Shaista Fatima/ New Delhi
It was in the year 2016 that Atia told her would-be husband, Frahim, "Look...I am going to rent out a space in Batla House market for women to offer namaz.” Frahim supported the idea. “It is doable but may not be sustainable", he replied.
Atia Khursheed tied knots with Frahim Akhtar in 2018 and the idea of having a private space in public surroundings for women only grew stronger with time.
The Sunday Longread
Today, the burqa-clad Atiya says, "Shopping is a humongous task for Muslim women as we tend to miss the call for prayer due to the ever-shifting timings and lack of mosques for us to pray.”
Interestingly, it was during the covid-19 induced lockdown that played helped the couple saw their dream come true. "Sheeru - a cafe only for women" was born.
Situated in Delhi’s predominantly Muslim quarter of Jamia Nagar's market hub Batla House, this cafe is a ray of hope for many women who find it awkward to sit and eat with and besides men.
Bushra, a homemaker says, "I came here for the first time and I am loving it here... I can offer my prayers here, breastfeed my kid and just sit and eat without any male gaze... It feels peaceful... "
A woman praying inside Sheeru Cafe
Batla House is a mini-Chandini Chowk where lanes and by lanes are filled with women of all age groups, "We launched our first outlet on 9th July and Alhamdulillah (thank God) the response has been pretty good…what amazes me is the compeers that visit the shop,” says Atia.
Atia says that the cafe is generally filled with school and college-going girls till afternoon, it’s the homemakers and elderly women who throng the place in the evenings.
The menu in this women-only Café is simple. Atia says, “Predominantly as of now pizza is one dish which is loved by all, next comes burger and coffee is the staple…we are trying to understand the taste buds of the masses…”
Atia’s parents - her father is orthopedic - shifted to Saudi Arabia after she was born.
“I have been oscillating between Delhi and Saudi since my childhood. According to my mother, I have this inevitable love for Delhi and maybe that is why I am the only amongst my siblings to have stayed here…”
Party time for women at Sheeru Cafe
So, is Sheeru inspired by women-only cafes or mosques of Saudi Arabia? To this, Atia says, "Well, somewhere, yes…but I strongly feel that the presence of women should be felt and recognized in every sector... "
In a writeup Whose fault is it that I missed my prayers? Muhammad Raziul Islam Nadvi has raised the question about women missing their prayers while shopping or being out of their house.
Atia, 30, is a Bachelors of Architecture (B.Arch) passout from Jamia Millia Islami, 2016 batch. She works as a designer with a firm called Minimal Muslim, while her husband Fraheem, 32, looks after the management side of the cafe. Atia also looks after the design and social media platforms for Sheeru Cafe.
Beautiful interiors of Sheeru Cafe
“My architectural experience has helped me a lot in building this space, from getting the decor done to getting the menu cards printed and pamphlets for promotions..it was just me and my husband who went ahead with the planning..”
On the opening day of Sheeru, she says, “It was a day before Bakr-Eid…and I was like I need to get one or two customers, so I went down on the streets and distributed handbills. We did get around 9-10 customers that day, especially late at night around 10-11...I was amazed..it was beyond my expectation…”
An all-womens' cafe is a risky business idea and it must have taken huge courage to take this step. Atiya says, “Even back in our home, the elderly said you cannot have a business just for women, aurtein bahar khana nai khati hain (women hardly go out to eat food), in fact in mosques also there is no place for us women to sit, relax and offer our prayers..”
Atia says it isn’t just about prayers. A woman goes through many issues, from cramps during her periods to breastfeeding. She says, “I feel contemporary times require contemporary solutions…I want Sheeru to be a go-to stop for all women irrespective of their age or religion…”
Women customers enjoying a meal inside Sheeru Cafe
Today after running it for three months, Sheeru sees a regular footfall of women but it wasn’t an easy task, “We aren’t street smart as yet…while doing our promotions we faced a lot of problems many pitfalls, a poster, and banner that took hours to be made and then put up at eye-catching areas was being pulled down by rickshaw-pullers and made into their covers, thus we stuck to pamphlets as our mode of publicity…”, Atia told Awaz-The Voice as she was laughing out loud.
Today social media handles like Twitter and Instagram are a go-to choice for young entrepreneurs like Atia and Fraheem for promoting their ventures and Sheeru Cafe is no less, “Slowly and slowly we are getting a good customer base, we are getting a lot of referrals… almost every day I can see the post being shared, the insights on Instagram and Twitter are increasing day by day…”
Atia says there is a lot of enthusiasm amongst the youth, “The reactions Sheeru Cafe is getting ranges from a naqabi woman (veiled woman) to the ones without a head cover. Religion is also not a barrier there.. I thought, why would non-naqabi women be interested…but they are..”
Talking about women's safety, she says, “During my bachelor's, my whole interest was around public spaces and I wanted to do my masters in urban design. While reading about urban studies, I realized there isn’t any concept of spaces for women and children which is so surprising and disappointing…”
Sheeru is currently managed by a staff of four people that includes Fraheem, Atia, Nahida, and Sania. In due course, Atiya and Farheem hope to set up Sheeru Cafes at other places in the locality and beyond in Lajpat Nagar and other marketplaces of Delhi, Lucknow, Aligarh, and Hyderabad.
Sheeru Cafe's poster
Sheeru is more than a business for the couple. “It is more of a service rather than a business, our doors are open to women across identities…they say that when you get bored that’s when you get the biggest idea, so to all the artists out there whenever in a creative block do come here and work in a bonhomie cafe…”
Atia feels there is a disparity in handling the basic rights of men and women, she says, “When it comes to women often moral policing is at its peak, but then basic nitty-gritty is often neglected Today rules are created to suit the personal agenda of social hierarchy and thus there is need for justice…I feel Sheeru is an attempt on our part to make women feel that their presence matters…”
In a short period, Sheeru has created a bond with its customers, Atia says, “Nahida told me that the other day a mother of a crying infant came to the cafe and breastfed her kid with a promise to come back someday with time on hand…I told Nahida to not ask such women to order anything…women who need to relax are more than welcome here...”
ALSO READ: Whose fault is it that I missed my prayers?
Atia says that this cafe is more of a service, “I want Sheeru to become a center for women for everything… I see this place as a place for women where they can emote and talk about their issues, I so want the women of this area to come out and talk for themselves, from political to cultural to literary events, I want to hold them all…I strongly feel the change will come only when there are local bodies to support the cause and I feel if you want to do it, you’ll end up doing it….”