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.

Women have their selection of tea and fritters at the dhaba — Photo: Ladies Dhaba via Instagram

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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