The aromas of piping hot Qandhari naans, rich kofta curry, and heaped plates of biryani served with generous servings of freshly-cut vegetables as salad platters fill your olfactory senses the moment you enter the simply-set but spotless Hazara Restaurant in Quetta. But the comfort found here is not just in the food that is served. The most comforting is the ambience created by its staff, comprised entirely of women with a smile on their lips, even as they hide sad stories in their hearts.
The restaurant is operated and run almost entirely by Hazara women. It is a place where women can take ownership of their lives and engage in working opportunities in a safe environment. Here they can find a sense of self-sufficiency and feel empowered enough to pick up the pieces of their broken lives and shape a future for themselves.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Hamida Ali, a young Hazara social rights activist who turned a dream into a reality. A resident of the famous Alamdar Road in Quetta, she like many others in her community has lived under the shadow of suicide attacks and sectarian violence. Up until a few years ago, the situation was so egregious that she says people used to bury their loved ones every week. “We have seen many tragic incidents during the past decade,” she says, “with women and children being badly affected as most male members were martyred in bomb blasts and ‘target killing’.
Hamida Ali Hazara has provided Hazara women in Quetta an opportunity for entrepreneurship
“I didn’t want my community women to go around asking for work or to beg the government institutions to pay and support them,” she explains. “I wanted to create something where women could work with dignity.”
Two years ago, Hamida founded Hurmat-i-Niswa, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based on ideas of women empowerment. Hamida wanted to create a platform “to help and promote women empowerment”, and the idea of the restaurant flowed from there.
The Shia Hazara community in Quetta has been the target of sectarian violence since 2003 and to date approximately 700 people have been martyred and thousands injured; about 2,500 families have been affected. “My family has been fortunate not to have been harmed with these attacks, but psychologically everyone living on Alamdar Road has been a victim,” says Hamida. “It all happened with the people living next door and you had to be their moral support in all situations.”
In many areas of Pakistan, women are not allowed to work even after receiving higher education. As a result, most stay at homes either by choice or by force, but Hamida succeeded in getting her Masters degree in Sociology. “I used to help women in their domestic issues as I was one of the very few educated women in the area where we live. I was a school-teacher and had some exposure of dealing with issues so I would help them find solutions for domestic issues. One day I came up with this initiative. Coming out for work and taking such a stance was not easy, but someone had to take the first step.”
When we talk about working women, they are usually criticised or a negative picture is presented or cases of harassment are highlighted, but what Hamida is doing might change public perception. When asked about the support from people around she says, “It’s my personal business, I haven’t begged anyone to support me. Some people approached me with negative thoughts, but thank God, there are people who appreciated and stood by my side which made me stronger in supporting women to come out of their homes and work with full strength and dignity.”
Hamida is particular about her staff being called runners and not waitresses. “They are my runners and it is because of them that my restaurant will become one of the biggest restaurants of Quetta. They are just like family to me,” smiles Hamida. “People are very respectable to women in Quetta. When our runners serve food, I have noticed that the male clientele avoid making eye contact with them...”
The menu was worked out considering the people living in nearby areas, based on what they like to eat and what they can afford. “Our chefs are young women, one is the daughter of a martyr, one a martyr’s sister, another a widow,” points out Hamida.
The restaurant offers a menu that is a mixture of desi cuisine such as biryani, vegetable curries, kofta curry, shami kabab and fast-food such as burgers and chicken rolls. “So far we have been getting a great response, especially from families who visit our restaurant frequently,” says Hamida. “It keeps the staff motivated. We might add more to our menu as per public demand.”
The staff is mostly female except for two male members who deal with the procurement from market while the clientele is mostly women, girls, families as well as groups of single men. “People don’t know much about this restaurant yet, as this is just the beginning, but we get a regular crowd busy chatting and gossiping while they eat,” says Hamida happily.
She is also particular about her staff being called runners and not waitresses. “They are my runners and it is because of them my restaurant will become one of the biggest restaurants of Quetta. They are just like my family to me,” smiles Hamida. “People are very respectable to women in Quetta. “When our runners serve food I have noticed that the male clientele avoids making an eye contact with them so as to not to discourage them or make it disconcerting for them in any way,” she adds.
Unfortunately, the government as well as the NGOs and social welfare organisations working for women empowerment have been unable to provide job opportunities for Hazara women. Perhaps this is what has made them take an initiative for themselves. “I don’t want government support as I know asking them or begging them is useless,” says Hamida. “My family and friends have been a great support to me as they are open-minded and want to support women in our society. It is their support that has enabled me to fight for it and materialise my dream.”
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 17th, 2017