Girls at Dhabas: Reimagining gender in public spaces in Pakistan

“My body did not know how to be outside, and there was always this fear [of being in public].” When she was in her early 20s, then journalist Sadia Khatri grew more and more frustrated with how women couldn’t develop a relationship with their city. 

What started as a few conversations of shared experiences at chai dhabas, grew into what Sadia calls an ‘ideology’ – Girls at Dhabas, which is a collective of women and non-binary individuals that seek to occupy public spaces in Pakistan in unconventional ways. Watch our interview with this young thought-leader to learn how GAD gained a following and Sadia’s personal journey. 

Sadia grew up in a middle-class household in Lea Market and Garden areas of Karachi, where she remembers commuting in Suzuki vans and rickshaws for the better part of her life. You may still find her hailing a bike through a phone app, and getting around the city on a budget.

When asked about when she began questioning gender, she remembers the vulnerable period through puberty when her body started going through changes, and her sex, as female, became gendered. “The attitude suddenly shifts in the family and you’re made aware of how you’re a sexual being.”

Unable to find a place  to direct her questions and agitations, she turned to the folks at The Second Floor (T2F), a cafe and community centre in Karachi that has become a kind of counter-cultural mecca for artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, activists, or anyone seeking a haven away from the conventional. Here, she was fortunate enough to find mentors such as T2F’s   co-founders Sabeen Mahmud, who was killed in 2015, and Zaheer Kidwai. In the interview, Sadia talks about these formative years including the time she spent on a college scholarship at Mount Holyoke College in the US, as well as the months she lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, after graduating and moving back to Karachi.

VCast Online asked the 27-year-old about was her feminism because the term is often used without appropriate context or understanding.  “In Pakistani society, there are multiple identities working together to exclude each other. So, you can’t talk about gender without talking about class and sexuality,” says Sadia. Don’t miss this part of her interview (6:20).

While some women who view Sadia’s point of view about being limited in public spaces as a consequence of her privilege, Sadia and her GAD supporters question how many of women (despite their class) are seen loitering in public for leisure? How many women roam the streets without the purpose of commuting from one place to another like men do?

To read more from this debate, follow the conversation on our Facebook page in the comments section of this video. 

Sadia is currently working on her first book, and the book she herself is reading these days is The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan.

To watch more interviews on Pakistanis who are going beyond the norm to be contributing citizens and impacting the world around them, visit our Youtube Channel.  Junaid Iqbal’s current read: “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope” by Jeanne Marie Laskas


This video was originally published on Facebook on November 29, 2018.