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Finding Comfort in Strangers - the journey to online support groups

The real world isn’t always easy to deal with. It’s in those difficult times when we need a break and we turn to virtual escapes instead. That being said, we’ve gotten to a point where our virtual realities have somewhat begun to dominate the better part of our lives. Naturally, with the virtual world being such a big part, it was only expected that the connections we make physically would find their space in the cyber realm as well. As of 2019, a survey found that 37 million people, which makes up 22% of Pakistan’s population are active social media users. In a country where many still live below the poverty line, this fast growing number indicates the extent to which social media has gained an integral position in our lives. 


As children, our parents warned us about the dangers of online friendships. While those warnings should still be heeded the virtual world has changed drastically, particularly in the last decade. Where talking to someone online provoked nothing but fear 10 years ago, today the reaction is much more lenient. In some ways, that leniency is not necessarily a good thing. The popularity and ease of access that comes with social media has made it common amongst groups of all ages. And what we commonly find in all these groups is how quick and easy it is to spout hate from behind a keyboard. It’s not at the top of the list, but Pakistan still ranked 22nd in a study that measured the occurrence of cyberbullying in multiple countries. Unfortunately such hate is unavoidable. As businesses move online - a move that will be hastened by the current global pandemic and social distancing rules - having a digital presence will become almost unavoidable. It’s a price that everyone has to pay but unfortunately some pay a heavier price than others. Just like our social standing, our online presence needs to reflect an acceptance of those same principles. However, unlike physical interactions which are often bound by the rules of human decency and the fear of being publicly called out, online responses have little to regulate them. The anonymity that a virtual profile can provide emboldens those who dare not risk a stain against their name. 




Ofcourse, there’s the other side of the coin as well. In response to the hostility of strangers there are those who offer to lend a hand, or a shoulder to cry on. Not literally of course because many of these voices of support are often miles away. While online support groups have been around for some time it is over the last few years that they have suddenly picked up the pace. The first one I remember joining, which is arguably now one of the biggest women-only online communities in the country was Soul Sisters Pakistan. Its founder Kanwal Ahmed, has since gone on to starting an online series Conversations with Kanwal, that allows women from all walks of life to tell their stories without fear of judgement or being shut down. As with any project, Soul Sisters Pakistan didn’t come without its critics and so we saw the birth of various other groups, each claiming a safe space for the women that might need it. While there does seem to be a small element of competition between members of those groups – I’ve seen multiple comments in various places talking about how a particular group is the best – at its heart it’s not a race and never has been.

Regardless of whichever platform these women may feel most closely associated with, each of them does something extremely important. In a world of expectations, hidden fears and embarrassing queries, these spaces have given Pakistani women room to breathe and grow. I’m not claiming every post and every person is perfectly accepting of all the things that are said, and there’s been more than a few rifts, and disagreements turning ugly. But that’s all part and parcel of being human. We don’t accept perfect interactions in our real lives so why should we do the same online. My biggest takeaway from these platforms has been the amazing sense of community, and majorly the efforts made to understand one another’s stories. So far, they’re not even close to perfect and being able to accept differences without jumping onto your keyboard is still a long way away. But in many ways, these safe spaces provide many with solace in their most trying times. From sharing their deepest secrets to asking for something as simple as an ‘Ameen’ to a prayer, the virtual world may just be teaching us something we’ve otherwise forgotten. Hopefully, having to view so many opinions will one day teach us to listen.

When the world seems far too cold and lonely, all it takes is a few words – even on screen – to make you feel better, and to many, these spaces provide more of these words than they could otherwise imagine.

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