Three days after Behanchara Diaries released the first episode of their podcast in March, they received a rather surprising tweet. It was from a Kashmir-based woman. The tweet included a link to the episode, a photograph of a group of smiling women, and the fact that they “met in a park next to a military camp to listen to the podcast”.

It was the kind of feedback that reaffirmed why the the podcast needed to exist – to bring desi feminists together so they could share their stories. “That was so heartening and really helped shape what we’re doing,” said Safieh Shah, the founder of the podcast.

Shah, a Karachi-based decolonial scientist, founded Behanchara Diaries after returning to Pakistan and joining the Girls at Dhabas collective last year, a forum where women and gender non-conforming individuals reclaim public spaces in Pakistan. “Growing up, I was often the only woman among my peers pushing to be in more male-dominated spaces, and had to go through many of these experiences alone,” she said. “When I came back, it was heartening to see that younger women were coming together in ways I couldn’t earlier. The podcast is a way to further feminism through women taking control of their own narrative, telling our own experiences and stories, something I wish I had when I was younger.”

Currently on its fourth episode, Behanchara Diaries is the first-of-its-kind women-driven Pakistani platform that explores feminism, intersectionality, the politics of public spaces and more.

Behanchara Diaries artwork.
Behanchara Diaries artwork.

At a moment when the internet has spawned new-age interpretations of feminism, quick hashtags and catchphrases like feminazi, the podcast is also an attempt to carve out an alternative space, particularly from a South Asian perspective.

“In order to truly understand something, you need to take out time,” said Zehra Naqvi, a documentary filmmaker who edits Behanchara Diaries’ episodes. “Podcasts are about listening to different voices, multiple views and forming an opinion. It gives nuance to the catchphrases you come across online.”

Crossover appeal

When Shah says that Behanchara Diaries is an extension of Girls at Dhabas, she is right – using pseudonyms like Pop Culture Diva, PindZlee, Slovenly Academic and Smol Girl, the women from Girls at Dhabas frequently feature in the episodes of Behanchara, discussing – in a mix of Hindi/Urdu and English – everything from gender-driven segregation of spaces, being a woman behind the wheel, and what it means to be a “bad girl”.

The first episode opens with a definition of intersectionality, and delves into how loitering becomes a political act for a woman. The narrator, speaking about the semester she spent in the US, says her best experience was feeling invisible on the streets – safe in the feeling that she wasn’t being scrutinised as a woman. It’s something most South Asian women that have ever experienced a culture apart from their own can relate to.

Reclaiming Karachi's streets. Photo courtesy: Girls at Dhabas.
Reclaiming Karachi's streets. Photo courtesy: Girls at Dhabas.

These experiences also unite the two women behind the show – Shah left Karachi in 2009 to complete her Masters from Edinburgh and travelled widely thereafter, while Naqvi studied in London. “My art degree included filmmaking so I would roam around in London with my camera, talking to people and documenting their experiences,” said Naqvi. “This was something I had never done in Karachi. Going abroad and having these conversations helped me understand the social dynamics that are often invisible, and find ways to subvert them. After coming back to Karachi, my friend and I began getting out early in the morning, walking around with our cameras. It was taking ownership and feeling empowered instead of uncomfortable or scared.”

The episodes also include snippets of music, poems and books by South Asian women. In the episode about loitering, Smol Girl reads out an excerpt from her book, Good and Bad Reasons to Be Out of the House While Female:

“Nothing but an authentic philosophical quest should tempt a woman out of her char diwari, you’d better be trying to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything at the bottom of that chai ki pyali...” 

Another episode includes the Sifarish song, a tongue-in-cheek track that weaves in samples from a bitter Pakistani man’s rant accusing Slowspin – a local electronica musician – of winning a music award only because of her contacts in the industry. The track played by PindZlee, was by Zahra Paracha and Natasha Noorani, two of the co-founders of the annual Lahore Music Meet. “We try and play around with the music to create a different experience, to keep it refreshing,” said Naqvi. “The conversations dictate the form the podcast or music will take.”

Owning your culture

While Behanchara Diaries attempts to equip women with greater agency over their actions, it also serves as a platform for self-reflection and critique. In one of the episodes, Slovenly Academic and Sad Khatra discuss a women’s-only bike rally, and the criticism they received from older feminists – that they were elite girls, and there were much bigger fights to fight. “People don’t mean to criticise,” said Shah. “They end up forgetting that movements grow and evolve because of talking and discussing and acts of resistance. It’s important to engage each other inter-generationally.”

The podcast currently streams on Patari, Pakistan’s biggest music streaming service, but the founders are in the process of launching the episodes on Soundcloud, so the conversations can move outside Pakistan and be accessed by desi feminists everywhere. The creators are making a strong effort to discard the mainstream white-feminist narrative, and forge their own experiences as South Asian women. “I’ve experienced a lot of institutional racism as a woman of colour,” Shah admitted. “I’ve worked with people of colour and Muslims from war-affected areas and we all relied heavily on each other for validation, emotional comfort and to express things we could not at work or even to white partners or friends.”

Behan(chai)chara corner in Lahore. Photo courtesy: Girls at Dhabas.
Behan(chai)chara corner in Lahore. Photo courtesy: Girls at Dhabas.

Given the podcast’s Do-It-Yourself format, Shah and Naqvi want to reach out to more women, even outside Pakistan, who can record their experiences and be featured on Behanchara Diaries, because change-inducing narratives are not one-size-fits-all. “Making this podcast is political… it’s creating conversations by putting out the voices of so many women,” said Naqvi. “There is no need to limit your politics and feminism to conventional forms.”