Restaurants aren’t a rare sight in Hazara town, a middle-income neighborhood in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, but there’s one that has caught the attention of many. Subtle in its splendor, the eatery’s interior features traditional Hazaragi decorations and a poster of a giant Buddha. More unusual, however, is the fact that the restaurant is run and staffed exclusively by women.
The Hazara minorities are Hazaragi/Dari speaking people. Hazaras have continued to face regular persecution since they escaped ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan and migrated to neighboring countries including Iran and Pakistan.
Most ethnically Hazara people are religiously Shiite Muslims. Hazara Restaurant opened its doors to women and families looking for quality time in Quetta, the administrative capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, earlier this summer.
Hamida Ali Hazara, who comes from the marginalized minority, is the driving force behind the bustling restaurant, whose small menu features mostly authentic Pakistani delicacies like biryani (generally made with spices, rice and meat), karhai (stew, made with meat, kebab and fresh-squeezed juices).
The newly-created space is also used for business conferences, gatherings, wedding parties and birthday celebrations. Hazara Restaurant employs six women in total.
— Saba Chaman (@chaman_saba) October 19, 2017
Hazara Restaurant is a second home 4 many Hazara women in community. The initiative is changing minds & invading hearts. #HazaraRestaurant
— Riyasat Ali (@RiyasatAlii) October 28, 2017
‘I will not stop because of what people think’
Hamida Ali Hazara, who is also a social and political activist, is perhaps best known as the founder of the Hurmat-e Niswa Foundation (HNF), which enables Hazara women to improve their lives through health, education, and sports. HNF has helped dozens of Hazara girls receive scholarships to study at universities in Pakistan’s major cities Lahore and Karachi.
Shattering a glass ceiling or two in the business world was perhaps the next logical step for an uncompromising trailblazer. But as a single woman in a deeply patriarchal region, getting a foothold in the male-dominated hospitality industry was fraught with challenges.
“Some friends and relatives within my close circle mocked and ridiculed my choice of business,” Hamida Ali Hazara recalled in a phone interview with Global Voices.
“They said things behind my back. But I will not throw my efforts into a sponge. I will not stop because of what people think.”
So far, the rewards have outweighed the hardship. At lunchtimes and in the evenings, the restaurant can struggle to accommodate the flow of patrons. Even more pleasingly, is the change Hamida Ali Hazara has witnessed in her close-knit staff.
“One of the employees, at first, was quiet and melancholic. [She said] that due to financial problems she could not continue her studies. She had nearly given up at that point. But the restaurant has helped her to keep going. I feel happy for her,” she said.
Just as education is a goal for her employees, Hamida Ali Hazara believes it is also the main reason that, eventually, initiatives like hers will gather wider acceptance in the community. Illustrating her point, a local bakery in Quetta published last month what might well be the city’s first ever job advertisement targeting skilled women specifically.
“Times have changed,” explains Hamida Ali Hazara. “Years ago, women’s lives were limited to the four walls of the house in Hazara Town, but it is no longer the case now. Education is changing the mindset of women.”
A safe haven in a dangerous world
One ill that continues to cast a shadow over businesses in Quetta, especially those owned by Hazaras, is insecurity. As recently as October 9, Pakistani media reported, three Hazara were among five killed in a gun attack police characterized as sectarian.
The October tragedy brought scores of bereaved Hazaras onto the thoroughfare of Mizan Chowk in Quetta to protest against increasing violence towards their group. As in Afghanistan, Shiite Muslim Hazaras are regularly targeted by extremists in Pakistan that view them as heretics.
Fears over potential violence encourage the group to set up businesses in neighborhoods like Hazara Town, where they form a majority. The pioneering founder of Hazara Restaurant chose Aliabad road as a location to set up shop rather than the packed bazaar, primarily for safety reasons.
But if the world outside continues to pose dangers and problems, Hazara Restaurant itself is a sanctuary. Here Hamida Ali Hazara and her community can discuss, organize and feel at ease. By all accounts, the food is pretty tasty, too.