In Pakistan, secret Facebook groups are changing female friendship

Secret sorority.
Secret sorority.
Image: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra
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Around December last year, 20-something Karachiite Zara (name changed) felt desolate, as though she had no one in her life she could talk to.

She felt uncomfortable seeking advice from her mother regarding her love life. She wasn’t getting the answers she wanted from her friends, and the concept of talking to a professional would have mortified her conservative family.

“I’d open up to my parents and they’d dismiss me and say it was all in my head,” she recalls. “Or they’d give me generic advice that you’d find on a cheesy Tumblr page like, ‘You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind’ or ‘Life’s too short to be sad.’ They just didn’t get it.”

So, in May, when a friend from school invited her to join Soul Bitches (SB), a private Facebook group for like-minded women, she thought she’d found her safe space online.

Women in Pakistan certainly have a presence on general social networks but sites specifically for women are gaining members, creating platforms for them to connect and share advice.

Women use these closed groups to support one another through careers, marriage, motherhood, parenting and everyday life, inspiring each other or finding others who share interests. Through conversation and compassion, these communities of like-minded women are empowering each other.

Within a couple of weeks, over 3,000 women had joined SB from all walks of life, mostly from all over Pakistan but a lot from other parts of the world as well.

Today, the strength of this group has more than doubled and it boasts of over 7,000 members. This is not the only private online group in Pakistan that caters specifically to women—there are many others, and their popularity is spiking.

Secret groups such as SB are one of the several ways technology has changed the way we interact with each other in a highly urbanised, impersonal environment. Working and residing in a city can easily get stressful and lonely, and metropolitan life has a way of eroding the community ties that buoyed our parents and their generation.

Finding support through online groups, where one is likely to stumble upon people who share one’s values, is becoming increasingly popular. Social media has become, for the Pakistani millennial generation, what neighbourhood friends were for the previous one—it’s where one can find a shoulder to cry on and get some advice from one’s peers.

Many would argue that some of these groups are exclusive domains only for certain socio-economic groups. But as more and more Pakistanis get access to and use the internet, more diversity is likely to be seen.

The future of friendship

If at some point you were beginning to feel like Facebook was becoming pointless, you’re not alone. Turns out, one just didn’t know how the cool kids were using it.

You know how when you’re on the fence about buying a certain dress you just whip out your phone and Snapchat your best friend a selfie from the changing room? Well, rather than turning to one or two really good friends for advice, the women of these groups consult a carefully curated crowd of hundreds or thousands constantly.

Posts on these secret Facebook groups range from questions about morality (“Should I tell my mother I smoke?”), to those seeking practical advice (“Where should I go for higher education: England or America?”) to just plain funny stories (“My parents have been dropping me to my boyfriend’s house for years thinking that’s where my bff lives, I want to marry him now… what do I do?”)

You might think that young women wouldn’t be keen to seek advice from strangers. But judging by the number of posts on these groups, you’d be wrong.

“Sometimes, the people in our lives are so immersed in the situation that it makes it difficult for them to give you unbiased advice,” says one 26-year-old member of her affinity to Facebook groups. “People who are practically strangers can be more objective because they’re not on anyone’s side.”

Another much larger secret group is called Soul Sisters. Kanwal Ahmed, the brain behind the group, says that these groups bring women together, not just online but offline too. “There are hundreds of people who have become close friends through this group,” she says.

Kanwal adds: “Girls have had baby and bridal showers thrown by friends they made on the group. Plus, the meet-ups that happen through this group are also a source of networking and meeting new, compatible people.”

Rabiyah Tungekar, the woman behind the Pakistan Beauty Society (PBS), a group for fashion and beauty enthusiasts, concurs. “Most of the girls, including myself, made real-life friends from both the same and different fields of work. I’ve made some amazing friends who I meet and talk to, (and) share my everyday life with, through PBS. So have others, as I’m sure they’d tell you!”

These forums are the natural end result of constant connectivity. Real friends may be busy and the spouse might be at work but, through Facebook groups, young women are surrounded by people who are always up to hear about their day and their problems, and are there to offer support.

Some would argue, however, that PBS is only a space for the elite. Most postings revolve around beauty tips and which high-end makeup brands to buy. The group members post photos of their makeup tests and trials for feedback.

Of course, conversations on these groups are monitored by “moderators”—most often the people who started these groups. The groups then tend to reflect opinions of their administrators, which some take issue with—proving that even on Facebook, friend groups are not without drama.

Kanwal shrugs off criticism that Soul Sisters, which is conservative in its ethos, plays a part in moral policing or cyber bullying. “I feel like rules are important,” she says. “Without rules, there would be chaos. And just the fact that Soul Sisters is doing so well—it has been the source of inspiration for many other women-oriented groups on Facebook, as well as a household name in urban Pakistan—speaks volumes about the fact that good administration got it to a good place.”

The success of Soul Sisters led to the creation of a public website, called the Soul Sisters Pakistan blog, that Kanwal set up, creating real employment opportunities for aspiring writers.

How safe are these safe spaces?

Kanwal may come off as high-strung to some but she may be on to something by defining boundaries. What started out as a community of 500 women has grown to a group that currently has over 13,000 members.

Kanwal claims she receives over 500 requests a day from people who want to join the group, and that she sifts through these requests to keep the sorority exclusive and devoid of fake IDs and trolls.

But as anyone who’s online these days knows, no matter how hard you try to enforce privacy online, there are never any guarantees.

Recently, a Facebook group called Soul Bastards, inspired by SB but only for men, began posting screenshots of private posts on Soul Bitches.

Kanwal admits that on her own group she’s not guaranteeing private conversations—she’s just providing a medium to connect.

“Anything on social media has the power to go viral and nothing on social media is ever secure,” she points out.

“So I try to remind members regularly of being careful about what they post. And if there is something they would not want family to end up finding about, it is best to just post anonymously.”

Fatyma Naim, who is a member of SB, has become the unofficial spokeswoman of sorts for women who seek advice anonymously.

“I posted anonymously once or twice for a friend or two to genuinely help someone out,” she reveals. “Soon after, my inbox was flooded with all sorts of queries from people who wanted me to post on their behalf. I get that people might be scared to put themselves out there and there are people who actually need help, but there’s also people doing it just for attention or kicks.”

So if ladies shouldn’t and don’t feel 100% safe confiding in these groups, what keeps them flourishing?

For one, there is a lack of real community spaces in Pakistan. Women have very few mediums that belong solely to them.

In Pakistan especially, inclusive places for women to come together to commune and heal are few and far between, which is why women are afraid to be themselves in real life. The lack of autonomy in the physical world is forcing them to take their need for sociability and retreat to an online harbour, so the psychological benefit is evident.

Women in these groups say that they have helped them get jobs, informed them about feminism, and informed them about global affairs, too.

Secondly, it’s likely that online friendships are easier to fit into our increasingly busy lives.

Clinical psychologist Shameen Khan sheds some light on the matter. “There are fewer expectations in such online friendships that allow it to fit into our faster-paced lives and we get to control the stakes,” she says. “Make a good friend, bring her into your world, otherwise have access to many different opinions. These forums have something for anyone and everyone.”

Convenience could play a huge role in the surge of such groups. Khan elaborates: “It’s just a new social context and a different way of keeping in touch brought forward through technology. Women always had their parties and social hangouts. This just fits our hectic routines better. Women thrive in flocks. Our mothers had sewing circles or books clubs or pen pals or NGOs. The women of today have social forums.”

Filling the void or fostering a mob mentality?

Samiya (name changed), 26, says she’s always been fascinated with the idea of meeting people online but knows that it doesn’t come without a price.

“I’ve been bullied online, called names, and someone once made a fake profile of me on Instagram and added [a derogatory term] as my middle name,” she says.

“Stuff like that happens all the time and usually it comes from an anonymous source or at least I haven’t figured out who’s behind it. But it hurt when it came from people I had started considering (as) family,” Samiya adds.

She’s talking about the women she got to know in the fenced-off corner of a private group on Facebook, one that she doesn’t want to name and shame.

“I’ve been happily married for two years now. Most of the members on the group knew that. However, a few weeks ago I found out my ex-boyfriend was getting engaged. I don’t know why but it bugged me so I posted about it. And then all hell broke loose.”

In a bizarre twist, she goes on to explain that a lot of the girls started moral-policing her: “All it took was one girl to start saying [things] and everyone jumped on to the bandwagon. They said I was a bad wife and ungrateful, among other things. It was awful.”

Soon after, Samiya left the group.

How does a group that was created for women to lift each other up end up with a typical “you can’t sit with us” mentality?

Topics such as religion, politics and men are always volatile subjects on these women-only forums—especially men. Why do women end up betraying their own gender for them? It’s an enigma that people have tried to answer for years now. Is it a survival of the fittest-esque competition, is it jealousy, is it internalised sexism?

Whether it’s a combo of all three or misogyny Pakistani women tend to internalise, such private groups should provide an opportunity for women to check themselves.

While a lot of these groups are becoming more welcoming, many still fail to provide the support most members are seeking.

In Zara’s first interview, she was nervous but willing to talk. Two days later, however, she requested that some of her details be omitted—she wanted to have her name in the piece changed because she was afraid she would be ostracised by her virtual gal pals. Will women ever find their sanctuary, be it online or offline?

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