A Space Of Her Own: Pakistan’s Ladies Dhaba

In Pakistan, men dominate public life. There are very few occasions women can enjoy being out by themselves. But now there’s a place in Karachi that’s giving women the opportunity to enjoy a long-awaited cup of tea.

At Ladies Dhaba in Karachi
At Ladies Dhaba in Karachi
Naeem Sahoutara

KARACHI At Pakistan's largest truck terminal in this city, drivers sip hot tea at a small roadside stall called a "dhaba" in between their shifts. The patrons share a common gender — only men are served at the hundreds of thousands of dhabas across Pakistan.

But just a short motorbike ride away, I find something interesting. 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 rooftop, a party is warming up. Momal Khaskheli turns 21 today. Her friends have joined her to celebrate the occasion. "This is the first time in my life that I'm celebrating my birthday with friends outside my house," Momal tells 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 full-body veils known as burqas. But once inside, they enjoy the party in traditionally embroidered dresses. Birthday cake is served. Some of the guests drink tea and play board games; others take selfies on their smartphones.

Husan Pari, 26, is happy to be out with friends. "My father used to take me to parks when I was a child," Pari recalls. "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 ... So, at this dhaba, I feel safe, and I can discuss personal things with my friends that I can't share with my family."

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. Often, wives bear the brunt of family conflicts.

Women's rights activist Sabiha Shah is the one who came up with the idea of a Ladies Dhaba. She says women need a space of their own.

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.

"Dhaba means café," Shah says. "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."

Shah knows what it means to struggle against the odds. She started working in 1988, setting up a shop that sold uniforms despite the disapproval of her brothers. Now Shah is chairperson of the Women Development Foundation Pakistan, or the WDFP, the NGO that set up the Ladies Dhaba.

"At this dhaba, we've also made a small library and internet café," she says. "We give the women an opportunity to fully live their lives. Because it will redouble their energy. With more energy they can do well."

Success in her own business led her to work on women's empowerment through entrepreneurship. She has trained more than 3,000 women — including her three younger sisters — to set up their own small businesses. The Ladies Dhaba is only the latest venture to capture 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," she says. Shah hopes to find the support to establish similar cafés across the country.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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