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Why do women have to sit in family halls in restaurants?

The family hall is about women. Yet, it is categorically not the woman’s hall, in that it does not belong to women.
Updated 02 Apr, 2019 05:58pm

Deep inside Old Lahore, among uneven streets that wrap themselves around each other like intestines, lies Abkari Road. Here, Anarkali meets Urdu Bazaar — storefronts selling wholesale printing paper line one end of the street, and nearby lies the old office of Paisa Akhbar, a widely popular newspaper from the colonial period.

Nearer to Anarkali, the mustache-wielding, garbage-heaping, vat-stewing, chai-brewing heart of Lahore, sits Waris Nihari. Disembark from your rickshaw and walk up to the unassuming storefront, keeping an eye out for the alpha waiter to get the best seating available.

It’s a humble establishment, but if you’re a group of men that promises several orders, they might line up a few chairs in the front and you can have one of Lahore’s greatest gifts al fresco, under a smog-filled sky.

Oh, wait. He sees you’re a woman, even though you try, as you must, to hide that. Come on now, upstairs. “Family hall upar hay.”

Eating out and respectability

For as long as I can remember, family halls have been a mainstay of restaurant dining in Punjab. Here, I am referring to the places where most of Punjab dines and not obscure, soulless establishments in Bahria or Defence that social media would have us believe have stolen the show.

On family trips that took us from Pindi to Lahore, or Pindi to Multan, we stopped at the GT Road restaurants churning out greasy mainstays of Punjabi cuisine, and we always sat in the family halls.

Buses also pulled up at these restaurants — the motorway and its homogenised rest areas were not yet popular. These were the years before Daewoo came along and everyone who could afford the service collectively decided that it was the only respectable option for domestic travel.

Going further back, Malik Tanvir, 59, of Talagang, remembers a time when the GT Road had few restaurants. “You drove for hours searching for a proper place to sit,” he says. People left home with food in their hands — the middle-class had stainless steel tiffins, the workingman had his potli.

During the 1970s, Pakistan saw wide-scale emigration for the first time, bringing along with it a wealth of remittances. Dining out became a more popular phenomenon, both in major cities and on the highways between them.

Phajja Paye's family hall.—All photos by author
Phajja Paye's family hall.—All photos by author

There are restaurants in Lahore and Karachi that are so old they are part of folklore, but large-scale dining out for men, women and families gained momentum only in the 1970s and 1980s.

During the same years, Pakistan was also deciding on a path of ostentatious, declarative religiosity that it has been throttling down ever since, employing Motorway speed and GT Road recklessness.

Even as a changing economy insisted on more women in public spaces, General Ziaul Haq’s Islamist regime was ensuring that they be seen as little as possible. Restaurants wanted to get customers but also had to cement their reputation as respectable establishments. Into this delicate balance between the worship of God and Capital entered the family hall.

Today, these halls are a necessary investment for any restaurant hoping to do good business with the middle-class. They are permanent fixtures across major cities and come in all shapes and forms.

Read more: Of being a woman and smoking in Pakistan

Waris Nihari wanted me to sit in a tiny room reminiscent of a half-finished attic. Koozi Haleem near the Secretariat in Lahore has a large, windowless basement 10 feet from the main restaurant.

A small biryani restaurant in Rawalpindi’s Lalkurti said they could draw a dark curtain around one of the tables, shielding me from men — as well as light and air. In these restaurants, the family hall appears as an afterthought, an obligatory hideaway on the off chance a woman wanders in.

On the other hand, Khan Baba and Phajja Siri Paye in Lahore have sprawling rooms, painted fresh white and wallpapered, where families arrive in hordes each weekend. Attentive waiters mill about replenishing naan, juggling plates of raita, and turning away any men without families.

These differences can be usually, if not always, explained by laws of demand and supply — how well the business does and what kind of crowd it caters to.

A place for men and a place for women

I wouldn’t say the term ‘family hall’ is a misnomer because its intention of equating women and family is inescapable. However, it can seem misleading at face value because no matter whether a woman arrives with a group of friends, with her male partner, or alone, she is immediately rushed to the family hall.

I travelled to all these places with my husband and we have no children, yet each time we were pointed to the basement or to the staircase. We saw a man and his adolescent sister be herded to the family hall and we saw a family of two men and a young boy be turned away.

The family hall is not about children or families, but about women. Yet, it is categorically not the woman’s hall, in that it does not belong to women.

Men can come and sit with their girlfriends, wives, mothers and daughters, thanks to the panoptic assumption underpinning much of the gender debate in this country — a man can be shamed into decency only by the presence or mention of his own maan behn.

Read the online reviews of any popular restaurant and there will be one man after another decrying that although the food is good, the establishment is not a respectable one. “Great restaurant,” they say, “but not for ladies or children.”

Khan Baba's family hall.
Khan Baba's family hall.

Of course, you wonder how a public-facing business can be great in the first place if it is only acceptable for less than 40 per cent of the population.

Family halls allay this complaint by providing spaces where women can sit and eat in peace. The woman wearing a niqab does not need to worry about stray glances each time she takes a bite. Yes, there are some men, but they are mostly minding their own business, and women can sit, talk and feed their children in a public space. In the absence of these halls, many women would choose to stay at home or eat in the car.

On the other hand, by institutionalising the family hall, these restaurants perpetuate segregation on two levels. Even without such a space, most women would find their way towards the back of the room, in a corner away from men. The instinct to take up as little air as possible — the aspiration for invisibility — now runs deep in our blood.

However, by clearly marking spaces and shuttling off arriving women to hidden corners, these restaurants are reinforcing a divide not only between men and women, but also between men and families.

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Charray. Lads. Bachelors. The men who sit in the other hall, the main hall, smoking, laughing, looking out at the street, at the GT Road, at the sky, at the sun. These men are the restaurant’s main customer base and get prime real estate, in which they lounge alone or with friends, arriving at all odd hours and staying until the shutters close.

These are also the men that women are supposed to hide from, these loiterers who come without children or responsibilities, who do nothing but stare. By drawing rigid lines between these men and the rest of the customers, restaurants reinforce the idea that the domain of family and children is not a male one.

The untethered man is singular and independent, and until he marries a woman and fathers children, he is to remain untouched by domestic minutiae — the child crying over his spilled daal, the mother cajoling two daughters into sharing their Sprite, the ayah eating a nawala with one hand and holding an infant’s milk bottle with the other.

And what happens if a woman wants the same privilege? What if a woman, single or otherwise, doesn’t want to share an ill-ventilated basement with drooling children? What if she wants to sip her tea while watching the world go by?

"What if I want to sit here?"

At Lahore’s famous Butt Karahi, I told the waiter I wanted to sit in the main hall upstairs, from where you can get a prime view of the skinned goats lining the restaurant’s awning, their testicles hanging in bloated abeyance.

The waiter told me a few times that the women’s seating was downstairs. “What if I want to sit here?” I asked, and he told me I was welcome to. I sat and ate there, while he looked on, bemused, telling the other waiters going by, “Kehti hein yaheen khana hay.”

No one at Butt Karahi seemed offended. Families on their way downstairs gave me quick looks, enough to register their surprise, and then moved on. The waiter was courteous, asking me four times if I wanted a fresh naan.

Koozi Haleem's family hall.
Koozi Haleem's family hall.

And yet, it is only fair to mention that I was with my husband — the presence of a man allowing me, as it does, to chip away at the patriarchy. After several such encounters at restaurants, where no one seemed to mind but everyone seemed to notice, I felt myself getting exhausted.

Technically, a woman is allowed the privilege of sitting where the men sit, but there comes a point when you don’t want your mutton karahi tasting like rebellion.

Moral panics

As dining trends in Pakistan continue to evolve, as more and more women travel and eat out alone or with other women, restaurants will have to become more inclusive, if not for the sake of social change then in the service of higher profits.

Of course, these places can hardly reduce social barriers by themselves. For as long as there have been restaurants serving the middle-class, there have been people thronging the cash counter, taking orders to-go in thin plastic bags wound into tight knots, to be opened at home and eaten in private.

There have always been rows of cars in front of these restaurants, in which people sit leaning over metal trays, finishing their halwa puri in peace, away from the masses. Ours is an intensely private culture, and a patently classist one.

People often prefer to eat at home, where their domestic help eats standing up in the kitchen, on plates that bear a different design. If we do go outside, we want to eat with others like us. “Udhar bethne ka koi haal naheen,” we say. “Har tarah ke log hotay hein,” we say.

Explore: A road trip with my mother where women 'cannot go alone'

The profound irony is that ours is a culture built on interpersonal dependence. We rely on people around us to do incredibly intimate chores for us. Pakistanis are more than okay with ayahs feeding their precious babies, chachas making their food, the dhobi washing their soiled underwear.

Yet, when it comes to sharing a table with others, most of us prefer the clumsy meal in the car or the reheated nihari at the dining table, because the alternative would be to sit with someone who is not like us.

What have you noticed during your movement in Pakistani public spaces? Share your insights with us at


Author Image

Dur e Aziz Amna is a writer based in Rawalpindi and New York. Her work has appeared in The News, Roads & Kingdoms, Longreads, and The London Magazine, among others. She is currently working on her first novel.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (58) Closed

Mar 07, 2019 05:25pm
Women have to sit in family halls because our men are shameless and stare at them. Desperate men with their desperate eyes: it is embarrassing to see how our men behave and the way they stare at women.
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Fawad Ali
Mar 07, 2019 05:26pm
The family halls are only for those who want to eat at these famous places but want to eat at a separate hall. I think the open spaces are not restricted for females but its the duty of a waiter to tell the customer about the family hall. Here in Islamabad, I saw at many places the females are seating in open spaces among the male crowd for their dinning. Once I was with my family and during leaving the famous eatery I heard the girls talking to each other that there is no space in the family hall and let's go back we will visit later. One of them told why not to eat in the main hall the other responded No we will come later. So I think it depends on people and their choice. You can eat everywhere no one will force you but I think due to our culture these separate halls were allocated. For the Hotel owner it doesn't matter that you are with your sister/brother or girl/boyfriend but if you have a female then they will show the way to Family Hall. For them at that time you are a family.
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Mar 07, 2019 05:35pm
If u watch any youtube food videos shot in Pakistan. Almost no women are seen eating at road side eateries and restaurants. Why have the women been confined to their homes?
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Mar 07, 2019 05:40pm
I think everyone is like this :The profound irony is that ours is a culture built on interpersonal dependence. We rely on people around us to do incredibly intimate chores for us. Pakistanis are more than okay with ayahs feeding their precious babies, chachas making their food, the dhobi washing their soiled underwear. Yet, when it comes to sharing a table with others, most of us prefer the clumsy meal in the car or the reheated nihari at the dining table, because the alternative would be to sit with someone who is not like us. :
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Mar 07, 2019 05:42pm
"employing Motorway speed and GT Road recklessness." Love this analogy
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Mar 07, 2019 06:16pm
Why not, my wife feels more safe in family environment
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Mar 07, 2019 06:22pm
The whole thing struck me as a queer new idea at first. How can we do without family halls? How can WE allow women to be among us? Won't they complain considering we are us? And then the very idea of family hall seemed like a warning sign which read "Beware the men, ladies!"
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Tahir Mahmood
Mar 07, 2019 06:26pm
An interesting read depicting subtle intricacies of Pakistani society, without looking down upon any particular aspect of society. Writer has shown maturity, well traveled experience and grasp over story.
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Mar 07, 2019 06:45pm
The title should read “Why men are raised in a manner where women are forced to sit in family halls in restaurants?”
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Mar 07, 2019 07:10pm
@Shah, absolutely right.
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Zeeshan Ahmed
Mar 07, 2019 07:44pm
For the same reason single men can;t sit in the family halls.
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Mar 07, 2019 08:36pm
@shah. Agree
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Mar 07, 2019 08:38pm
Things are not much different in 2019 in the USA. where indian restaurants are buzzing with people (of all ages /male & Female) with out any "family Hall" area. On the other side majority of Pakistani restaurants are totally empty. One wonders how are they staying afloat if there is no one in side. this is where the trick happens, Pakistani people bring the Pakistani mentality with them where ever they go, majority of the business in Pakistani restaurants is "Takeaway" because families (ladies) dont feel comfortable eating out. so the phone rings constantly to place orders and some bhai or chahca will come to pick up the food.
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Mar 07, 2019 08:50pm
This is very interesting observation and insight. Thank you.
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Mar 07, 2019 09:05pm
It is a backward cultural thing....
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Gordon D Walker
Mar 07, 2019 09:10pm
Revolutionary and progressive views Gordon D Walker Canada
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Chunnu Mian
Mar 07, 2019 09:25pm
Very interesting piece. The observation along GT Road is particularly valuable. But it has another dimension also. After the construction of Motorway M 2, there appears to be a segregation of commoners from affluent. Eateries along the motorway do not reflect the same tradition of 'family halls' to that strictness as rightly observed on GT Road.
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Syed A. Mateen
Mar 07, 2019 09:38pm
When people are going out for dining they should sit on one table so that they should enjoy the food while sitting together as a family. It is our tradition and also part of culture. It also gives an opportunity for family members to put their cell phones in their pockets and interact with each other humanly which is not see often while people take food at their residences on individual basis and mostly children avoid to sit with their parents while fully concentrating to read WhatsApp, SMS messages and also browsing during dining. Family halls in the restaurants are helping families to remain intact with each other and are symbols of family bond.
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St. Mercury
Mar 07, 2019 09:54pm
Culture is stuck in the stone age when it comes to women.
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Mar 07, 2019 10:21pm
Nice article. Last 2 paragraphs are the best part of it.
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Sara Anwar
Mar 07, 2019 10:25pm
Every society has its norms, values, and culture. I think if a few restaurants are giving choice to its patrons to sit in the family hall, Why this idea is queer for others. we are living in a patriarch society, where unmarried girls tend to go to restaurants with their male family members. they prefer to take their women in the segregated eatery. having a separate family hall in the restaurant, these girls can have some family fun time. Everyone cannot enjoy that freedom you can have.
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Mar 07, 2019 10:55pm
It all about safety of the women. But it also means our society is not yet safe for women as compared to the other world.
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Mar 07, 2019 11:29pm
You really want to hear the truth... because we are civlised only under perfect conditions.
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Mar 07, 2019 11:31pm
@Faisal, That was the question, what is your answer!
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Fawad Ali
Mar 07, 2019 11:39pm
@Faisal, Visit Islamabad F-7, F-10 and F-11 Markaz you will see them eating at open spaces.
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Mar 08, 2019 12:44am
We can make a women only hall if you like?
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Mar 08, 2019 01:09am
You seems to be irritated in sitting with families, well you are welcome to sit among all men spaces so easily available in most hotels. Family halls can even be found in Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai too. Go and see.
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Dilshad NASRIN
Mar 08, 2019 02:00am
This is an eye-opener. Women in India never have to face this and are free to enjoy dining out the same way men do. Goes to show how we take some basic freedoms for granted when parts of the world so close to us (in geographical terms) don't have them.
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Mar 08, 2019 02:04am
@Asim, Have you ever been to USA?
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Sardar Balwinder
Mar 08, 2019 03:07am
Time to modernize and treat women with respect and equality.
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Imran Khan
Mar 08, 2019 05:30am
The Truth never toush befre or writen about...good article, next time i visit any palce like this i will sit in main hall with my wife and daughters..
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Shabbir Afridi
Mar 08, 2019 05:46am
@Asim, In Sydney, Student Biryani is doing wonders.
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Mar 08, 2019 06:15am
As a male, I am also not allowed to sit in the family hall.
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Mar 08, 2019 06:33am
It is not about why women have to sit in the family hall. It is about where these hotels are... if these hotel were in a posh area, I can bet there would not be any family halls, likewise KFC and McDonalds... double standard exists everywhere in our society.
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Sadia Khalil
Mar 08, 2019 06:42am
I was amused to find that "Khan Baba BBQ" restaurant in Chicago also has a family hall, though I have never sat there when I went with my female friends or with my husband. Otherwise, we have to miss the view of the kitchen and fun of watching people walking outside on the street.
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Mar 08, 2019 07:25am
@Sardar Balwinder, saradar g equality in every case with every person I think it itself would be injustice
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Mar 08, 2019 08:24am
@Shah, So what! Let them stare! They will eventually stop staring once it becomes common place.
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S. Sharma
Mar 08, 2019 08:26am
@Sadia Khalil, I have been to Khan BBQ (not Baba) many times, and though there is a separate area of the main room, it is not closed off, and it is not in the basement or upstairs. There are windows and light and the waiters are very attentive. Also, nobody makes you sit there, you have a choice. Many women sit in the main hall.
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Mar 08, 2019 08:31am
As you have discovered, women do NOT have to sit in family halls - they can sit wherever they want - they need only ask! So ladies - start asking to sit wherever you want to sit.
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Mar 08, 2019 09:28am
I think if you have never travelled outside your society, you may not even realize that you are being treated differently. I think when you are in Rome act like an Roman should explain the situation. If every society behaved in the same manner, what will be the fun travelling to different countries. Enjoying and appreciating the local custom and the culture is part of learning we get when traveling to foreign location.
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Tanveer Ahmed
Mar 08, 2019 09:34am
A very brilliant article! The men will stop staring when there will be less segregation and not a rare phenomena to see females. I find it amazing that East Asian males (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans etc.) do not behave in this manner i.e. staring at women folk. I was born and raised in Hong Kong and my mother and other Pakistani ladies were comfortable dealing with male Chinese shop keepers but would immediately draw their dupattas as soon as they saw even a stranger Pakistani/Indian man!
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Mar 08, 2019 09:50am
The writer has mentioned only those outfits where a certain class with a conservative mindset comes to eat. What about the majority of restaurants in large cities where there are no family halls?
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Mar 08, 2019 10:50am
@Shah, most men behave the same throughout the world. Lets not stereotype
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Mar 08, 2019 11:19am
Interesting article but What is a family hall. Specially in a restaurant. Please explain for the outsiders.
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Mar 08, 2019 12:41pm
why no one is looking at it from other perspective! no one is forcing anyone to take the family hall, people can sit for dining wherever they wish. it's just that women are more respected in the society. Males will sit and eat on the side of footpaths or even at sitting arrangments near manholes without raising complain. but, they always wish to provide the royal protocol to their women even if they have to sacrifice some time to take delivery from distant restaurant or drive to some distant restaurant with decent sitting arrangements.
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Ali Raza
Mar 08, 2019 02:16pm
Whether I agree with your school of thought or not is another thing, i was impressed by the way you describe situations :) kudos
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Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad
Mar 08, 2019 02:35pm
In fact, centuries old sociocultural values and religious stipulations, norms, customs, traditions and practices can't be changed in a hurry.
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Mar 08, 2019 02:48pm
It is a facility. Use it. Why do you want to mingle with men? As a man, I would prefer women sat separately. I don't want to mingle with them.
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Mar 08, 2019 02:55pm
If someone provides a separate place for females, what is wrong in it. The society is backward because our thinking is backward and our education system is backward.
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Mar 08, 2019 03:33pm
@Analyst, I’m sorry but I think you’ve got it the other way around. The majority wats at these joints and the minority in places you mentioned.
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Raja S
Mar 08, 2019 03:54pm
@Shah, Agree with you 100% and yes those are the main reasons why women are secondary or non existent in public.
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Mar 08, 2019 06:58pm
@Asad, I have actually lived, worked, studied and travelled to several countries and can tell you it is not normal for men to stair at women in countries like: Germany, Norway, Canada, The Nederlands, Singapore, Turkey....and so on. Ive had women complaining about it in Egypt and Malaysia. But it is on a whole different level in Pakistan.
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Jamil Soomro, New York City
Mar 08, 2019 08:04pm
@Shah, I fully agree with you.
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Mar 08, 2019 09:29pm
Many well known places have done away with them, particularly in Defence and Clifton area, I don't know about others
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Mar 08, 2019 11:16pm
India is pretty backward too when it comes to status of women in society, but this family hall concept really takes the cake. I live in the US and when I last visited a gym in India, I was surprised that men and women have different hours. Hope that kind of silliness also goes away eventualy. We should not be a paranoid culture where men can't behave and find it awkward to be in the presence of a woman
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Mar 09, 2019 02:06am
I think family halls are a good place for women & their families to remain comfortable consideri g our current social setup. Societies evolve in decade in centuries. If one tries to change it upside down just because they dont like it, the result will be chaos.
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Mar 09, 2019 07:10pm
@Naveed, why not change the so called social setup and make things more equitable?
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Mar 09, 2019 08:21pm
@Asim, so true i have seen the same abroad
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