BEYOND Balochistan, news regarding the beleaguered Hazara community is usually about their security, because a number of community members have lost their lives in sectarian violence over the decades. But there can be grains of hope in the ocean of despair: Hamida Ali Hazara has an inspiring vision — the economic empowerment of women affected by violence.
Situated in the heart of Hazara town in the western side of Quetta, the picture presented by Hazara Restaurant, which is run by Hamida Ali in the Aliabad area, is perfect. Entering her restaurant on a chilly evening, she welcomes us warmly, saying: “Thank you for coming here.”
Thankfully, there is no rush, so we can chat at ease.
In Balochistan’s patriarchal society, it is amply clear that the imprint of women is non-existent. During their lives, they are not allowed to do anything, except perhaps the dishes before death overtakes them. Agreeing, Hamida Ali says: “Personally, I know several women in Quetta belonging to different communities. They face more hardship than me. Although our community is relatively better, I have also faced societal challenges since I launched this restaurant. But this is how the things are in our society, and we have to move up despite all kinds of challenges.”
Hamida Ali has been obsessed with the idea of the economic empowerment of women from the very beginning. As Hazaras have increasingly been being targeted over the past decade and a half in Quetta, she has been consumed by the thought: what about the family members, particularly women and girls, of the individuals killed in sectarian attacks? When the male head of a family is gone, how can his family sustain itself?
Having dwelled on this tragedy for years, two months ago she started a restaurant where girls and women whose family members have been killed in sectarian attacks can earn a livelihood. “Socioeconomics is a big problem for the women of such families,” she shares with Dawn, seated at a counter.
Having completed a Master’s degree in international relations some years ago, Hamida Ali says she wants to earn another degree in law. “Why?” I ask. “Because I want to fight for women as per the law,” she says.
Everyone has someone in his or her life behind their success. Behind her, she says, is her mother, now deceased, who used to be a political activist aligned with the PPP. “What I am today and what I say today is all because of her,” says Hamida Ali. “I wish she were still with me.”
As we talk, customers — particularly women — start coming into the restaurant. She stands up and approaches them one by one to welcome them. Hamida Ali is followed by her attendants, who call her “Baji.”
“There are two shifts in our restaurant,” she explains. “During the first shift in the morning, only women are allowed here, while in the second shift in the evening, both men and women can come,” she says. “Also, some of the attendants of my restaurant are university- and college-going girls. They cannot afford their education expenditures, so they come and work here during the second shift. On Sundays, we prepare special traditional Hazargi dishes. Lots of people come on Sundays to enjoy them.”
Hamida Ali’s initiative has gained national and international media attention, so much so that hundreds of people on social media have appreciated her programme. But meanwhile, she says, propaganda has also been started against her on social media. “Lots of Facebook pages are trying to present a negative image of me, that I am doing something wrong,” she explains. “I also receive some troubling messages on my personal Facebook ID. On several pages, pictures that have been taken from my account are shared with derogatory captions. Even non-Hazaras tell me on social media that I am bringing disrepute to my community for having launched a restaurant. But they cannot deter me from my goal.”
Pakistani society, according to Hamida Ali, has not progressed. “The mainstream media is trying to portray a positive image of us, which is encouraging,” she muses. But about society in real terms: “When one of my workers, a female college student, was shown on a private television channel, her father made her stop working here the very next day. We want to massacre the identity of women in our society by not wanting it to be seen,” she reflects.
Despite all odds, though, it seems the Hazara Restaurant may be a ray of hope for the women of the community. “Let me clarify: I do not practise gender discrimination,” says Hamida Ali. “Men also come and taste our dishes. This is not only for women. Everyone is more than welcome here.”