ISLAMABAD: In an effort to reclaim public spaces and narratives for women, the feminist collective #GirlsAtDhabas and the Awami Workers Party (AWP) held an open-air public dialogue on Monday.

The discussion, titled ‘Women and Public Space in Pakistan’ was held in a public park in Sector F-7 and was attended by a few dozen men and women from all walks of life.

Conducted in cosy environs with the participants seated on jute mats or the cool grass, the dialogue featured discussions about the various forms of harassment and discrimination that women have to face in the public sphere.

Sadia Khatri, a visiting #GirlsAtDhabas activist from Karachi, began the discussion by talking about the impetus for the dialogue.

“In our society, most violence against women happens in the home. But we are told that the streets are unsafe for us, whereas this is not true,” she said.

Saying that this was not just the problem of a particular class, she emphasised the need to mobilise women and ensure that they became a vibrant part of public life.

“Here, it’s as if men and women inhabit two different worlds, and the struggles of one have nothing in common with the other,” she said.

But cognisant of the ambitious nature of the task she had taken upon herself, Ms Khatri summed up her ambitions quite succinctly when she told a reporter, “This isn’t a mainstream movement at all,” indicating that there was a long way yet to go.

Maria Patel, an alumnus of Karachi University, spoke out about the incident at her alma mater, where members of the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) had disrupted a mixed gender game of cricket earlier in the day.

She said that women were often caught up in the violence perpetrated by the Jamiat and said that there had been a marked change in attitudes towards women at the varsity.

She also complained about the woman-specific discrimination in the job-market and related a story where a woman was asked about her marriage plans during a job interview. “Why is this question only asked of women, why not men?”

“Whenever I have tea at a dhaba, I’ve never even thought that it is exclusively ‘a man’s space’,” Ms Patel said.

Another participant tore into conventional wisdom regarding marriage, saying, “You can either get married and free yourself, or get divorced and stay cooped up at home.”

AWP’s Ammar Rashid pointed out that discussions about the role that women should play in society were a necessarily political issue, rather than a social one. He also said that it was incumbent upon all individuals to call out misogyny and institutional discrimination wherever they saw it.

Other speakers, including residents of the French Colony and women candidates for the upcoming LG elections, also highlighted the issues they faced in the public sphere.

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2015

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