A group of four women sit in one corner across from each other at a cozy cafe, discussing the menu. It is a hot summer day in May; the women quickly reach a consensus and order iced teas for themselves. One of them gazes out of the window, where the sun shines bright over the bustling Jamia Nagar neighbourhood of Batla House, with its narrow streets and perpetual stench of drains and garbage. The tea stalls that line the narrow lanes of Batla House and are dominated by men seem to irk her.
The chai tapris and local restaurants in and around the market truly seem to be a monopoly of men, even though women are the primary participants in the majority of the bazaar’s economic exchanges.
For this group of women, this women-only cafe called Sheeru, in the middle of a Muslim ghetto, seems to have offered a much-needed safe space to eat, drink tea, and relax. Situated in the middle of the market and housed inside the Cosmos Plaza building, Sheeru is a less than a year old and offers a wide range of experiences exclusively for women, including business meets, networking sessions, mental health classes, mehendi nights, and religious events. The space is small, but vibrant with the voices of women all around. An event for women entrepreneurs to display their products was a big hit.
Mariya Khatun, a 45-year-old homemaker from Batla House, was visiting the cafe after a friend suggested it to her. “She told me that it was a women-only space. I had never heard of such a thing before. I was fascinated,” she said.
It is mostly word of mouth that seems to be working for the cafe, but there are also flashy Instagram reels and photos that are attracting customers.
32-year-old Afshan Khan, a PhD student at nearby Jamia Millia Islamia, said that she visited Sheeru after seeing a reel online. Speaking to Frontline, she said that the idea of a women-only space felt liberating to her. “There are hardly such spaces around us. Men are everywhere and make it unsafe for women. Here, there is no worry of our safety. There is no male gaze to worry about,” she said.
Back in the kitchen, Shaheen and Sania, teen sisters from a neighbouring mohalla, prepare food for the customers after their school hours. This job earns them over Rs.10,000 a month and has brought prosperity to their home. “Our father died when we were kids. Now, we are three sisters and all of us study and also work. We want to be financially independent,” said Shaheen. The sisters study in class 12 in a local government school and wish to pursue a Hotel Management course after school, for which they are already saving money.
On an average day, the number of customers who visit the cafe varies between 10 and 25. “A lot of students also come here to study because of the free wi-fi,” Sania said.
Birth of the idea
The idea of this cafe did not just spring out randomly. Both 32-year-old Frahim Akhter and his wife, 31-year-old Atia Khursheed, decided to open this cafe after years of deliberation. But the idea was quite clear in their heads: to open a women-only cafe, with dedicated space for women.
Initially, it started as a complaint that there were not enough mosques with dedicated spaces for women to pray in. The cafe came out of a casual conversation about the lack of dedicated spaces for women in Jamia Nagar.
“One day, I was just complaining to my husband about the lack of dedicated spaces for women in the area. Most of the public spaces are owned by men. Let alone dedicated spaces, there are not even dedicated spaces in most of the mosques for women to pray in. That’s how this idea cropped up,” Atia Khursheed said. When Frahim lost his IT job in 2022, and Atia left her job after her child was born, they decided to finally follow up on their casual conversation from years ago.
“I see different kinds of women who come to the cafe, from mothers who come here to feed their babies, to women who want to attend an online meeting in peace and even women who just want to be left alone. For women, such spaces provide a place for sisterhood, conversations, and peace, far away from relatives. Sometimes women need just that. Parents of young girls who come here also feel secure because it’s a women-only space,” Atia Khursheed said.
With the growing acceptance of the idea, the couple is now keen on expanding the cafe and create a women-only centre with a whole gym, a co-working space, and a cafe. “People have a certain perception of places like Batla House. I want to assure them that it’s a safe place, and we have really good food too,” Atia said.