How secret Facebook groups are changing female friendship in Pakistan

How secret Facebook groups are changing female friendship in Pakistan

There's a life we paint on Facebook — then there's the truth we divulge in super secret groups
Updated 05 Dec, 2016

Around December last year, 20-something Karachiite Zara* 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 girl she had attended school with invited her to join Soul Bitches (SB), a private Facebook group claiming to be a haven for like-minded women and those who have been given the short end of the stick in the public realm for far too long, she thought she’d found her safe space online — as a spectator of course.

Women from all walks of life get to interact with each other on such communities
Women from all walks of life get to interact with each other on such communities

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

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

Within a couple of weeks, over 3,000 women had joined the group, 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 and solving their problems — there are many others, and their popularity is spiking.

Secret groups such as SB are one of 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.

Why Facebook groups might be 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.

They don't have to worry about being judged in any way
They don't have to worry about being judged in any way

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 (“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 for 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 brains behind the group, claims that these online 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 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, 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, their problems and are there to offer support.

Some would argue, however, that PBS is only a space for only 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.

These communities have become a support system for many
These communities have become a support system for many

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.

A screenshot of the Soul Sisters blog
A screenshot of the Soul Sisters blog

This is what even services such as Tinder thrive on: the desire for that constant, instant communication. These groups offer the same appeal except in a platonic context.

From finding friends to finding domestic staff (yes, there’s a Karachi Maid Reference Check group too), the possibilities are endless.

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 tediously sifts through these requests to keep the sorority exclusive and devoid of fake IDs and trolls.

Many post anonymously in order to avoid any issues
Many post anonymously in order to avoid any issues

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 the Facebook group SB, has become the unofficial spokeswoman of sort 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 percent 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 specially, 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.”

Is staying connected virtually the easy way out?
Is staying connected virtually the easy way out?

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.”

Are these communities filling a much-needed void or just fostering a mob mentality?

Samiya*, 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 family,” Samiya adds.

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?

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 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?

Many group members tend to bring others down
Many group members tend to bring others down

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?

*To protect the privacy of certain individuals the names and identifying details have been changed

Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 4th, 2016


Realist Dec 05, 2016 12:55pm
So women created a constructive group while all men could do was that they created a group to ridicule the women's group. Nice! Shows mentality of typical Pakistani men.
A. A. Dec 05, 2016 01:10pm
As a happily married man (10+ years) and several affairs before that, I still find women a complicated lot! We, the men, are much simpler creatures by comparison.
DIVERGENCE Dec 05, 2016 01:55pm
It is okay to create private groups on internet, but what is dangerous is that the same internet is being used by many cyber criminals, men and women both. How can you make sure that your private thoughts, private things won't be used by any cyber bully and criminal to defame you
Mahmood Dec 05, 2016 01:57pm
Facebook secret groups are also used by many for clandestine activities, sexual randevous and illicit affair - especially when the parents and spouses don't know its existence, or are at work or when the phone is conveniently used 'outside the home'. There are many social ills of social media, that no one on this forum has bothered to address, but rave about it only in positive terms.
M. Malik Dec 05, 2016 03:05pm
Sadly, these trends also has a downside. I personally know a lot of people who have very few actual friends that they see and visit often, in their own city or country, but have hundreds of 'virtual' friends on Facebook that they chat with or exchange photos with on almost daily basis. In fact they spend more time on their phones exchanging messages than talking with their own parents, siblings or neighbors. Is it any wonder they have 'secrets'?? Sad these social-misfits only fit with their own kind on line, but not with the person sitting right next to them.
Haniya Dec 05, 2016 03:14pm
@A. A. I agree we can be complicated but I think us women feel very much the same about men too!!
Shah Dec 05, 2016 03:30pm
It is wonderful to know that Pakistani women are making a public space for themselves where they can discuss and share their ideas without being hindered. And I'm not at all surprised that while women have come together to discuss social issues, men are using the same platform to shame women. Pakistan needs to become a lot more supportive of women using their voices.
Shah Dec 05, 2016 03:32pm
@A. A. Do not portray men as innocent and simple when they are the reason women need to find spaces online to voice themselves. Too many men refuse to see that they are part of the issue and an obstruction towards a solution
Awesome Lyrics Dec 05, 2016 03:36pm
@Mahmood I think they are done by people of a mature age group, perhaps knowingly or may be unknowingly, so there is nothing illegal or anything we could do about it. Every good thing has side effect, even oxygen.
Hassan zahoor khan Dec 05, 2016 05:13pm
Men the simplest of the lot. Women and esp. girls one cannot grasp what they want and what are their needs.
Ali S Dec 05, 2016 05:52pm
@Mahmood You don't have to worry about the 'social ills of social media' (which affect a tiny privileged segment of our population anyway) in Pakistan when far more disturbing social ills like honor killings, forced marriages and lynching minorities based on hearsay are defended out in the open. These kind of distorted priorities make me hopeless in this country's future and its youth.
A. A. Dec 05, 2016 05:52pm
@Shah Who said any thing about being "innocent"? See, now you have complicated the discussion :)! And thats how it all begins :)...
Moona Dec 05, 2016 05:59pm
@A. A. Haha what an oversimplification!
komberi Dec 05, 2016 06:19pm
Pakistani women are stunningly beautiful. We want you in Indian cinema not just Bollywood but also in southern Tamil movies.
Wandrer Dec 05, 2016 07:06pm
Millions of young people around the world are facing the phenomenon of Social exclusion.It is but natural to look for candour and warmth in a world getting increasingly colder and indifferent.There are however certain pitfalls in engaging ones self into such virtual public communities .
Satyameva Jayate Dec 05, 2016 08:05pm
Open, True, Honest, un-reserved, un-restricted communication is good and healthy, whatever way it comes or happens.
Usman Khan Dec 05, 2016 08:57pm
Its not a constructive group. Its an echo chamber where women are only looking for affirmation on something they have already decided. That is the reason why they are turning to strangers behind a computer rather than their actual friends who know more about their personality and give advice which might be contrary to what the woman want to hear.
UnshacklePak Dec 05, 2016 09:11pm
@M. Malik There are many positives about having eyes. One can also use them to stare an naked bodies also. Does that mean we stop using eyes for that reason or teach manners and dangers of abuse to people? Banning hardy ever solves anything.
divergence Dec 05, 2016 09:33pm
@M. Malik You are failing to realize some factors in the popularity of virtual world friendships, according to your argument people are neglecting their closer relatives and friends because of social media. 1) Not everyone has the ample opportunity to visit families and friends on that frequent basis as connection with others through social media has made possible 2) Often the personal and real life relationships are not as perfect as we like to think they are, people want to get connected to people in virtual world 3) You claim that joining these groups makes someone socially misfit, strange I thought our society itself is misfit in today's modern world where educated people have a higher level of backwardness than uneducated people.
Ashraf Dec 06, 2016 12:15am
@Mahmood ban FB
shirin Dec 06, 2016 12:17am
@A. A. so says a man in denial
omair Dec 06, 2016 01:52am
@A. A. you are quite a player mate! Why don't you publish your theory based on over 10 years of research on women?
ghulam abbas Dec 06, 2016 09:03am
Facebook & Secrets .... lolzz
layeredsquirrel Dec 06, 2016 11:30am
@DIVERGENCE therefore most women seeking advice post anonymously through admins.