Inspiring Muslim Women: ‘Sheeru - a women's café’ is not a usual space like many others serving regular food to their customers but an all-women spot established by a female in Muslim-dominated area in close proximity to the historic Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI).
Ghazala Ahmad | Clarion India
NEW DELHI – In the narrow lanes of Batla House market in the densely populated Jamia Nagar area in South Delhi, amid hundreds of eateries and shopping spots, Atia Khursheed’s dream was taking shape that has now transformed into a small cafe known as ‘Sheeru – a women’s café’.
The café is a space curated for women to pause, eat, meet, discuss, pray and party while they are out in the market to buy the usual household stuff and other merchandise.
But this is not a usual space like many others serving regular food to their customers but an all-women spot established by a female in Muslim-dominated area in close proximity to the historic Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI).
While pursuing her degree in architecture from JMI in 2016, an idea to create an exclusive space for women struck Atia. It was conceived as an unshared place for women where they could keep “themselves away from the hustle and bustle of daily grind and where they could speak their minds”. Atia Khursheed, a homemaker and a mother of a two-year-old girl, originally belongs to Bihar. She was born in Delhi and brought up in Saudia Arabia. She found it hard to find a place to relax while pursuing her degree or was out shopping or just wanted to hang out with her friends.
During her JMI days, her interest developed in urban designing. Studying about urban studies, Atia was disheartened to discover that there were not many children and women-friendly spaces.
She always used to wonder why there was no space for women who could claim it as entirely theirs.
In 2018, when the world came to an unexpected halt due to the Covid-19 lockdown, Atia got married and proposed to own a women-specific space in public to her husband. He immediately supported her initiative and they executed the idea together. That was it and the Sheeru café came into existence.
Atia’s studies in architecture also helped her in shaping up the café, from its exterior to its interiors; she has done it all on her own.
Atia says that shopping is the task carried out by women in most households, and in fulfilling this responsibility women often tend to ‘miss their prayers’.
“There are naturally fewer mosques for us to offer prayers, so initially it was an idea to provide a space where women can offer their namaz without any hindrance, eat something and just sit and relax, away from the gaze of men.”
Over the period, the place expanded. Sheeru not only became a spot to pause and pray but provided a good opportunity to women from different walks of life to relax, discuss childcare, family issues and engage in other productive discourse.
“Women from different age groups; teenagers, students, office-goers and mothers come here. Some are here to discuss their assignments while for some others it has become a workstation where they just sit and work. Some women also come here to feed their babies,” Atia said.
She recalled that a woman was in the market and her newborn child was crying to be fed and she was looking for a space to breastfeed her child. She was guided by some shopkeepers to our place and she was so glad and relaxed to be at Sheeru.
“We don’t ask them (such women) to order something. They just come here to relax or maybe are in need of a shelter for a while.”
She said, “I am so overwhelmed with the thought that my business is not only a means to earn money, rather it is a way to serve people in different ways, and it is more like a public service, especially for women”.
“This was the sole reason to start this”, she added with contentment written large on her face.
Atia feels that as everything was running at a fast pace, it is right time for women, especially Muslim, to reclaim their position in every sector and think that Sheeru is an attempt to make them realise that they have their own space and they can further augment these spaces.
Thinking of a women’s café is a risky step in a place like Batla House where business and markets are dominated by men. It needs huge courage and patience to not only start but to successfully run such a place.
“At first it was very difficult for me to do it all on my own; people often think that it’s easier to manipulate women,” Atia said.
She recalled an incident where she had to pool in money with other fellow shopkeepers near her café and she was hesitant to negotiate but she learnt it all in a short time.
“We are not street smart even yet. I faced a lot of problems in the beginning and now I know how to negotiate reasonably by standing my ground firmly, without being disrespectful or landing myself into unnecessary arguments”.
She said, “With this, the perspective of people has also changed. I have observed over time that other shopkeepers, who used to look at me and my initiative as a business competition, now support me.
“I find it encouraging when other shopkeepers guide women to the café asking them that if they want to pray or relax they can head on to Sheeru”.
With social media evolving at its fastest pace, it is still difficult to catch the eye of the audience and understand the ever-changing needs of the customers.
Atia also chose social media to promote her business. She created an Instagram page and Twitter account which gradually helped her attract a decent customer base.
“Social media is a great tool to reach masses, if used wisely and smartly. I can see, through social media, we managed to attract a lot of traction, especially youngsters. Our social media presence is improving by the day which gradually increased the physical reach of customers at our outlet. Often people from far-away places visit the café.” She added: “Recently, a group of women organised their office meeting here. Some students held a party a few days back.”
On the recent commemoration of International Women’s Day, Sheeru dedicated an entire week to the cause and called it “A Women’s Weekend”.
During this week, women entrepreneurs from Jamia Nagar came together to eat, pray, pause and play.
“During the entire week, women from different walks of life came together at Sheeru and we did multiple activities, held discussions, talks, and organised exhibitions with lots of love and fun,” Atia said.
“The entire event was organised by women for women. They got to know each other and build a community of their own, the women’s tribe. We got an overwhelming response from women and we will try to do this more often”, she said.
As of now, Sheeru is managed by four to six people including Atia, her husband Frahim Akhter, her friends Nahida Matin and Sania.
“Besides, Artplus Creatives team is a strong asset to the café as it handles all creative prospects and strategy. Maria Jalil, another friend, handles our social media. A lot would not have been possible without the help of all these people”, Atia said.
In the coming years, Atiya is hoping to expand her initiative to other parts of Delhi. She is also eying spaces like Sheeru in Lucknow, Aligarh and Hyderabad.
For Atia, Sheeru is not a business but a means to build a community circle for women where they can be themselves, away from male dominancy.
She hopes to make it a place for women for everything, from holding prayers to political discussions and arranging cultural events to literary functions.
She said: “I want to build it into a place where a woman can be an authority, where she can openly talk and discuss her rights and issues. I want women to hold on to their ground firmly and touch the sky, considering ‘Sheeru’ as a platform.” Atia very passionately believes that there will come a time when women will certainly reclaim their space and several more initiatives will emerge like Sheeru Café.
“So, if you are looking for a place to spend your weekend at a women’s space, Sheeru-all women Café in Jamia Nagar’s Batla House in Delhi is your best bet. Women come and grab your space,” she said.