By: Saadia Gardezi
Saadia Gardezi – A group of Pakistani feminists is proving that used well, social media can open doors. Girls at Dhabas, or more properly #GirlsAtDhabas, is a movement advocating gender equality in the public sphere. The tea stall (dhaba) was their first territory to reclaim. The founders of the movement used the hashtag #GirlsAtDhabas on social media to draw attention to this cause. Today the “girls” are planning to open their own dhaba (#DhabaForWomen), to be run for and by women, and are crowdsourcing for funds.
The Nation spoke to the original Girls At Dhabas, Sadia Khatri and Natasha Ansari, who hail from Karachi, about their project, as well as their views on women and feminism in Pakistan. The founder of the initiative, Sadia Khatri, photographed herself at a dhaba and then uploaded the image on the Internet. The idea was that girls would go to dhabas, traditionally male-dominated spaces, and take a picture having tea to post online with the hashtag. This became so popular that women across South Asia began posting and sharing pictures to the #GirlsAtDhabas tumblr page and their story was covered widely in the local and international media. The online popularity allowed the founders of the initiative to work towards more concrete goals- like the Dhaba for Women project.
“We’re just a bunch of girls in each other’s company having fun. That might be interpreted as trivial or silly, though it is anything but,” Khatri told The Nation. “Having chai at a dhaba or loitering down the streets is an act of reclamation, of public space and of pleasure.”
The Dhaba for Women is a non-profit venture and the plan is to hire women from lower socioeconomic classes to give them a job and an open social space. The founders want to model their dhaba along the lines of any other street dhaba, not an upscale one, so that it will attract women from all classes.
Crowdsourcing is the process of getting work or funding, usually online, from a crowd of people. The goal that the girls have set is $10,000. In one month of crowd sourcing they have been able to raise $2,849. Such an activity requires mass engagement on social media.
Though they have a long way to go, Khatri and Ansari have found that the response has been generally positive to #GirlsAtDhabas. However, the response to donating to the cause has been better internationally than locally. This may have less to do with Pakistanis being anti-feminist and more to do with a resistance to adopting new technologies for money management according to Amin Shah Gilani, founder of tech start-up Payload and expert on using the Internet for money management. Gilani was of the view that Pakistan has a pretty active Twitter population, “but we’re notoriously bad at crowdfunding. If you look at some Pakistani crowdfunding sites like getfund.pk, you’ll see almost all campaigns have 0pc funding.”
Emrys Schoemaker, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching internet usage in Pakistan, said that the digital divide could be because the online payments systems in Pakistan are not widely adopted. Secondly, “the nature of the cause is such that it may be attracting funds from people for whom gender equality is a priority principle, and these people might either be from a certain class, middle or upper, or from other countries.” Locally, it is not that people are not willing to give to a good cause, but that social norms will direct donations to other more “immediate” causes.
This links up to recent research by Schoemaker himself, that suggests that there is a “digital purdah”. Women will use social media tools that make them feel “safer”. Research suggests that many women stick to Whatsapp and won’t actively use Facebook, or Instagram, as it affects their privacy. Men, who have no issues with privacy, are more active on Facebook. This segregation is compounded by the fact that there are growing numbers of cases of cybercrime against women in Pakistan. Men have been arrested for creating fake female accounts and threatening women. In this context, it makes sense that it crowdsourcing would be tougher, as women who may want to contribute to the cause will be hidden on the internet, as they are in public life.
However, despite this caveat, the story of #GirlsAtDhabas shows that there is wide scope for female empowerment through social media, even if just for a certain group of women. Khatri and Ansari have very nuanced views on the issue: “Two different women could spend the same amount of time on social media every day, and maybe one reads and learns about all these ideas that ‘empower’ her… and another spends the whole day scrolling through everyone’s news feed”, said Sadia. “So the scope for female empowerment really depends on access, language, class, so many identities really.”
The project, from its inception to its physical manifestation into a real dhaba would not have been possible without social media. Schoemaker was of the opinion that social media, especially the ability to post pictures online, will become a challenge for Pakistani society to adjust to. “Private moments can very easily be made public, just through Facebook or Instagram, whether it is behind the purdah or at a traditionally male baithak.”
As far as the claim to social media being empowering was concerned, Schoemaker said that social media, rather than challenging social norms, may also reinforce social norms. “#GirlsAtDhabas may only empower a certain Pakistani woman. It is difficult to imagine how the woman who is earning a pittance selling plastic bags to a factory owner, for example, will be ‘empowered’ by #GirlsatDhabas or social media.”
But does that need to be imagined? Feminist movements like #GirlsatDhabas cannot be a panacea of course. Aysha Raja, owner of The Last Word, a book shop where regular talks and lectures are hosted, said it would be disingenuous, and unfair to brand #GirlsAtDhabas as elitist. “No male-dominated organisation is ever held up to such scrutiny, or had their agenda dictated to them.” Raja felt that setting impossible expectations would only intimidate and derail their efforts. “These girls have clawed back valuable public space, and have the potential to become a movement. #GirlsAtDhabas have made huge strides where the legislature, men and our parents have stubbornly refused to secede ground.”
There are other examples of similar social spaces that are open to all sections of society. These include like T2F in Karachi and The Last Word in Lahore and The Dhaba for women would join the ranks. In such space Raja felt that it was not necessary to tailor the message for a particular audience, gender or socio-economic group. She said, “In fact I find that rather patronising. We achieve our diversity by reaching out to likeminded institutions, and almost always relying on their social media presence.” However, she said that it was important to recognise that language could have a schismatic effect, “but we think it is unfair and frankly impossible to police the use of one language… all we can do is ignore the purists and make liberal use of English.”
Natasha Ansari and Sadia Khatri felt that, at the least, social media had immense scope for storytelling, that can have very empowering results – especially with the speed at which things go viral these days, and the media picks up stories, their own case being an example.
Additionally, there are many examples of crowdsourcing success stories, from charities to tech start-ups, and tools at our hands like getfund.pk and Easy Paisa to make donations and payments easy. #GirlsAtDhabas can thus not just be seen as a feminist movement, but also a business model. Where people are taking the conversation about gender equality from the screen to direct interaction, as some have begun around the theme of #GirlsAtDhaba’s, it can show “how life online can lead to changes offline” as Schoemaker put it.
Though social media is important, it is only a tool being used to deliver a message of gender equality in the public space. Thus there is one thing that Sadia Khatri and Natasha Ansari told us was even more important for the #GirlsAtDhabas mission than social media:Chai!