‘Chai-activism’: reclaiming rights to the city one cup of tea at a time

‘Chai-activism’: reclaiming rights to the city one cup of tea at a time

Naaz Rashid

During a recent trip to Bangladesh, a student from the University of Dhaka was raped close to where I was staying. There were widespread protests and the police arrested the alleged perpetrator shortly after the attack. A video of Dhaka student protests emerged on social media. The protest seemed familiar and I realised it was a Bangla rendition of the recent Chilean feminist protest El Violador en Tu Camino. It was a vivid reminder of the power of social media and the possibilities of transnational digital feminism.

@girlsatdhabas refers to a collective Instagram account run by “Desi feminists claiming public spaces on our own terms & whims” (nb ‘dhabas’ are roadside tea or food stalls in South Asia). The initiative started in 2015 and developed from a single hashtag, #girlsatdhabas, on Sadia Khatri’s Instagram account. The hashtag clearly struck a chord and subsequently evolved into a movement of sorts, ‘chai-activism’, uniting thousands of women across Pakistan, all aiming to reimagine the way urban public spaces are used (Khatri 2016). Although based principally in Pakistan, its 11,000 plus followers and participants are from across the world including the UK and the movement resonates amongst feminists across the sub-continent and the South Asian diaspora.

As well as an opportunity to examine ‘digital media as a tool for feminist practice’ (Jackson 2018: 33), the movement offers important insights into a postcolonial feminist exploration of urban sociology. Specifically, my research project addresses the issue of gendered rights to the city and how that has been mediated through social media and Instagram in particular. It considers the extent to which @girlsatdhabas can be considered as part of a ‘fourth wave’ of social media feminism, particularly given the role that social media has had in opening up spaces for younger feminist activists. Furthermore, it explores the extent to which this social media feminist activism is a form of transnational feminism.

The seminal work Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011) has inspired the  @girlsatdhabas collective (amongst others, as the editors of this Special Issue note). Its authors, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Ranade and Shilpa Khan, emphasise how women’s access to the city is heavily prescribed and that it needs to be seen to be purposeful to be acceptable; women need to be going somewhere for their visibility in public spaces to be validated. Loitering, they argue, offers radical opportunities for gendered dissent. In this respect, the very presence of young women at dhabas is seen as transgressive. These are spaces for pure loitering, for just hanging around, for people watching, where one can catch up with friends. They also tend to be frequented by men from across the class spectrum (where they engage in ‘timepass’) but rarely by any women. Although @girlsatdhabas is clearly focused on specific physical, material and spatial geographies, the collective’s digital presence has the potential to be transnational. Transnational feminism might be distinguished by the way that it focuses on intersections across nationality (including race and ethnicity), sex, gender, and class within the context of modern day imperialism and colonialism. The issue of gendered rights to the city resonates globally amongst women despite its frequent erasure in urban sociology.

But while followers are global and connections have been made with young women in countries such as Brazil, it is in South Asia, where the movement has particular appeal. Ideas about honour and izzat are embedded in societal attitudes as well as internalised by women. Interestingly, most, if not all, of the young women in the original collective have been educated outside Pakistan and it was the experience of being elsewhere which inspired the project. The organisers I spoke to told me that it was only on returning to Pakistan that the sense of suffocation of living under surveillance became manifest.

The threat of sexual violence and women’s perceived culpability through their behaviour is, however, universal as the viral ‘El Violador en Tu Camino’ attests, even if there are cultural specificities in how those narratives are manifested. Acknowledging the difference that context makes doesn’t, however, negate the possibilities for solidarities. Smaller scale differences emerge between different cities within Pakistan. Organisers told me how the experiences of @girlsatdhabas was different in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi based on ‘cultural differences’ between and within cities.

The issue of women’s right to public space is the underlying theme of @girlsatdhabas movement but it is also worth reflecting on the question of which women’s rights. The founders explicitly acknowledge the importance of their own positionality, as middle- and upper-class Pakistanis, and recognise that other gendered bodies have different experiences (Shafi 2016). Indeed, the very act of wilful loitering is arguably an act of class privilege. Moreover, their choice of the moniker ‘girls’ also highlights the difference that age makes. Young women’s visibility as ‘at risk’ reminds us of the invisibility of older women in debates about sexual violence.

The threat of sexual violence is also a classed phenomenon; it is conceived of as a specific threat directed at middle class women or women otherwise deemed to be respectable. It is not about threats to women from other backgrounds, e.g., domestic workers or sex workers. Moreover, it is the threat of such violence perpetrated by men from lower socio-economic backgrounds on ‘respectable’ women which is key. The issue is, therefore, seemingly less about women, and more about demarcating gendered class boundaries.

This resonates with narratives of sexual threat in the UK and Europe where the sexual threat of the Other emanates from the black or brown man or migrant. In these parallel but different contexts then, women fighting against sexual violence need to navigate their struggles for access to public space without reproducing problematic characterisations of Other men. One of the organisers told me how when stories were written about them in the western media, they often conformed to the narratives of brave young women throwing off the shackles of Muslim patriarchy, thus feeding into global narratives about ‘dangerous brown men’. Another organiser told me about her experience of being followed in a car by a man from an upper-class background. The man lived in the same gated community as her, which meant she was discouraged from reporting it, illustrating how misplaced these fears of only certain men being designated as dangerous are.

Criticisms of the movement have focused on the organisers’ privilege. Likewise, its digital presence on Instagram might suggest that ‘chai-activism’ represents a narrow individualistic neoliberal form of feminist empowerment in which the city serves as a backdrop.  One of the initiatives undertaken by @girlsatdhabas was the #FeministMapathon which was described as ‘…an interactive game designed with the purpose of mapping our interactions with our cities. Of building a collective archive of our experiences, boundaries, and frustrations. Of claiming our space in public and taking ownership of our streets. Of moving outside without purpose. Of taking calculated risks and pushing our own comfort.’ Many of the tasks, therefore, involved advocating solitary tasks that might simply be framed as individual empowerment.

It would, however, be overly reductive to think of @girlsatdhabas as merely about individuals reclaiming public space to share on social media. There is a much wider context within which @girlsatdhabas activities can be seen. Tea stalls represent a key site of informal land use in increasingly formalised and privatised public spaces. In February 2019 @girlsatdhabas posted about the demolition of a favourite Dhaba in Karachi

Unbelievable. Clifton’s Dhaba Restaurant, aka South City dhaba, razed by KMC just now before our eyes.

The anti-encroachment drive has hit too close to home. The dhaba has been central to our community + ecosystem in the city. & an integral part of the area’s ecosystem too. Not sure whether to deal with our anger first, or our heartbreak.

These individual acts of performative resistance also, therefore, arguably represent contestation of these wider trends within urban development. The authors of ‘Why loiter?’ write how shopping malls and coffee shops represent a form of privatised public space which still demands the performance of a certain amount of respectability. Simultaneously, we see the gentrification of tea stalls whereby, new cafes, themed on ‘authentic’ dhabas, are springing up in cities such as Karachi offering sanitised versions of dhabas at markedly higher price points. @girlsatdhabas activities can therefore be seen as contestatory in that they attempt to resist the encroachment of privatisation.

While perhaps in and of itself not a huge movement, @girlsatdhabas has symbolic importance beyond its immediate participants. As Yasminah Beebeejaun has argued, “…experiences of being gendered vary across places, contexts, and political regimes. Gender is continuously being remade at different scales, through national legislation, and changing life circumstances, thereby presenting different layers of complexity for coherent analysis. The city is gendered through multiple actions and experiences of its inhabitants.” (2017: 323). It would be a mistake to simply view @girlsatdhabas work as the individualised neoliberal empowerment of privileged Muslim women. Rather @girlsatdhabas is an attempt to transgress, to disrupt and to bear witness to the wider social changes wrought by globalisation and urban development, and through which it might contribute to transnational digital feminism but also attempt to reclaim the city for all. As Natasha Ansari writes, @girlsatdhabas “still represents a starting point of sorts, but [is] also a source of sustenance, representation and belonging for many of us involved.”

Beebeejaun, Y (2017) Gender, urban space, and the right to everyday life, Journal of Urban Affairs, 39:3, 323-334


Naaz Rashid is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the School of Media, Film, Music at the University of Sussex specialising in gender and critical race studies. She tweets at @naazrashid.

Image by the author.


The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.