April issue 2019

By | Media | Published 5 months ago

When they were children, Kanwal Ahmed and her older sister enjoyed keeping diaries, the kind with those flimsy little locks that anybody could pick with a hairpin. Kanwal says she was fascinated by the idea of writing whatever was on her mind and have it remain private and protected. 

When a little older, Kanwal discovered blogging. Her parents were strict about limiting their children’s time on the internet, judging it a distraction from their studies. But Kanwal did not let that stop her, and by the age of 14, she was using the free internet access at the Karachi Grammar School library to update her own online journal on WordPress.   

Kanwal wrote about everything she wanted, without trepidation. She wrote about school, her friends, essentially about any and everything in her surroundings. If something bothered her, it went online, but this time around, unlike her diaries, there was no physical lock (or for that matter even digital password protection) to protect her writing from the rest of the world. And this in the early 2000s, long before Facebook, Instagram or Twitter had seized the internet, and the phenomena of people putting their entire lives on the internet, had taken root. Kanwal continued writing through her teens, but the people who knew her in real life were not even aware of her online presence.

It wasn’t until her twenties that family members and friends caught on, and she began to filter her writing. She continued, because her blogging was largely seen as too boring to warrant a response, or as a fazool (waste) of time by those who knew her. And in the process, she not just produced blog content, but also consumed it. 

Kanwal recalls how at the time the blogosphere was dominated by foreigners, with only a couple other Pakistani bloggers. Among them was Imaan Sheikh, the acerbic writer who went on to become a wildly popular contributor for BuzzFeed India. Most of the bloggers Kanwal followed as a teenager were women from the West: one a young woman who wrote about depression and poetry, another a woman struggling with endometriosis. 

“Nobody really tells you about any of these things when you’re a 15-year-old in Pakistan,” Kanwal says. “Had it not been for these blogs, I would have gone on agreeing with other people’s misunderstood views of depression, that it was nothing but nashukri (thanklessness). But that girl’s blog really helped me understand how depression plays a part in people’s lives,” says Kanwal. “And as for endometriosis, I learnt how common it is, how difficult to diagnose, and how, in the case of the woman who had it, she had to resort to adoption because she couldn’t have children of her own.”

Eventually, that journey in the blogosphere led to a website that opened up a virtual world for other women. Going by the name of Soul Sisters Pakistan, this comprises both, the women-only private Facebook group and the public website of the same name that she founded. The content on these sites is wide-ranging, including everything from movie reviews to polarising discussions on marital conflict.

 “On a Facebook group, if I talked about my wedding there would be 20 other people talking about their experiences. FB is more engaging and you get more perspectives in the mix. That’s why I got into communities. I don’t want it to be only about Kanwal, because Kanwal is just one person and there are 144,000 other women who have stories that are as amazing as mine,” she says.

The 154,000 women she is referring to is the number of members the closed group, Soul Sisters Pakistan, has at the moment. In fact, 146,500 at the time of writing this article, and the number rises each day. 

Soul Sisters Pakistan was founded in August 2013, but I first heard about it two years ago. A friend was about to get married and had somewhat embarrassedly revealed that she had joined a Facebook group where she’d found a lot of advice on wedding planning – and then some. I joined too, out of curiosity. There were members posting questions about which wedding photographer charges what rates or what kind of gifts to buy for a prospective mother-in-law. For each question, there would be dozens of eager responses from within the community. And then there was the ‘then some’: anonymously uploaded posts in which women revealed that they suspected their husbands of infidelity. Posts about emotionally abusive in-laws. Posts about difficulties with miscarriage. The contrast between the frivolous and the serious was dizzying. And then there were some comments which left me stunned. 

I describe my initial forays into Soul Sisters to Kanwal and how I was taken aback by the comments on posts asking for advice on very serious issues. “Responses ranged from ‘Leave your husband immediately’ to…”

“‘Sabar karo, sabar karo’ (be forbearing),” Kanwal responds. “Yes, exactly. And there are diverse perceptions about Soul Sisters: that it is a very conservative, or a very frivolous space.”

“Right,” says Kanwal. “So let’s say I close Soul Sisters because some people give bad advice or shame others. That’s not going to change society. I’ve actually taken on a very big mission here. Maybe more than I can imagine. And it’s true that people in our society have very screwed-up values, but this isn’t new. It’s even in our television dramas. Take the series Chup Raho in which a girl was raped by her brother-in-law and her mother made her keep quiet about it. 

“And for people talking about Soul Sisters being frivolous, well it’s true that not everybody is going to like it. But if someone thinks, ‘Oh I can talk to my mother about anything and if I tell my father about harassment at work he’ll tell me to stand up for myself,’ they need to realise not everybody has that. Many women are not allowed to work. A lot of girls I speak to are not even allowed to pursue their studies after Intermediate. And some of these girls come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. We’re not even talking about lower stratas of society. There are lots of girls who are told not to return home even if they’re being beaten up by their husbands. These people need a space to talk. And Soul Sisters has become a go-to place for a lot of women, whether it’s about makeup or career choices or abuse or depression.”

And as for the perception that Soul Sisters is a conservative space, I have found content there that I haven’t found in any other Pakistani publication or community. On the website, which is open to the public, you can find a review of menstrual cups, a personal essay about the marriage between two Pakistanis suffering from neurological conditions. Just a few days before my interview with Kanwal, I’d read a post on the private Facebook group about a woman anonymously complaining about wanting to have sex but not getting it because her husband is indifferent.

“Impotence is a topic that’s been discussed time and time again on our group. A while back a woman talked about not being sexually satisfied by her husband and then another member messaged me privately to say that she was also going through the same and the conversation she read on Soul Sisters helped her understand the underlying issue,” says Kanwal.  

One of the members on the group talked about her experience about being raped, using her real name. Subsequently a few women privately messaged her, warning her to not put her name out there as it would affect her chances at getting a rishta. Kanwal removed these women from the group and then issued a strictly worded warning about victim-blaming. 

There are guidelines posted on the group which prohibit a host of things, from the sale of animals/pet adoption to objectifying celebrities. Yet, despite these strict rules, membership continues to grow. 

“When Soul Sisters started there was no other group like it, especially one that consisted of women talking about intimate, and sometimes even taboo, topics. It was a small group in the beginning so people felt, oh, there are only 4,000 people on it and I don’t know any of them, so I can talk about anything I want,” Kanwal says.

“Women would read posts on Soul Sisters and then ask their friends if they had read about such-or-such topic on it. Their friends would get intrigued and that’s how it grew. It was all word of mouth.” 

What continues to surprise me is how the members are so comfortable sharing their personal lives with thousands of strangers. Kanwal says “many people do not feel comfortable sharing online. But then they see how one woman speaks up about infertility – a usually taboo topic – on Soul Sisters, and she gets 5,000 likes for it; that makes others think that maybe they can also discuss their weaknesses or concerns. So there is a level of comfort that has developed in the group.”

I remind Kanwal that comfort aside, as regards the internet in general, there’s no real privacy. People can still take screenshots and share them with others. Even if it is a closed group, essentially it is public information. Kanwal responds, “You’re right. And every few months I get a serious complaint about it. The easiest thing for me to do is block the person who did it. Also, as far as I know, in the new cybercrime bill there’s a clause making it illegal to share information that has been put out in any private space. So if anybody bends this rule in my group, I call them out and remove them from Soul Sisters.” 

“Don’t you feel burdened by all the work Soul Sisters entails?” I ask. “People are revealing some very serious and intimate concerns and you’re responsible for overseeing the conversations.” Kanwal laughs.“I think Soul Sisters has really aged me. Earlier I’d be up all night thinking about it, but I’ve had to learn to disassociate myself from the work.

And the fact that whatever formula she is applying is succeeding can be gauged by the ever-increasing membership. But success did not translate into financial gain. “Until 2016, I had not earned a penny from Soul Sisters. It’s something that comes with time” says Kanwal. Now many corporate brands are interested in collaborating with her (two years ago, McDonald’s Pakistan shared a post on their Facebook page which featured a photograph of Kanwal’s daughter celebrating her birthday at one of their outlets and wished their ‘Soul Bhanji’ a happy birthday). In 2017, Kanwal organised a Soul Sisters meet-up for which she was able to get sponsorship from Day Fresh, and charge Rs 2,000 for the tickets.

In 2018, Kanwal was one of two Pakistani women (the other being Nadia Patel Gangjee of Sheops, an online marketplace) to be chosen by Facebook for a community leadership programme. The fellows were invited to Facebook headquarters and promised training sessions as well as grants worth up to $50,000. 

Currently Kanwal has pitched a project to Facebook and is waiting to hear back from them. Whatever the outcome of that, one thing remains almost certain: Soul Sisters isn’t going south – even as it continues to spread its wings.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.