Khadija Siddiqui had no idea that her post that shared a small incident from her life would get more than two thousand ‘Likes’. She had posted it under a hashtag and did so just for fun. It was when her phone buzzed non-stop that she realised that her post was being loved by a majority of members.
“The incident that I had shared was close to my heart. And I was a kid when that happened, so my siblings and my cousins knew everything about it. When I shared it on a group, I was surprised to see the members’ similar stories.
“And after I got somewhat ‘viral’ in the group, I participated in other posts as well. The best thing about such groups is that there isn’t any one topic. There are so many basic things that are discussed that it makes your time in those groups quite amazing. I have also posted a question on where I could find genuine makeup products, and I have got to know about places I never bothered checking out,” narrates Khadija.
Over the years, especially after social networking sites gained popularity in Pakistan, there has been a surge in the number of women-only groups that offer safe spaces for women to talk about different things. They range from groups to specific, purpose-driven communities. On Facebook, a women-only group that shares tested weight loss programmes has close to 250,000 members. Another famous women-only group has close to 300,000 members.
Then, there are groups for women entrepreneurs where women can market their products and connect to potential buyers in a convenient manner. The popularity of these groups has been, to a great extent, a blessing for many women who have finally found a much-needed outlet.
“I know that the buzzword ‘behenchaara’ (sisterhood) is as old as human existence. But such groups, especially for us Gen-Zers, have been a big blessing,” adds Khadija.
However, these groups are not targeted to a particular age-group, in fact, they can help people connect more easily despite their age. For Sidra A*, who is in her early 50s, these groups have helped bridged the proverbial generation gap. “When your kids reach their teenage, you start to think that maybe your parenting has been wrong all along. Your kids hardly spend any time with you. There are boy bands that you have no clue about, and there are other things in ‘fashion’ that remain unknown. Our go-to place is the TV, and if TV shows aren’t talking about it, we remain clueless about most of the things,” she shares.
“I joined a women-only group on the insistence of my daughter. And I have enjoyed myself thoroughly. After my husband’s sudden death, I had become too quiet. My daughters were in the early years of university, and they decided that I needed an outlet. But they didn’t want me to talk to the family (who by the way had been very supportive). Instead, they wanted me to discuss with people who don’t know me as a person. They thought that by doing so, I’d be able to process my grief and trauma in a better manner.”
Another such member is Marium M*, a mother of three daughters, who shared that through these groups, she was able to understand the demands of women who participate in the Aurat March. “Two years back, I was also taken aback when I heard the controversial slogans. And my initial reaction was that women should avoid using such language when they are out on the streets. But my daughter, who is a fierce feminist, told me that I have got everything wrong. She didn’t explain anything to me, but she told me that the internet is full of spaces where I can learn more about these things,” she elucidates.
“In such groups, I took on the role of an observer. I didn’t write comments on posts that were challenging and that questioned my preconceived notions. I silently observed what people were saying and made an effort to learn. Today, I am more vocal about these topics, and I don’t mind if my friends find it difficult to understand such things. I always ask them to be part of these groups.”
While Marium found new perspectives, Laiba M*, a housewife, found that these groups are a saviour for most women. “It’s not about marriage-related stuff. There are so many issues that can easily be discussed on such forums. There are groups that allow members to post anonymously. I think this feature really helps people to ask about ideas for different occasions. My friends have shared that they have asked about ideas for gifts for their husbands or in-laws. It sounds so basic, but we really need such spaces for almost everything.”
Similarly, Zeenat R*, a banker at a private bank, discovered an opportunity to bring a positive change in her life. One of women-only groups helped Zeenat lose weight. “Ever since I was a child, I was overweight. I have grown up listening to taunts and sarcastic comments. For people, my weight was the only thing that they saw in me. Over the years, I had lost every hope to lose weight. Luckily, I was added into a weight-loss group by my friend. What I loved about the group was that no one blamed me for my weight. Everyone shared their workout routine and their journey. They motivated me and told me some tips to lose those stubborn pounds as effortlessly as possible. For me, these groups introduced me to strangers who are just like family,” she enthuses.
There are many reasons why women would join these specific groups, but sometimes joining these groups is just to merely express yourself. “Initially it was just intrigue. But it was also about the thought of having a space where I could freely express myself without being judged,” expresses Adeela Akmal, a Karachi-based journalist, on why exactly she sent the request to join such women-only groups. “I had family members added on my Facebook profile and there were certain posts that were off-limits. I couldn’t share certain jokes or memes without getting a lecture from an elder who came across it. There were also posts that I could have easily and exclusively shared with women. So, such groups offered a safe and comfortable space where I could do this. However, when I joined the group, I realised that it was more than what I was expecting it to be – in a good way, obviously. I found that it was extremely easy to ‘rant’, to ‘vent’, and to ‘express’ and there weren’t any judgemental looks. Most of them were strangers, and, in a sense, it was more comfortable to confide in strangers.”
According to Nida P, a psychologist, women-only support groups/centres are not a new phenomenon. “Back in the old days, when community living wasn’t nearly extinct, women would often meet at someone’s place to discuss everything under the sun. There are many residential areas today where women are found sitting outside of their cramped houses in circles, discussing from politics to their domestic issues,” she opines.
Nida also points out that as comforting as this familiarity could be, it blurs the concept of privacy. And while many people love the idea of having someone, a confidante, with whom they can talk about things that matter to them, sometimes they do want to get the solutions of their problems without letting the world know that they are the one who is facing an issue.
“As soon as the internet made an entry, it made it easier for people to connect to people all over the world. Previously, there used to be discussion forums where people could create their profiles and use different nicknames to remain anonymous. With social networking sites, this anonymity was side-tracked. However, the idea of creating new friendships remained as-is. Some women-only groups propped up on the site, allowing women to talk about topics that were long considered a taboo in society. From discussing their breakups to asking about the most comfortable shoes in town, women and girls are using these groups to the fullest.”
Nida, however, also mentions some of the drawbacks. “There are certain groups where young girls share their relationship stories. And, at times, the solution that other girls – who are more or less the same age – offer isn’t an ideal one. I have seen girls sharing stuff that they shouldn’t have shared on the internet. I think since the internet has many young people on it, we have to create awareness among them regarding the importance of reaching out to a well-educated medical expert so that they can get wise solutions.”
For any women-only group on Facebook, privacy is absolutely critical and hundreds of women are confiding in the space. Many of these groups have moderators who keep a check and balance for anytime someone breaks the rule. “I’ve noticed that many of these groups have active moderators who make sure there are no vile, demeaning, sexist or racial comments being posted. They will pin the rules of the group on the top so the members can read. And more recently, Facebook made an update where members can report a person to the moderators for any un-called for behaviour or any derogatory remarks that would be deemed offensive” informs Adeela.
Regarding the content of the groups, Adeela adds, “Previously, these groups had a lot of relationship and family drama. But it isn’t always the case now. I go to these groups for guidance as well. Now, the content has evolved. There are people who ask for ‘prayers’ as well. This just shows that there is an element of empathy in these groups. I have done this quite a few times as well and have asked people to send positive vibes and prayers my way. Once, at 3am, I felt quite anxious. I didn’t know who to reach out to so I added a post on one of these groups and I got amazing response.”
“In my opinion, in this highly patriarchal society, women hardly get any support. Normally, the support that they get is so riddled with internalised misogyny that it ends up creating more doubts in a woman’s mind. Fortunately, these digital spaces allow women to share their ideas and can confide in, without judgements,” she concludes.