By Zoya Anwer
Surrounded by shops selling spades and buckets for beachgoers on Mauripur Road, a centre belonging to the Women Development Foundation Pakistan (WDFP) has now become a meeting spot for many local women who want a safe space for themselves.
With the ground floor used as a training centre for women who want to learn different skills to support themselves, the upper portion is now being run as a dhaba with the traditional Takhts (benches) and chairs.
Celebrating National Women’s Day that falls on February 12, WDFP and the Aurat Foundation organised a small sitting at the dhaba on Tuesday for social activists to speak about their struggles and respective journeys.
The day is commemorated to honour the struggle of the female activists who had organised a peaceful protest in 1983 to challenge the laws passed by former dictator Ziaul Haq and were beaten up by police as a result.
Sabiha Shah, an activist and chairperson of the WDFP, started working on the space more than a decade ago to help women become entrepreneurs, or enable them to work from home because many families do not prefer women going out to work.
However, times have changed and although the dhaba was inaugurated in August last year, it was only recently that the residents of Mauripur got accustomed to the idea.
“There have been movements regarding women reclaiming public spaces but we have seen that women who own this idea belong to a certain segment of society,” said project manager Areeba Wajid.
“Over here women don’t feel comfortable outside their own homes, let alone at shops dominated by men. Thankfully, this trend is changing as young women drop in [at the dhaba] every day.”
She added that their Community Peace & Harmony Centre, with the help of Karachi Youth Initiative, finally bore fruit when women of different communities and religious backgrounds stopped resenting each other.
“When women sat down to share their problems, it turned out that their issues were the same. Perhaps this made them realise the meaning of respecting and celebrating diversity.”
She pointed out that early on men were not ready to accept the dhaba and girls said their brothers would stop them. “Brothers intervene in their sisters’ issues because they’re afraid their sisters would be treated how they treat women outside their homes. But women and girls kept coming so, eventually, the men’s say diminished.”
Watching a short documentary on women’s rights movement across the world and in Pakistan, they were reminded
of times when draconian laws were passed and hindered everyone’s progress.
Addressing the attendees, Sabiha recalled her earlier days in Lyari when she used to be left behind amid rounds of bullets when violence was at its peak.
“We defied against all odds because backing down was not an option. I felt that Lyari’s women were able to brace challenges while women in other areas were a tad different.”
She then decided to cater to areas often ignored for development because of a certain stratum of society. “I can now say with pride that men who once questioned me came to me with their daughters and told me that their daughters were now my responsibility.”
Another activist, Nuzhat Shireen, said the only reason women were unable to combat the outside world was their lack of information. “Many women don’t know about domestic violence or forms of sexual harassment so they’re unable to gauge and react accordingly.”
Women are told that their own gender is their enemy, which itself is a thought deep-rooted in the patriarchal setup that has been going on for centuries, she added.
The dhaba has employed women who cook and clean for all those who want to spend a few hours in a home away from home.
“Women come with their children after they’re done with school,” said Areeba. “While the children finish their homework, women chat over tea and don’t have to worry about cleaning up, a thought that hovers on their minds when they’re at home.”
Although not a public space per se, the women feel that it would take some time to open usual dhabas on the streets in the area, but it does not mean that they want to reinforce the idea of shutting down women in closed spaces.
As Sajida and Fatima prepare lunch, Sajida’s little daughter Tabassum runs about the place as another woman brings her back, signalling that if women are given space to work with their children, many would not mind working at all.