates back to those days. I can smell it from miles away because she adds so many damn spices.

 

How did your experience of studying at Mount Holyoke College in the United States shape your participation in and understanding of feminist politics?

Mount Holyoke is an all-women college. It’s also very international, and my friend group was basically a bunch of amazing women from all over South Asia. Aside from classes, professors and mentors — who helped me to think about politics and feminism intellectually — these women were crucial to my learning because they helped me think about feminism and politics practically, and within the context of South Asia. I remember countless nights spent in one particular space – the college’s center for religion and spirituality, Eliot House.

Eliot House had become a sort of safe haven for us. Students from all faiths (or not) used the space for various events and meetings during the day, but in the evenings and night it was usually emptier. So we would haul our books or movies there, and park ourselves in the lounge which is an incredible cozy haven filled with all sorts of religious hangings and trinkets. There was a kitchen we could use for chai. That was my primary pull. I remember hours in this space, talking about femininity, gender and sexuality in South Asia with these women. We’d talk about everything, feminism-related and not: the problems with that old Bollywood flick we all loved, how our social class privileged us in certain ways, the very specific beauty parlour culture and how it creates a space for women, our personal relationships, the privilege that came from studying in America, the discomfort with professors and readings that didn’t account for ‘context’, the latest roadblocks in our writing and art. I mean everything

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I have laughed in this room, done silly things, been productive, unproductive, broken down, had some of my most intellectually riveting conversations. And all of that together made me understand and appreciate the politics of a women’s-only space in a way I had never thought possible before. We automatically assume that a closed space – one that excludes men – is hostile, uninviting, and contrary to our movements. But in a patriarchal world – anywhere in this world – women are so rarely given a space to dissociate, breathe, laugh and learn in a space where they are not bound by the usual insecurities and conditions that have become so normalized, that we don’t even think things can be another way… It isn’t a contrary space at all, it is essential: we need to first build from within, and I mean this on a very personal, everyday level, before we can tackle the rest of the world. Patriarchy wins because it prevents women from coming together. Before Mount Holyoke, Eliot House, and these chai circles, I had not allowed myself to own the power these spaces create, the comfort in being with other women. This sounds so simple, but it is the most radical lesson I have learned.

 

Back home, you found a mentor in Sabeen Mahmud, the arts curator and activist who was killed in Karachi for her political work. What was your relationship with her like? How do you look back at your interactions with her at this time when you are in the middle of creating something so substantial?

Sabeen has been a mentor and a friend. Like everyone else will tell you, you could meet her once in two years – as I did in the years I studied abroad – talk to her once in a few months, and be able to share, discuss and rant about everything. She didn’t make you feel like you were young, unimportant, or stupid. I think the greatest thing she has taught me, and so many of us, is the art of listening — I mean really listening.

Her activism placed incredible emphasis on empathy, and on standing up for what you believe in — with the understanding that the world isn’t going to change overnight. She believed in small victories as much as big ones; this is a crucial lesson. And she believed in putting in work, and doing it every day.

She’d come excitedly to T2F (an arts space and community centre run by Mahmud – called The Second Floor) and tell us bachchas about her “small victory” of the day… like writing her mother’s name instead of her father’s on a form, or successfully inviting someone who disagreed with her to come talk it over coffee. Little things, powerful things. This was the heart of her activism. I’ve never accompanied her to the streets for protests and rallies, but she made me think about activism in the everyday — because she practised this activism even in her interactions with us bachchas who worked, painted, and basically just lived at T2F — though I only understand the cleverness with which she did it now, in retrospect. I know she would be a Girls At Dhabas supporter, right there at dhabas with us but with a cup of coffee – not chai – in hand!

T2F became an anchor for everything I was learning, discovering, and rebelling against. My family isn’t supportive, and didn’t understand why I was dabbling in all these new things, or wanted to write, and go take photos around the streets. Neither could I discuss a lot of personal issues with my family but there was Sabeen, and there was the rest of the T2F family. They were constantly asking me how I was doing and what I was up to, reminding me to keep fighting, not giving up, that it was worth it if you loved and cared enough.

She was also incredibly amazing in calling me out for my — for lack of a better word — fuck ups. But then the next day, she would show up, wrap me up in this incredibly big hug, and say: “You’re young… you should make mistakes.”

I think about her every day, especially when working on Girls At Dhabas, or when I’m at T2F. I try to imagine what she would say, what she would warn against, or tell us we could do better. It’s an amazing guideline to have in mind because it’s grounded in effort and love. Girls At Dhabas works because Sabeen taught us to stand up for what we believe in, yes, but do it always with fun and love.

 

What have been some of the most heartwarming and encouraging responses to Girls At Dhabas?

The most heartwarming response has come from younger girls who basically say: thank you for doing this, we knew we were not the only ones. These are girls who are in their ‘A’ levels at school, or in college, and getting a taste of a new kind of independence while trying to figure out what that means, and how it works in a society that limits them in almost every way. I’ve met incredible women this way, some of whom are part of the team now. And I can’t wait to meet more.

I remember one anecdote from a friend, who messaged in expressing support. He went with his mom to a dhaba, and submitted the picture. It’s always a small victory for me when men message us, because in most cases otherwise, it is the men who have a problem with what we’re doing.

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One more. When we were collecting funds for our dhaba — we still are, by the way — my 12 year old sister handed me an envelope with her life’s savings in it: 3500 rupees. She’s been an avid supporter every step of the way but this, I thought, was incredible. We must be doing something right.

 

There is a tendency, at times, for people in South Asia to dismiss feminism as ‘Western’, and therefore, irrelevant. How do you engage with an idea like this? How do you continue to draw strength from whatever or whoever inspires you from anywhere in the world, and still create a language for your work that resonates as desi?

Desi feminism isn’t about distancing ourselves from feminist goals and approaches but simply contextualizing those goals and approaches, and defining them for ourselves so we can take ownership and carry them forward.

For feminists in South Asia, accusations like “You are too western” are leveled because we function in English. That’s a reality of our class and our audience but we have to realize that just because something is in English or written in a “Western context” doesn’t mean it can’t speak to us, or isn’t relevant to us. In a lot of cases, these writings aren’t wrong either, and protesters simply detract from issues that are very much real in our own environments. Public space, for example, is an issue for women across class and identities — and yes, maybe that essay about gender and public space in New York doesn’t apply to Karachi completely but there is lots I can draw from it still.

People also assume there is no desi feminism when there is enough writing, work and activism done – and being done – by feminists in South Asia. This was an assumption I held too, and one I am correcting by doing the work of familiarizing myself with South Asian feminist histories and writings as part of my activism.

Also more dangerous is the idea that we don’t need feminism because it is not “ours”. Well then, own it. There’s also this problematic correlation constantly made between imperialism and feminism — yes, there is truth to it — but we can’t take colonization as a reason to excuse our own apathy and problems. People will often accuse the West of hampering our otherwise progressive culture. Sure, but what about the ways we clamped down our own progress, because of religion, or social norms, or whatever? Desi feminism has to own up to its own complicity and limitations, only then can we work around it.

I don’t really care if people use the words or not. Most people who hate feminist politics have never read a real essay about feminism. Their misunderstandings are so absurd. But feminist politics too needs to shift away from constantly being on the defensive. We waste too much energy explaining and arguing instead of building. At the end of the day, there is a problem, and there is a movement that’s willing to address it. It is a work in progress, and that can be emphasized in conversations where people dismiss it. Let’s focus less on specific words, and more on the importance of building our own definitions and movements because the problems are not going anywhere.

As far as context goes, firstly, if you think about it, we are so far behind. I can speak of Pakistan specifically. What Betty Friedan wrote of women in the 60s in America (and things have improved for those women since then) holds one hundred per cent true for women living in Pakistan today. We have to identify our pace, and let our movements grow organically. I can’t campaign against abortions in Karachi streets yet, but I can open a dhaba with other women, make a beautiful dent in public space, and then talk openly about abortion with women there. Do you see what I mean? We need to focus on creating our own narratives too, and creating narratives specific to the world we live in. There are enough clever, subversive ways to go about it.

I don’t believe in toning down, pushing back our goals, or asking for less. I just think we have a lot of ground work to do first. But it‘s happening. Feminists are coming together from different capacities (academia, street activism, business life) — desi feminists — and across groups as well. It is true that when you’re in a specific context, you are unable to think outside of it. So there is power in distancing ourselves to be able to understand our movement. I see women-only spaces as a way to do that, especially in desi feminism. That’s where the building occurs. Then as far as confronting society goes and putting our thoughts and frustrations out there, we have to realize we are not Betty Friedan, but Girls At Dhabas.

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Not everyone following us is familiar with the language and history of mainstream “western” feminism. But we have desi culture, certain vernaculars we draw from to communicate with people, to replace jargon with what’s relatable. We use humour, which is central to our everyday lives. Laughter, cleverness, simple language, can do wonders in making people think and open up, in ways academic jargon cannot.

 

What are the opportunities that have opened up for you in terms of collaborating with people and organizations in other South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh in particular?

Before anyone else, Why Loiter? from India reached out to us. It is a similar movement that started in Bombay, and there’s a book by the same name which I recommend to everyone.

Taking Bombay as a case study, they interviewed a range of women over the years and discovered that even though more women were present in public spaces, they weren’t really interacting with these sites in the same way as men. For instance, if you see a woman on the street, she’s either waiting for someone, or hurrying from point A to B, or in a marketplace — where she is ‘supposed to be’. Women don’t loiter much. This is even more true in Karachi, and in essence, #whyloiter is doing the same thing as #girlsatdhabas — encouraging women to step out of their comfort zones (at the pace they feel comfortable) and own public space.

Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan from Why Loiter were in touch with us pretty soon after, and we did a couple of interviews for Indian publications. We’ve also collaborated in Twitter chats with @FeminismInIndia and @genderlog, and are in talks for more. Blank Noise is another feminist group that is running multiple campaigns sharing stories of survivors of sexual assault, organizing events that protest this whole idea of public space being unsafe – that call for ownership of public space. We are in conversation with them to start similar chapters here, and co-host events simultaneously in Lahore, Karachi, Delhi.

Every day I meet more women organizing something amazing across the border. I didn’t expect this to be a result of Girls At Dhabas at all but the number of relationships we are making with feminists across the border is honestly incredible and relieving. We realize we’re not alone. Shared problems seem less scary when they are more of us. And then, just in terms of having discussions and conversations within our circles, there are really enough of us to offer a support base to folks who want to join and or are just interested in learning more. It’s a growing space but the fact that we are able to grow it in collaboration with women from other countries holds incredible power.

Also, more excitingly, our next book club selection will be Why Loiter? and it looks like we might be able to host an event with Shilpa here!

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What is the kind of music that one might get to hear at the dhaba you are setting up? Do give us a flavour of your playlist.

I can tell you exactly I would add to the playlist: endless qawwalis by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar’s ghazals, Ali Sethi, Pakistani indie artistes like Mooro, Sikandar Ka Mandar, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Tamashbeens, Shajie, 90s and older Bollywood tunes, Shankar Tucker’s mixes, Arijit Singh, Mohit Chauhan and A. R. Rahman! While this is my ideal playlist, and I know many who believe in its power, I should add that I am often nudged off the DJ-ing spot in larger gatherings because I am not “in sync with the mood.” We’ve discussed this though, and we’ve decided that our dhaba will allow people to bring their own playlists, having some sort of a rotating rule, and invite live DJs once in a while!

 

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