Deep inside Old Lahore, among uneven streets that wrap around each other like intestines, lies Abkari Road. Here, Anarkali meets Urdu Bazaar – storefronts selling wholesale printing paper line one end of the street and nearby lies the old office of Paisa Akhbar, a widely popular newspaper from the colonial period.

Near Anarkali, the mustache-wielding, garbage-heaping, vat-stewing, tea-brewing heart of Lahore, sits Waris Nihari. Disembark from your rickshaw and walk up to the unassuming storefront, keeping an eye out for the alpha waiter to get the best seating available.

It is a humble establishment, but if you are a group of men that promises several orders, they might line up a few chairs in the front and you can have one of Lahore’s greatest gifts al fresco, under a smog-filled sky.

Oh, wait. He sees you are a woman, even though you try, as you must, to hide that. Come on now, upstairs: “Family hall upar hay.”

Eating out and respectability

For as long as I can remember, family halls have been a mainstay of restaurant dining in Punjab. Here, I am referring to the places where most of Punjab dines and not obscure, soulless establishments in Bahria or Defence that social media would have us believe have stolen the show.

On family trips that took us from Pindi to Lahore, or Pindi to Multan, we stopped at GT Road restaurants churning out greasy mainstays of Punjabi cuisine, and we always sat in the family halls.

Buses also pulled up at these restaurants – the motorway and its homogenised rest areas were not yet popular. These were the years before Daewoo came along and everyone who could afford the service collectively decided that it was the only respectable option for domestic travel.

Going further back, Malik Tanvir, 59, of Talagang, remembers a time when the GT Road had few restaurants. “You drove for hours searching for a proper place to sit,” he says. People left home with food in their hands – the middle class had stainless steel tiffins, the workingman had his potli.

During the 1970s, Pakistan saw largescale emigration for the first time, bringing along with it a wealth of remittances. Dining out became a more popular phenomenon, both in major cities and on the highways between them.

There are restaurants in Lahore and Karachi that are so old they are part of folklore, but largescale dining out for men, women and families gained momentum only in the 1970s and 1980s.

During the same years, Pakistan was also deciding on a path of ostentatious, declarative religiosity that it has been throttling down ever since, employing motorway speed and GT Road recklessness.

Even as a changing economy insisted on more women in public spaces, General Ziaul Haq’s Islamist regime was ensuring they be seen as little as possible. Restaurants wanted to get customers but also had to cement their reputation as respectable establishments. Into this delicate balance between the worship of God and capital entered the family hall.

Phajja Paye's family hall. Photo credit: Dur e Aziz Amna
Phajja Paye's family hall. Photo credit: Dur e Aziz Amna

Today, these halls are a necessary investment for any restaurant hoping to do good business with the middle class. They are permanent fixtures across major cities and come in all shapes and forms.

Waris Nihari wanted me to sit in a tiny room reminiscent of a half-finished attic. Koozi Haleem near the Secretariat in Lahore has a large, windowless basement 10 feet from the main restaurant.

A small biryani restaurant in Rawalpindi’s Lalkurti said they could draw a dark curtain around one of the tables, shielding me from men – as well as light and air. In these restaurants, the family hall appears as an afterthought, an obligatory hideaway on the off chance a woman wanders in.

On the other hand, Khan Baba and Phajja Siri Paye in Lahore have sprawling rooms, painted fresh white and wallpapered, where families arrive in hordes each weekend. Attentive waiters mill about replenishing naan, juggling plates of raita, and turning away any men without families.

These differences can be usually, if not always, explained by laws of demand and supply – how well the business does and what kind of crowd it caters to.

A place for men and a place for women

I wouldn’t say the term “family hall” is a misnomer because its intention of equating women and family is inescapable. However, it can seem misleading at face value because no matter whether a woman arrives with a group of friends, with her male partner, or alone, she is immediately rushed to the family hall.

I travelled to all these places with my husband and we have no children, yet each time we were pointed to the basement or to the staircase. We saw a man and his adolescent sister be herded to the family hall and we saw a family of two men and a young boy be turned away.

The family hall is not about children or families but about women. Yet, it is categorically not the woman’s hall, in that it does not belong to women.

Men can come and sit with their girlfriends, wives, mothers and daughters, thanks to the panoptic assumption underpinning much of the gender debate in this country – a man can be shamed into decency only by the presence or mention of his own “maa behn”, mother and sister.

Read the online reviews of any popular restaurant and there will be one man after another decrying that although the food is good, the establishment is not a respectable one. “Great restaurant,” they say, “but not for ladies or children.”

Of course, you wonder how a public-facing business can be great in the first place if it is only acceptable for less than 40% of the population.

Family halls allay this complaint by providing spaces where women can sit and eat in peace. The woman wearing a niqab does not need to worry about stray glances each time she takes a bite. Yes, there are some men but they are mostly minding their own business, and women can sit, talk and feed their children in a public space. In the absence of these halls, many women would choose to stay at home or eat in the car.

On the other hand, by institutionalising the family hall, these restaurants perpetuate segregation on two levels. Even without such a space, most women would find their way towards the back of the room, in a corner away from men. The instinct to take up as little air as possible – the aspiration for invisibility – now runs deep in our blood.

However, by clearly marking spaces and shuttling off arriving women to hidden corners, these restaurants are reinforcing a divide not only between men and women, but also between men and families.

Charray. Lads. Bachelors. The men who sit in the other hall, the main hall, smoking, laughing, looking out at the street, at the GT Road, at the sky, at the sun. These men are the restaurant’s main customer base and get prime real estate, in which they lounge alone or with friends, arriving at all odd hours and staying until the shutters close.

These are also the men that women are supposed to hide from, these loiterers who come without children or responsibilities, who do nothing but stare. By drawing rigid lines between these men and the rest of the customers, restaurants reinforce the idea that the domain of family and children is not a male one.

The untethered man is singular and independent, and until he marries a woman and fathers children, he is to remain untouched by domestic minutiae – the child crying over his spilled daal, the mother cajoling two daughters into sharing their Sprite, the ayah eating a morsel with one hand and holding an infant’s milk bottle with the other.

And what happens if a woman wants the same privilege? What if a woman, single or otherwise, does not want to share an ill-ventilated basement with drooling children? What if she wants to sip her tea while watching the world go by?

‘What if I want to sit here?’

At Lahore’s famous Butt Karahi, I told the waiter I wanted to sit in the main hall upstairs, from where you can get a prime view of the skinned goats lining the restaurant’s awning, their testicles hanging in bloated abeyance.

The waiter told me a few times that the women’s seating was downstairs. “What if I want to sit here?” I asked, and he told me I was welcome to. I sat and ate there, while he looked on, bemused, telling the other waiters going by, “Kehti hain yaheen khana hay.” She says she will eat here.

No one at Butt Karahi seemed offended. Families on their way downstairs gave me quick looks, enough to register their surprise, and then moved on. The waiter was courteous, asking me four times if I wanted a fresh naan.

Koozi Haleem's family hall. Photo credit: Dur e Aziz Amna
Koozi Haleem's family hall. Photo credit: Dur e Aziz Amna

And yet, it is only fair to mention that I was with my husband – the presence of a man allowing me, as it does, to chip away at the patriarchy. After several such encounters at restaurants, where no one seemed to mind but everyone seemed to notice, I felt myself getting exhausted.

Technically, a woman is allowed the privilege of sitting where the men sit, but there comes a point when you do not want your mutton karahi tasting like rebellion.

Moral panics

As dining trends in Pakistan continue to evolve, as more and more women travel and eat out alone or with other women, restaurants will have to become more inclusive, if not for the sake of social change then in the service of higher profits.

Of course, these places can hardly reduce social barriers by themselves. For as long as there have been restaurants serving the middle class, there have been people thronging the cash counter, taking orders to go in thin plastic bags wound into tight knots, to be opened at home and eaten in private.

There have always been rows of cars in front of these restaurants, in which people sit leaning over metal trays, finishing their halwa puri in peace, away from the masses. Ours is an intensely private culture, and a patently classist one.

People often prefer to eat at home, where their domestic help eats standing up in the kitchen, on plates that bear a different design. If we do go outside, we want to eat with others like us. “Udhar bethne ka koi haal naheen,” we say. “Har tarah ke log hotay hein,” we say.

The profound irony is that ours is a culture built on interpersonal dependence. We rely on people around us to do incredibly intimate chores for us. Pakistanis are more than okay with ayahs feeding their precious babies, chachas making their food, the dhobi washing their soiled underwear.

Yet, when it comes to sharing a table with others, most of us prefer the clumsy meal in the car or the reheated nihari at the dining table, because the alternative would be to sit with someone who is not like us.

This article first appeared on Dawn.