Good news for women in Pakistan after a crowd-funding success saves Kanwal Ahmed's show sharing advice on taboo subjects like sex and violence… and cooking.
A social media star has been dubbed Pakistan’s 'Oprah' after her revolutionary digital talk show in which women talk about taboo issues such as marital rape, cyberbullying and femicide was saved by 'soulies'.
Filming started this week on the new series of Conversations With Kanwal, in which presenter Kanwal Ahmed, 31, shines a light on subjects rarely discussed within families, let alone in the public arena, after fans raised more than five million rupees (around £23,000 / $30,000) in just a few days using an online crowdfunding platform. Quite an achievement when you realise that the majority of fans were women living in Pakistan, where fewer than 30 percent are employed, so are often financially dependent on their spouses and don’t have their own bank accounts.
Ahmed’s journey to becoming the nation’s favourite agony aunt began seven years ago when she launched Soul Sisters Pakistan (SSP), a women-only forum, where members could discuss taboo subjects such as domestic violence without fear of retribution. It also gave women the freedom to talk about anything from sex and relationships to Netflix and cooking tips.
In a religiously and socially conservative nation such as Pakistan, where a selfie can result in an “honour killing”, SSP has become a lifeline for members or “Soulies” as they call themselves. The idea for the forum came about when Ahmed was working as a bridal make-up artist and found herself often dishing out advice to young women on everything from sex to handling in-laws.
“Many women don’t have anywhere to get information about sex and relationships and for many, their first experience of both may be on their wedding night,” said Ahmed. “It’s considered an act of shame to talk about something as intimate as sex. It’s ironic, because the word marriage is on everyone’s mind when a girl turns 18, but sex, body rights, contraception are hardly ever discussed with her. We grow up with biology books stapled to hide the reproduction section.”
SSP has more than 250,000 very active and vocal members, the majority of whom are aged between 18 and 35 and it was important to Kanwal that SSP should be an inclusive space for women of all backgrounds, including religious minorities, she said.
Two years ago, Ahmed was selected as a community leader by Facebook in recognition of her efforts to use the social network to help others. She used its grant to launch Conversations with Kanwal on YouTube.
While the grant sustained the series for two seasons, it wasn’t enough to keep the show going, but despite hitting 30 million views - matched only by the most popular soap operas - most mainstream channels refused to touch the format because it was deemed too controversial, while others found it too hard hitting and wanted Ahmed to add a “beauty segment,” or comedy skit.
Like her Soulies, Ahmed turned to SSP for advice and launched a Kickstarter campaign. Donations flooded in, from a few rupees to thousands of dollars.
“Financial independence is not considered a birthright for those who identify as women. Many women either open a joint account with a male counterpart or only deal in cash, which is why it’s such a big deal,” said Ahmed. “It truly is a show that is powered by the people.”