Inside the exclusive female-only meetup of secret Facebook group Soul Sisters Pakistan

I went to one of SSP's coveted meetups to see what the event offers women. Here's what I found out
Updated 21 Sep, 2017 11:20pm

Growing up, I had a few emotional struggles.

In an all-girls high school, I felt like an outsider. I was insecure about my body and had zero self-esteem. I relentlessly tried to become a part of the "cool" crowd, participating in the most sought-after activities, wanting to be invited to the "cool people" hangouts but failing miserably at it.

My grades weren't looking up either. I couldn't fit in. I felt poorly about myself, a bit like the misunderstood Cady surrounded by girls wanting to be Regina George. This yearning to belong to a social clique affected how I saw my worth. I wanted an in, and I wanted it really badly.

But that was me almost 15 years ago. Today, things are completely different. Nevertheless, when I look around at fellow women, I often wonder, did high school really ever end?

On Saturday, I attended a social event organised by Soul Sisters Pakistan (SSP), a popular women-only closed group on Facebook with more than 34,000 members.

I wondered: what was it that convinced women to spend Rs2,500 on this meetup?

The group has often been a subject of controversy in feminist discourse online; many criticise it for promoting patriarchal values deeply embedded in conservatism, culture and religion. In addition, the ever-expanding number of members in the group means screenshots of posts or comments can be passed on to people not meant to know the information ─ a major breach of trust. Also, there have been instances where women have been banned or have left the group by choice after debates turned ugly.

However, the group (and others like it) is also a safe haven and a source of support for women who have nowhere else to turn with questions about healthcare, consumer rights, domestic struggles and professional discontent.

As I signed up for the SSP meetup I realised attendees must have high expectations; tickets for this meetup and the few others organised before it sell out quickly.

I wanted to understand what made most of everyone at SSP so excited about the meetup.

What was it that could make a sister sad for being unable to attend this event? What was it that convinced the women to spend Rs2,500 on a meetup? Lastly, I wanted to experience what happens when a two-dimensional online interaction comes alive.

So here are some thoughts I had - about SSP in general and the meetup in particular:

SSP helps women feel like they belong

Psychologist Maslow argued in his largely accepted theory known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that it is an inherent emotional need for humans to want to belong and form intimate relationships. It helps us in keeping existential dread at bay, provides a sense of support, thereby allowing us to reach our full human potential.

So it makes sense for members to feel so attached to SSP, both online and offline.

Could this be the clique for me?
Could this be the clique for me?

The demographic make-up of the attendees reflected the online group (women mostly of ages between 18 and 35; a good mix of married and single women; students, housewives, stay-at-home moms and working women).

Attendees brought their younger sisters, friends or relatives to the meetup to introduce them to the clique; some even paid for their tickets so that they'd come.

With fresh manicures, styled hair or hijabs and an outfit especially put together for the afternoon, the sisters were gleaming. Many wore fusion outfits, matching east-meeting-west tops (bought from places such as ZARA or Generation) with skinny-fitting pants, complemented by high-street stilettos. Then there were those, like myself, who stuck to traditional eastern wear, such as knee-length shirts paired with tights, trousers or shalwars and a dupatta, complemented with flat sandals, khussas and the like.

Nonetheless, everyone behaved like they were attending a red carpet ─ fashionable, looking their best, laughing and indulging in selfies. Coming full circle, they queued up to get snapped with their favourite "Soul Baji" Kanwal Ahmed, the founder of the group and the brain behind these meetups.

Kanwal Ahmed, the founder of Soul Sisters Pakistan
Kanwal Ahmed, the founder of Soul Sisters Pakistan

They felt special, almost like an achievement unlocked, like they were part of something bigger than them and that they belonged.

In a Pakistani context, this is important. When they graduate high school and college, women in Pakistan often find themselves without the opportunity to organise themselves into interest-based groups or like-minded communities outside the home. Even if it was just for an afternoon, this SSP meetup helped.

The meetup provided a good networking opportunity

The event offered a great networking opportunity for entrepreneurs, home-based business owners and skilled professionals to expand their reach.

For many women, it was a platform to build their businesses
For many women, it was a platform to build their businesses

There were women exchanging business cards, offering each other advice related to work and enriching their soft skills. A woman who runs an online business of handcrafted kohlapuri chappals and khussas stopped me and handed me her business card as she deduced ─ and rightly so ─ by looking at my footwear that I'd love the products she's selling.

Though we couldn't exchange much other than a smile, a courteous greeting and her business card as she was in a hurry but rest assured, her Facebook community is one 'like' stronger.

It was a chance to get out and get away

For a lot of women there, the meetup was a break from their hectic schedules that mostly revolve around children and familial responsibilities.

In their feedback for Kanwal and the event, women said they were actually grateful for the strict rule of "no children under the age of one allowed at the event" as it eased their guilt and anxieties about giving themselves time off from baby duties.

The event was a nice getaway from the daily grind
The event was a nice getaway from the daily grind

It was a chance to have some me-time, meet friends and enjoy a girls' day out, especially because night outs are restricted by curfews, social pressures and family commitments. Also, since it was a women-only event, some patriarchs ─ meaning fathers and husbands ─ 'allowed' their female relatives to attend it without much fuss.

"The group has grown popular and built a good reputation so even the men in the families have no issues with letting the women participate," Kanwal said. "In a society like ours, it is extremely difficult for the everyday Karachi woman to catch a break from her family and enjoy herself," she added, saying a women-only event also meant it was safe. "That factored in helping many women who might have had permission issues."

But... the event's branding needed work

What does 'Real women real talk' imply?
What does 'Real women real talk' imply?

This SSP meetup relied on the hashtag #RealWomenRealTalk to create buzz ─ but I wondered, if real women are your everyday Karachi women with conservative ethos and patriarchal values, your housewives, mothers or even those working, belonging to the middle to upper middle and elite class (in terms of accumulated wealth) ... then who are the unreal women? And why must women be other-ed anyway?

The concert was a nice touch

It's often hard for women to attend concerts because of security issues (read: groping). Also, for women from conservative families ─ or even the relatively moderate ones ─ going to a concert is a battle. It is frowned upon in their families and more often than not, permissions are refused.

Examine: Atif Aslam, Karachi Eat, the woman in the back row and the lies we tell ourselves

So SSP organising a concert at this female-only event was a nice touch. Women could enjoy the music and swing to the beat without worrying about any unwanted male gaze.

Natasha Baig performed live
Natasha Baig performed live

"Show me the Girl Power!" screamed Natasha Baig, an up and coming singer from Hunza, as she attempted to enliven her audience.

SSP meetups cash in on 'female empowerment'

I have to give credit to Kanwal for admitting that SSP meetups aren't charity events.

Over time, Kanwal has managed to leverage her 34,000-member strong group into opportunities to make money and raise her own visibility: starting an independent website, making TV appearances, advertising, and of late, charging SSP members for these meetups.

As she said, with her SSP meetups she is providing a service (entertainment, social event) so what's wrong in expecting something in return? When I asked about the steep ticket price (which was Rs2,500), she said that attending the meetup was a luxury, not a need. "It's like a L'Oreal shampoo," she added.

Big brands and advertisers are now wanting to get a slice of it too. The event was heavily branded and sponsored as one saw gifts and ads by Dayfresh, Sunsilk, Palmolive, Satrangi Bonanza, Nando's, Tapal.

Read: The new influencers

Someone said she and her friends were there for the joy of getting these sponsored goodie bags. But to me, that still doesn't justify the Rs2,500 ticket price they willingly paid because honestly, the bag simply contained boxed milk from Dayfresh, shampoo and conditioner from Sunsilk, a Palmolive soap and perfume from Bonanza Satrangi. Some unhappy sisters said they could have simply bought these things themselves.

Big brands and advertisers wanted to be a part of the event
Big brands and advertisers wanted to be a part of the event

It's admirable that Kanwal has been able to monetise an idea so successfully; in this way she's a model for other women.

But because these meetups are ultimately motivated by a political concept: that is, empowering women, creating communities for women — they won't be able to escape a political critique too, and they may end up falling short on substance.

Speaking of substance, this SSP meetup offered conflicting messages

The SSP brand wall/ photobooth featured props that you could hold while you took selfies. One of the props said "PRIDE" with letters painted in rainbow colours.

Plot twist!
Plot twist!

Did the meetup's organisers understand this is a reference to gay pride and a common symbol for the LGBT community?

This was ironic, given that online the group is not very inclusive of sexual minorities. Life revolves around family, marriage, a husband, in-laws, children ... heteronormative patriarchy, hegemony and moral policing.

So what do these meetups really offer women?

Toward the end of the event, women were waiting on fathers, husbands, brothers or other male relatives to pick them up from the venue. Strong women, maybe. Independent? Not so much.

To me, this highlighted the many structural restrictions that have to be chipped away at on the daily.

An SSP member said her father criticised her for spending money in wasteful ways when he learned she was going for the meetup. Another feared her husband would create a scene if he found out where she was that afternoon and how she spent the money. Then there was a lucky one, who laughed and said, "Thank God I earn my own money! I didn't have to give anyone any justifications."

The way forward

That said, I would rather have these meetups exist than not have the option to attend them at all.

As these meetups evolve and grow, I hope SSP takes them as opportunities to reflect and to take constructive criticism on board, thereby creating the most positive change in all women's lives.