This article was originally published on January 22, 2016.
This piece consists of snippets chronicling gender roles on the streets of Karachi through a male gaze, and also tells part of the story behind Girls at Dhabas — a group that consists of men, women, and every gender in between.
"LADIES HAI, LADIES HAI! Ruk!" [It's ladies! Stop!] yells the bus conductor. The bus driver screeches to a complete halt. This isn’t a usual event for the SUPER HASAN ZAI public coach in Karachi, unless a woman waits at the bus stop.
A woman donned in a simple shalwar kameez and a dupatta wrapped around her head makes her way inside. She briskly settles down on a seat in the ladies' section. The men occupying the ladies' section adjust to make room for her: they are being ‘respectable’ gentlemen.
In 15 years of traveling of buses, I have never seen men do that for other men. I often wonder if it is an action grounded in respectability, or one of misguided protection.
I instantly think back to the time my friend, S and I went to a dhaba. Out of concern and 'respect', the dhaba wala offered my friend a special spot: "Bibi," he had said, "Aap family area mein beth jayein." The family area was a table situated at the back of the room, draped with a curtain, where my friend would be out sight from the rest of the male customers.
On the surface, it might seem like a thoughtful act on the dhaba wala's part. But like the action of making room for a woman on the bus (while on other days 'accidentally' pinching her), these actions are rooted in misogyny: men in this country are not so much concerned with giving women their space, but rather defining it for them.
Even seemingly well-meaning acts of kindness, when analysed, betray the power dynamics that rule any male-female relationship in Karachi's public space. In fact, there are myriads of ways us men police women’s behaviour in public daily: when we tell them to wait inside cars while we go run an errand, when we tell our girl friends not to smoke in public, when we hear about our female friends hanging out at dhabas, and say: ‘That’s no place for a woman.’
I'm standing with Rafi the makai wala right outside the university gate. He's cooking corn for the kids from the neighboring schools; the square is occupied with a spectrum of individuals. Rickshaw drivers hoping to get a ride, kids in line waiting for junk they can put in their stomachs, a circle of men smoking surrounded by a larger circle of men who seem to have found comfort under the tree’s shade.
Looking around, I think about the male to female ratio in Pakistan, which is almost 1:1. But there isn’t a woman in sight.
A girl interrupts the scene, walking by in skinny jeans, a low cut top, and hair neatly parted to her side. I recognise her from my class. As she walks towards Rafi’s cart, I notice the heads of the rickshaw walas (men), passersby (men) and loiterers (men) turn, their gaze following her walk, much like my own.
I shift my eyes and look elsewhere.
It's nearly dusk. I'm at a dhaba with my friend, killing time. She's buried writing something in her journal, a cigarette (that needs to be ashed) in her other hand. As usual, I notice heads turning towards us.
A girl with a cigarette at a dhaba is entertainment for everyone; I’ve smoked countless cigarettes over cups and cups of tea at dhabas with my male friends, no one turns their head around. But with her, I have become used to winning staring competitions with other customers.
A masseuse walks across the parking lot filled with chairs and the smell of chai, the clink of his oil bottles echoing through the street. My friend asks me to call out to him: she wants a massage.
“Are you working right now?” “I am,” he replies, placing his oil on the table before me. He positions himself behind me, rolling his sleeves up.
“I don’t want a massage. Baji wants one."
He stares at me, his expression a mixture of confusion and ‘Are you joking?'. We tell him we are serious.
He moves behind my friend, placing his hand around her neck. She lets it down immediately, and the massage begins. Then men sitting around us are visibly uncomfortable. We overhear some of them gossiping. ‘A girl – getting a massage!’ It is absurd. Why isn’t it equally absurd when men get massages in public?
Needing a break from studying, I walk outside for fresh air: the cigarette/pan cabin at the end of my galli is a familiar spot. I light a cigarette as the traffic of people and cars pass by. A woman from my street – I recognise her – is walking with a heavy load of groceries in her hand. Some man offers to help. She abruptly refuses his offer, No thank you, and he cluelessly walks away.
Standing there, I notice the hordes of men all around the corner, where the woman had to make her way through. I can’t blame her for being edgy. No man has to walk around with the kind of constant paranoia women do in this city.
I tell my father how I’ve been frequenting dhabas with my friend – a girl. He thinks it's cool.
“It portrays our city as if it's not women friendly though,” he insists. In another breath, he doesn’t allow my sisters to walk till the corner of our street to fetch groceries.
He thinks the city’s security condition is to blame for the ratio of men and women out on the roads. “If a girl goes to a dhaba, there’s a 90 per cent chance something bad will happen to her,” he adds.
Whatever ‘security conditions’ there might be, my friend and I have started sitting at dhabas every day.
Harassment, so far, has been limited to the extent of stares. Some are curious. Some disapproving. Our culture claims to be welcoming and respectful towards women, but we have gotten used to its hypocrisies.
I think about how the common culprit is almost always a man, but it’s the women who has to make the difficult choices. Some are forced to live under the umbrella of misplaced, self-righteous ‘concern’ leveled by men who claim they know what is best for their wives, sisters and daughters.
Other men and women alike have become so conditioned that they continue protecting this system of thoughts: we say ‘men will be men’, we discourage women from being – just being – in public, and any time someone fights back, we shut them up, calling them unrealistic.
Normally, my friend and I would not drive to Shireen Jinnah Colony at 9pm, but today we are feeling braver than usual. Nearing Khyaban-e-Bedil, I call Naeem who I am supposed to meet for a smoking session.
He instructs me to turn into a street without lights. Forcing paranoia to drift out the window, I drive in. Naeem is waiting for us when we reach.
“Naeem, this is my friend. She is very close to my heart. I hope she is welcome here,” I greet him.
“Ali bhai, your friend is my friend. Let’s go in the tanker parking lot. We have a seating arrangement there.”
I drive deeper into Shireen Jinnah, calm as the summer sea, and park where Naeem asks me to. We get out of the car and place ourselves in the car seats set out on the ground. It is pitch-black and I feel just as safe as I do in any other part of Karachi.
My friend lights a smoke, and Naeem responds with shock. But he doesn’t say anything. He simply smiles, and hands her some matches.
After leaving Naeem, we impulsively decide to stop at a dhaba near the Cantt Station. We order some daal and roti, and of course, chai to wash it all down. As usual, her head is buried in her journal with the same unashed cigarette pose. I use her phone to browse through Instagram.
“I wish other girls came to dhabas too. It would really tone down the whole staring game,” I said.
“So let’s figure out a way to,” she replies. We cackle and snigger, scheming ways to fix the dismal gender-ratio at dhabas and public spaces in Pakistan. She suggests putting up a photo of herself on social media as an experiment first. We discuss if we should hashtag it. #SAtDhabas, I suggest, and she turns it down immediately.
“Wait. I know what we should do,” I reply, running off with the phone. I snap a picture of her (knowing she will hate it) and give it a more inclusive hashtag: #GirlsAtDhabas.