On days I want to sit alone under the open sky, my feet bring me to tree dhaba. I am not sure who gave it that name but it is impossible to think it could be called anything else. That giant tree in the corner, marking the street with its quiet majesty. How the city softens around it, offering a sanctuary of familiarity: the bright yellow and orange chairs, the sea of men talking, unwinding. Their animated conversations, the yapping crows, the wind eclipsing the distant din of traffic. The khokha, or makeshift kiosk, past the empty plot. The stray cats and the quirky cups, changing each season. The chaiwallas with their “where-have-you-been” warmth. My spot under the tree. During the day, a breeze filters from the leaves overhead, at night the tube lights fixed on its branches keep a generous vigil, making the dark less daunting. And then the smell from Iqbal’s station right next to me, the assuring scent of chai wafting over whenever someone orders – yells – for another cup of chai.
Over time the dhaba walas have become a bit more used to the odd sight of a girl sitting by herself, sometimes reading a book, sometimes doing nothing, usually smoking a joint. No one minds if I smoke up here, but my attachment to tree dhaba goes beyond its tolerance for illegal habits. It is among a handful of places that make Karachi feel home. This is where I found my people after moving back, where so many friendships were forged over long nights of hashish-fuelled conversation and laughter. Where I fell in love with someone over too many cups of chai. Where other women and I started gathering often, drawn by the joy of existing together in a public space, spending hours discussing feminist politics, our daily troubles and affairs. Where I found myself returning again and again, relishing afternoons of easy solitude, soaking in the thrum of the city. Feeling like I too could belong to Karachi.
My body had always navigated Karachi through could-nots: growing up, I could not, like my brother, play with the neighbourhood kids, all boys. I could not step outside unsupervised or without a dupatta. And I certainly could not linger on the streets too long. So many strictures of my girlhood, from buying pads in brown paper bags to mother reminding me to adjust my kameez and follow briskly behind her, were coded with the same lesson: the streets are no place for women.
How angry my father was when I ambled off without telling anyone, that one night after a family dinner. I was 10 or 11 years old, and drawn by the lights of an adjoining street. For 15 minutes they thought I had been kidnapped. How my father’s eyes filled with fire and mine with shame. What had I been thinking, giving them a heart attack like that? What if something had happened?
This “something might happen” shadows women our whole lives. At the time I did not understand it completely, but guessed it was related to the terror and clamminess I felt when an old man flashed me outside school, when a shopkeeper groped me beneath the dupatta he was helping me try on, when men’s gazes generally made me squirm under their weight. My father did not have to explain his fury, I knew it was justified, rooted in his desire to protect me from such unspeakable things. My body was a dirty, dirty thing which needed protection. I hated the city for making it so visible.
My family’s repeated concern for my safety, manifest in their surveillance of my clothes and movements, taught me to take precautions myself. Even before I hit puberty I was happily policing myself, deferring to my mother’s wisdom of what I should or should not wear outside. If I stepped out, I respectfully covered myself in a large chaadar and rushed back home as quickly as possible. Most of the time, I preferred that my father or brother shuttle me around in their car. Commuting alone was a nightmare. I was not familiar with the roads and neighbourhoods, and the city felt frightening, teeming with strange, suspicious men. Sometimes my fear confused me because it was making me mistrust my own body. I became a tight ball of trepidation in public spaces, expecting “something to happen”, shrinking myself so I did not invite trouble.
It never occurred to me that I could inhabit the city with something other than fear. That my body was not actually a time bomb, threatening to explode my family’s honour. That there was power in moving through public spaces uninhibited, untethered, that this was a privilege I could claim. It took living in other countries to learn that I had been conforming to a clever scam my whole life, thinking the city belonged only to men. In each place I studied and travelled – America, Nepal, Morocco – I marvelled at the streets: women were everywhere in them, part of the everyday landscape.
When I moved back to Karachi after four years, I asked my father if I could go down for chai. I regretted the question as soon as it was out of my mouth. He said no and laughed a mean laugh. I should have intuited his response – what made me think anything would be different? Only my body had changed, carrying the memory of spaces where it had existed differently. Known the carefree joys of wandering outside, in streets that held bodies like mine. Felt the rush of pleasure, the meditative calm of encountering a city with all my senses. Discovered that mapping a city with my feet could undo my fear of it, discovered how much I loved walking. It seemed ridiculous that I had failed to do any of this in Karachi. Everything I had previously accepted as part of its social design now appeared to me as a glaring conspiracy that kept me from constructing any kind of relationship with my city. My father’s disapproval was part of the same order, so when he shook his head I acquiesced, because this was the life I knew. Where I stayed within boundaries in order to keep peace. But really, I understood that I had to be differently careful, so when he left for namaz, I went to the dhaba anyway.
It was a slow, measured process, building up my comfort with Karachi. Perhaps it began with accompanied excursions into the wild Khayabans, in the shadow of my brother and male friends, attaching myself to the world they inhabited at night. All these different kinds of boys smoking and laughing into the late hours as if this had always been how days ended: a night emptied of women, as men took over the streets, roaming aimlessly, smoking, drinking, summoning this friend or that, doing whatever they pleased. All the while I sat quietly on edge, the only girl in their company. Eyes in wonder that Karachi too could be experienced like this.
In other cities it had been easy, automatic, but here I had to make an effort. Curating my excuses for my parents’ comfort, I committed to going out alone and learning the city from scratch. Part of me couldn’t help it: it was second nature to me now, the desire to dissolve into a city’s pulse. There was, of course, still the list of could-nots. The items had changed but the message had not: now my mother told me I could not just go loitering around Bahadurabad, could not be seen with boys at night, could not be caught smoking at a khokha, could not show so much skin outside. Once an aunt reported my disreputable habits to my mother. Though frantic with worry, my mother was more concerned about keeping the information from my father. I did not care as much.
In those early days of unaccountability, I was undergoing a quiet shift. You could see it in my stride, in the steadiness of my gaze. Internally, my whole body was experiencing a release I had never believed could be routine in Karachi. It was the everyday things mostly. Taking rickshaws and Bykeas at whim, knowing I would not get lost, sitting by Sea View at night, the wretched sea so beautiful and shining, the delight of snaking through a new neighbourhood to find a hole-in-the wall dhaba with fantastic chai, heading to the park at sunrise because I could. The city was falling into place and I did not cower so much before it, finding that it was possible, even here, for my body to feel free.
Of course there were other things that helped. Girls at Dhabas, the feminist collective which some friends and I started to encourage women to step outside more, to think about their relationship with the city. We collected submissions – photographs and narratives – archiving the multitude of ways women could carve everyday pleasure from public spaces, sitting at dhabas, taking a stroll, climbing a tree. The collective was born out of the daily frustrations we experienced as middle-upper class women who were forced to move from one box to another, who couldn’t go out alone without good reason. Frustrations which I found mapped and explained back to me in the book Why Loiter?, a case study of women in Mumbai’s public spaces. It gave language to everything I had been thinking about. It forced me to think about the violence I had experienced at home, in private spaces, which was far greater than anything I had been subjected to on the streets. It made me see how safety was just an argument used to reinforce the private/public binary, to police my body and sexuality. How the fear of the working class man was instilled in me, to keep me within the chaar deevari. How his exclusion, at the end of the day, was linked to mine: surveillance and gatekeeping, which largely affects poor people, was supposed to be for my benefit.
My friends and I contended these questions and began hosting meet-ups and workshops. We met at dhabas instead of coffee shops, in parks instead of someone’s house. One day, Nosh and I were out when she said that walking with another woman in Karachi made her feel like she was in a different city, somewhere in India or America. Impulsively I disagreed, then realised she was right. What we had been trying to make ordinary was still a novelty: it was so rare, still, to loiter in Karachi with another woman without intent or purpose, without worrying about the clock or having to make some excuse at home. No wonder then, the sharpness of our pleasure.
Wonder and curiosity were slowly chipping away at my fear of the city. Karachi felt less threatening, and it seemed that men weren’t always out to get me. So many turned out to be not so frightening after all. Like that one Bykea uncle who had a heart-to-heart with me about his daughter, a 10-year-old he hoped would grow up to be like me. Zakhmi Bhai, the rickshaw wala whose instant fondness for me made him pitch a crazy plan: we should drive halfway across Karachi to meet his friend Madhu, someone I was sure to love. There were trickier situations too, like the time two policemen found my brother and I smoking up, and after informing me that I was a disgrace to my gender, just before they were about to take us to the police station, the policemen relented and let us go. They sympathised with my story of smoking up to recover from heartbreak, but encouraged me to try less addictive routes.
With all its clarities and absurdities, again and again I was reminded: the city could be my friend, I could trust my body in it. Of course, there was the occasional uncle in a landcruiser trying to pick me up for sex, the annoying passerby who whistled or threw curses, but I had the ammunition of multiple cities’ exposure of creepy men, and was familiar enough with Karachi to be unfazed by these encounters. Sometimes my mood dipped for a while after my comfort was breached, but other times I responded with unprecedented fire. One night, I was sitting at Burnes Road with two friends – boys – when I felt fingers caress the back of my neck. Quite calmly I turned around. A boy younger than me sheepishly said he had been getting an insect off my skin. How dare you touch me, I screamed at him, Get out of here. And just as calmly, I resumed my conversation with my friends. I am not sure who was more surprised, them or me.
By last year, I had become quite the awaragard. Venturing out in my shorts and dhotis, smoking up anywhere, feeling the male gaze bounce off me. Who said I couldn’t walk around Karachi wearing whatever I wanted? I was reading Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s seminal novel about the boy-girl who isn’t boy or girl, the first non-binary character I encountered in literature. Orlando’s trajectory in clothes reflected much of mine. Some days I dressed more masculine because I knew people would bother me less. My short hair and skinny physique helped. Other days I presented more feminine, striding down in my sleeveless top and jhumkas. The city felt open for play, I could alter its pulse and discover new freedoms. I decided to buy a bicycle. How Karachi shifted with each vehicle. I hated cars, silencing everything and screening me off from the city. Motorbikes were electrifying, making me zoom past the city faster than I could comprehend anything. On a bicycle, I could slow down and move at my speed, noticing every taste and smell. Nothing compared to walking, of course. The city’s breath rising to meet mine with each step, the pleasure of placing one foot before another, unthinking, meditative. The trust that so long as I kept going, Karachi would keep expanding, opening up before me.
The motorbike came out of nowhere. My boyfriend and I threw all our belongings on to the ground: bag, wallet, phone, the one-litre Peshawari ice cream we had just bought. But the men had no interest in our possessions and one of them rushed towards me with a knife. My body tensed with the awareness of what was happening. He grabbed my wrist and pointed the blade at my boyfriend, asking him to stay put while he took me away. I had never seen such menace in another person’s eyes, never felt such disbelief. He called me randi – whore – and sister in the same breath, swore at my boyfriend, kicked him in the stomach, and said to me, “come quietly or I’ll slice one of you”.
I am not sure how it happened but at some point, the man turned around to call his accomplice, and his grip loosened long enough for me to heave myself away. I broke free. Not sure if the two men would follow us, we ran for our lives.
What I lost that night: two journals, one with my writing on Kathmandu, the city where I first discovered the joy and freedom of walking. My precious copy of Orlando. Letters from friends I carried close. My confidence and comfort when walking alone, my sense of safety in the city. My openness with strangers. My resilience against Karachi, which had taken so long to build up.
It is a stranger fear, the one that re-enters your body with a deeper intensity after you thought you had unlearned it, dismantled it. In the days after this incident, my body felt like someone else’s, behaving in ways I could not predict. It was not under my control. The same body that had started wearing shorts in public spaces preferred to stay indoors mostly, and take a large chaadar if it had to go outside. The same body that loved evening walks, started locking all doors, double-checking keyholes, jolting with fright when the house made the smallest noise: just a mouse in the baseboard, just the cat about her business.
That bodies carry trauma I had always known, but that cities carry it too, I am learning the hard way. It has been a year since the assault, and I am still a long way from fully recovering. The hurdle isn’t so much my own body as the reminders outside. The other day I went to tree dhaba after a while and, even though I was walking with a friend, I found myself suddenly shrinking when a motorbike came too close, when we passed a street light that seemed, in that moment, too much like the one from that night. I walked in a contained panic, caught between freezing and flight. Even though I wanted to, I did not ask my friend to stop by the newspaper stand or browse second-hand clothes on the handcart. I wanted as quickly as possible to get to my safe spot under the tree. But even that was not the same. The leaves and the lights were useless, the smells and sounds eclipsed by my fear: I kept looking towards the street, the street I had always known to be so wide and welcoming but which now felt so dark and narrow, looming with a quiet that troubled me. I could not trust what it contained, what might spring out of it. I could not ease into my body. From the chai station Iqbal asked me, “It’s been a while, where have you been?” and I shrugged, unsure of what to say, how to name this growing fear which was, once again, of a piece with the city.
Sadia Khatri is a writer based in Karachi. She has worked as a journalist at Dawn and The Kathmandu Post, and as a reportage editor with Papercuts Magazine. She is also one of the founders of the feminist collective Girls at Dhabas.
This article first appeared in Dawn.