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In the heart of Karachi, women rule the streets at night

Updated Jun 02, 2015 11:54am
Settling down for a tete a tete. — White Star
Settling down for a tete a tete. — White Star

Not only do the narrow lanes of Ghazdarabad remain crowded through the day, the commotion of people going about their business also continues well into the night. Venture further into these lanes and the pathway gets tighter, the houses get crammed till only a fraction of the night sky can be seen above.

After midnight, when activities subside and silence prevails, one by one the doors open slowly and women donning their best clothes and gold jewellery come out to sit on the takhats placed outside their homes.

Much like queens on their thrones, indulging in a late night gossip session over tea, cracking jokes and sharing laughter these women rule the streets at night. Without any fear or condemnation, no man or child can disturb their peace as they relish their leisure time.

In a society where women are discouraged from strolling alone after dark, this peculiar scenario stands out. But for the residents of the area, this has been a common practice for many years.

Ghazadarbad, popularly known as ‘Ranchor Line’, is one of the less affluent neighbourhoods in the city with heavily encroached pathways and rundown buildings. But in the midst of these lanes, there exists a community with its own dialect, customs and traditions.

The community that dominantly occupies this locality, the Marwari Salawat, migrated a little before partition from Jaisalmer city in Rajasthan, India and settled in Karachi and Hyderabad.

The Marwaris are a close-knit community, numbering about 20,000 strong in the Ghazdarabad; they refuse to shift from the area that their forefathers had settled in.

“We live here and we will die here,” says 70-year-old Gulzareena. “Even the few families who have moved to better areas in the city come back to hold their weddings here, on these very roads.”

Connected with the main road is a maze of streets, which still retain their old names; Peru Budha Street, Kalyanjee Street, no one knows how far back they date.

At the beginning of each of the alleys, wooden benches are placed on every corner which are always occupied by people gathered for a casual get together, eating bhel puri, which is a specialty of the area.

Wooden benches outside alleys. — Muhammad Umar
Wooden benches outside alleys. — Muhammad Umar

Gulzareena points to a tiny grocery shop at the end of the pathway where a lone woman sits inside, managing sales and customers, most of them buying eggs and bread.

“We all help this woman in running her shop; her husband has gone abroad so we take shifts to sit at the store so she can manage her household responsibilities as well,” she says.

“It’s not considered unusual for a woman to be heading a shop on her own here, and no one dares to harass her or talk her out of it,” says Gulzareena with great pride.

Hearing about a group of women sitting out late at night inevitably raises questions regarding their security, but this aspect has been taken care of as well. Everyone knows everyone here, and outsiders stepping in are easily recognised.

The inherent hospitality extends to new comers as well, but the same cannot be said for hooligans or eve teasers, for the Marwaris have their own way of handling them.

Any hoodlum making their way into these streets is immediately questioned about the purpose of his visit, and an unsatisfactory answer leads to collective action — by the women.

Women get together at night.— Yumna Rafi
Women get together at night.— Yumna Rafi

Fehmida Sultana, 50, narrates an incident when one night, an eve-teaser who had been ogling the women was chased out by them with chappals.

“Once a man was repeatedly passing through these lanes and would not stop staring at the women. This continued for a few minutes after which we all got suspicious and asked him to leave. He started misbehaving and we don’t tolerate that kind of behaviour at all,” says Fehmida, relaxing on a marbled sitting area outside her house after sun down. As she sips tea, women approach her to shake hand and greet her before going about their business.

Others gather around by this time, eagerly recounting past occasions when they protected themselves from delinquents and even political party workers who tried to gain a hold in the area.

Fehmida recounts a scuffle that broke between political workers and the residents two years ago during Eidul Azha over the ‘donation’ of hides.

The Marwaris refused to meet their demands, and when the workers got angry scores of people poured out of their houses to confront them. Ultimately, it was a few workers against an entire community who remained firm, undeterred by threats or force.

“While the men gathered in large number to create collective pressure on the party members, we were in our homes and could see the brawl below. All of us [women] together started throwing bottles and whatever we could find at the political workers; they had no right to intimidate us.”

A busy street in Ranchor Lines. — White Star
A busy street in Ranchor Lines. — White Star

The Marwaris Salawat not only take pride in their unbreakable community ties and empowerment of women but also take pleasure in mentioning the skill that their ancestors were known for: stone masonry.

Much of the finest architecture found in Karachi can be credited to them. The Ghazadarabad area has one of the oldest mosques found in Karachi; there are five mosques in the vicinity all of which retain the delicate stone work that the ancestors of the current residents had once crafted.

Residents claim that the Jamia Mosque Beech Wali is more than 250 years ago, whereas Jamia Mosque Badami is standing since 1875. Bangi Mosque is said to be around a century old. The ‘youngest’ is Jamia Mosque Pakistan, which was constructed in 1940 as a memorial of the Pakistan Resolution.

The Jamia Mosque Beech Wali in Ranchore Line is more than 250 years old. — Muhammad Umar
The Jamia Mosque Beech Wali in Ranchore Line is more than 250 years old. — Muhammad Umar

The Marwaris are well-versed with their rich ancestral lineage; even the children can have their entire history on the tip of their tongues.

“This area is named after Hashim Ghazdar who was the Mayor of Karachi in 1941 and 1942. Before partition, he was the minister of Sindh and later became a member of the central legislative assembly of Pakistan,” recounts Shaiyna Ghazdar, a mother, who goes on to describe that the name Ghazdar was given as a title to Hashim Ghazdar’s father by the Raja of Rajasthan for building a beautiful villa in the royal palace, a testimonial of his craftsmanship.

While speaking to the Marwaris, most mention their Jamaat repeatedly for actively working for the community. “All affairs are discussed and decided by the mashawarat committee, be it domestic violence, divorce or theft,” says Salman Ghazdar who is a member of the Jamaat.

He further explains that a 13-member team is elected to look after the affairs such as sports, health, education and the local mosques. The Jamaat has its own constitution, which states that its main responsibility is looking after the basic needs of the community.

“We even have our own identity cards which are similar to a CNIC,” says Salman while showing the card, which reads his ethnicity as a Marwari Salawat.

Interestingly, the crime rate in the area is minimal; in these streets the residents move freely without any fear of getting mugged.

Much like queens on their thrones, indulging in a late night gossip session over tea, cracking jokes and sharing laughter these women rule the streets at night.— Yumna Rafi
Much like queens on their thrones, indulging in a late night gossip session over tea, cracking jokes and sharing laughter these women rule the streets at night.— Yumna Rafi

“My house is on the ground floor and I can sleep with the door open in the afternoon. Children play cricket outside and they come in for water while I am sleeping, the whole neighbourhood has mutual trust for each other,” says Fehmida.

“We all stand together in times of need, if there’s an urgent need for blood, it is announced in the mosque and residents respond. I can proudly claim that no neighbour goes to sleep hungry in this area!”

The Marwaris have a rather unique way of celebrating weddings; they do not book halls, but the event takes place on the main road and is open for everyone from the community.

“All our weddings take place on Saturdays since we get the road permit from the government only for this day,” says Rubina Altaf, a teacher by profession.

Fehmida Sultana's is respected in her circle, her advice is sought by women regarding all matters; domestic, marriage or family disputes.— Yumna Rafi
Fehmida Sultana's is respected in her circle, her advice is sought by women regarding all matters; domestic, marriage or family disputes.— Yumna Rafi

While men participate in all events, it is the women who have an upper hand in terms of input. Food is distributed and gifts are exchanged but the real celebration begins post midnight.

When the rest of the city slips into slumber and lights fade out, the main road of Ghazarabad lights up. As the drums begin to roll, women and children swathed in shimmery clothes and elaborate jewels begin to dance, celebrating the marriage of any couple that says “kabool hai” that night. As the men walk home, the women end their celebration and escort the bride to the groom with the dawning sun.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 31st, 2015

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