New Delhi: Sex, divorce, abortion, domestic violence — these are some of the ‘taboo’ topics that are discussed on ‘Soul Sisters Pakistan’, a women-only online space created by a 31-year-old Pakistani woman, Kanwal Ahmed.
The community page on Facebook has over 2,64,000 members, and women from across South Asia share their experiences, grievances, fears and ambitions in this “safe space”, according to Kanwal, a former makeup artist. She noted that most members of the group are from India and Pakistan.
“It is known how oppressed women of South Asian countries are. No matter what the background is, women are just not able to break the shackles of patriarchy. I created this community so that women can talk about things which they otherwise aren’t supposed to speak about or discuss — sex, divorce, physical and mental abuse, abortion and miscarriage,” Ahmed told ThePrint.
“Pakistani and Indian women are extremely strong, we just don’t have the right spaces, avenues to voice ourselves. It’s unsafe for women to confide in strangers or to take a break from the cumbersome daily lives. I wanted the group to be a place where women really opened up without the fear of being attacked or harassed or judged,” she added.
‘Safe space’ for women to discuss personal problems
Born in Pakistan’s Karachi, Ahmed, who now lives in Canada, got married at the age of 22 and is a mother of a 4-year-old child. She said the need to create a free and safe space for women struck her while she was working as a makeup artist.
“I came across women who really needed someone to confide in. As I was growing up, I could see the agony and plight of women, there were live examples around me of those being ill-treated, subjected to different forms of domestic violence. This urged me to create this free space for women so that they can finally speak their heart out,” Ahmed said.
Soul Sisters Pakistan is a closed group on Facebook, with admittance regulated by Ahmed and the members, to ensure that it continues to be a female-only, safe space. It was established in 2013 and over the years has gained a lot of popularity.
In 2018, Ahmed was chosen as one of Facebook’s 115 ‘community leaders’, and received a grant from the social media giant to cultivate her project.
According to Ahmed, her page’s sole purpose is to provide a “safe space” for women to discuss “personal problems” which otherwise go unheard or are deemed “inappropriate and shameful”.
“I don’t counsel anyone, I and other women in the group only listen. Listening to someone’s agony soothes them and offers them mental strength,” Kanwal said.
Women in the group, who call themselves ‘Soulies’, offer each other emotional and mental support and advice on various issues.
One thread on the page discusses — ‘How many of you changed yourself after marriage? Do you miss what you were before?’. It has over 6,000 comments from members sharing their experiences on marriage and marital relationships.
In another thread, a community member posted about her troubled married life, talking about how she and her husband started having issues within two months of their marriage. The comments section was filled with words of encouragement and support.
There are also threads where women post pictures of their hobbies, their artwork and also photography.
Domestic abuse most discussed topic
One of the most discussed topics on the page is domestic abuse — both emotional and physical. Narrating an instance, Ahmed told ThePrint how one of the community members informed the group about her helper’s sister who was being regularly beaten up by her husband.
“The husband had a gun and would shoot in the air if the villagers tried to stop him. The woman was constantly abused. When the topic came up on our platform, another member who had good contacts with the police of another village called them up and reported the incident. The woman was rescued and brought to Karachi,” Ahmed said.
She highlighted how the journey of Soul Sisters Pakistan has also been full of inspiring moments.
“Once a member had told us how she had left her partner and was on her way to become a single parent. She was anxious, worried and paranoid as she didn’t have a job. I remember how the network was filled with messages full of love, so many single mothers came down to share their experiences. Two women even offered her a job.”
Offline events and a talk show
Besides the community page, Ahmed has also hosted offline events where women come and meet each other, make friends and talk about their issues.
“We arrange a sitting for about 500 women in one event. Here, they can confide in one another without having the fear of being judged or being laughed at. Nobody is belittled,” she said. These events were held in Karachi, where she previously lived.
Ahmed also hosts a talk show ‘Conversations with Kanwal’ on YouTube, where she interacts with women and men on various issues ranging from single parenthood, childbirth, pregnancy, emotional abuse, family pressures, female foeticide among many others.
Ahmed says 46 per cent of her audience was Indian and that her series got a “lot of love from India”.
“God bless you aunty… Be happy always. Lots of love from India,” one viewer, Koyela Chakrabarti from India, commented on her YouTube channel, which has over 78,000 subscribers.
“Waiting for a new video. It’s so inspiring, I got goosebumps watching the videos. Love from India,” another user, Shristi Chettri, commented.