In Pakistan, men dominate public life. There are very few occasions women can enjoy being out and about by themselves.
But there’s a place in Karachi that’s giving women the opportunity to enjoy a long-awaited cup of tea.
Our correspondent, Naeem Sahoutara visited Pakistan’s first-ever Ladies Dhaba, or Ladies Teashop.
This is Pakistan’s largest truck terminal, in West Karachi.
Relaxing between shifts the drivers are spread out on a raised platform, sipping hot tea at what’s called a dhaba, a small roadside tea shop
There are hundreds of thousands of dhabas across Pakistan. But they only serve men.
I’ve stopped to ask for directions to a newly opened women’s dhaba, but none of the men here know about it.
Just a short motorbike ride away, I find it: on a narrow street on the outskirts of Karachi.
I enter a two-story building and climb the stairs. A banner reads, “Welcome to the Ladies Dhaba.”
On the roof-top, a party is warming up.
Momal Khaskheli turns 21 today.
A group of her friends has joined to celebrate the occasion.
“This is the first time in my life that I’m celebrating my birthday with friends outside my house,” Momal told me. “Only girls are here. There are no men to stare at us or tease us, as some do in public places. This is a good place.”
More of her friends arrive wearing black burqas, full-body veils.
But once inside, they enjoy the party in their traditionally embroidered dresses.
Birthday cake is served. Some of the guests are drinking tea and playing ludo, others are taking selfies on their smart phones.
26-year-old Husan Pari is happy to have the chance to be out with friends.
“My father used to take me to parks when I was a child,” Pari recalled.
“But I’ve never been allowed to go to such places since I grew up. My brother always tells me that he goes to this park or that restaurant. But I cannot. There must be some places! So, at this dhaba, I feel safe, and I can discuss personal things with my friends that I can’t share with my family,” she confessed.
In Pakistan’s deeply religious and conservative society it’s difficult for some women to be as independent as they might like.
Once married, women often move in with their husband’s family, but it’s not always a happy situation. In such cases, it’s the wives that usually bear the brunt of family conflicts.
Women’s rights activist, Sabiha Shah is the brains behind the Ladies Dhaba. She says women need a space of their own.
“Dhaba means café,” Shah explained. “But there was not a single café where women could relax or spend some time in silence, to release the stress they might face at home. We have named and designed this place to give it the real look of a dhaba,” she said.
Shah knows what it means to struggle against the odds. She started working in 1988, setting up a uniform shop, despite disapproval from her brothers.
Now Shah is chairperson of the Women Development Foundation Pakistan, or the WDFP, the NGO that set-up the Ladies Dhaba.
She says the place is more than your regular Dhaba.
“At this Dhaba, we’ve also made a small library and internet café. We give the women an opportunity to fully live their lives. Because it will re-double their energy, with more energy they can do well,” Shah said.
Success in her own business led her to work on women’s empowerment through micro entrepreneurship.
She has now trained more than 3,000 women – including her 3 younger sisters – to set up their own small businesses.
And this latest venture – The Ladies Dhaba – is capturing the imagination of women across Pakistan.
“Ever since media reports about the Ladies Dhaba, I’ve had a number of requests, coming from poor as well as rich women, to open such dhabas in their towns or cities. Many requests are coming from different cities.”
Shah hopes to find the support to establish similar cafes around the country.