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THE SECRETS SOCIETY

In a culture where so many things are treated as secrets, people are constantly looking for safe spaces to speak.
Published 08 Nov, 2020 07:17am

When a social media account asked followers for secrets, promising a judgement-free anonymous exchange, many jumped at the chance to unload. Clearly, in a society where people are encouraged to push issues under the carpet, they are constantly looking for safe spaces to speak. Does Pakistan just need someone to talk to?



On a sunny September afternoon, as an unapologetic pug goes potty where he isn’t supposed to, his human makes a short video of him for her thousands of Instagram followers to view. The pug’s human is a big deal on the social media platform. She runs the massively popular anonymous account Swineryy, currently followed by over 171,000 Instagram users. When she isn’t recording sketches as one of her many comical characters, she is making videos of the pug, who she calls “Deoggy.” Deoggy is a celebrity in his own right. He is used to his movements (bowel and otherwise) being documented at all times.

Posting the video of Deoggy attending nature’s call, Swineryy asks her followers to share their secrets. Not stuff like you cheated on a diet, she says, instructing her followers to share “REAL stuff,” instead. Of course, her loyal fans comply, and things get very real, very fast.

Not to be outshined by Deoggy, one user shares that, in fifth grade, they were caught defecating in a flowerpot at school. Another regrets having a crush on Waqar Zaka as a teenager. Someone who works for an airline makes disturbing revelations, including the fact that they “often” go without washing their hands because “there’s never enough time.” (Hopefully, they have stopped doing this during the coronavirus pandemic).

One cricket fan shares that they deliberately broke their hand so they wouldn’t have to appear for their O-Level’s mock exam, and could go watch a cricket match with their “bae” instead. “I made up a dream that my Taya pays off all my late father’s loans,” another user confesses. “He got emo and paid lol [sic].” And then there are the not-safe-for-work and not-safe-for-publication secrets, that cannot be reproduced here (but are still available on Swineryy’s Instagram account as a story highlight).

Between the funny, confusing and outright bizarre secrets, there are also some serious ones. Someone shares that they went to prison for a crime they did not commit and are still fighting to prove their innocence. There are responses from people ‘confessing’ to being in long term interfaith and intersect relationships which, in all likelihood, do not have a future in Pakistan. Another user posts that their school staged a “huge cover up” when a teacher got exposed for “being a creep.”

The collection of ‘secrets’ provides interesting insight into the things people feel they cannot say out loud in Pakistan. From being in relationships deemed unacceptable, to lying about their age to their partner.

Then there are the secrets that Swineryy chooses not to share because they are “tragic and traumatising.” “I hope writing it out anonymously helped in some way,” she says. “This is a safe, judgement-free and anonymous space, so always feel free.”

Swineryy had emphasised that “this is anonymous and safe,” in her original call for secrets too. “It is important to state that because anonymity and safety in real life and online are not always a given,” she tells Eos.

“Privacy and respect are important,” she says. “Anybody trusting me with a secret should not have to wonder if their information will be used in any way or made public somehow.” It is perhaps the promise of a safe space — the kind that is rarely found in Pakistan — that encouraged so many to freely post about things that are considered taboo.

In a culture where we are conditioned to constantly worry about ‘loag kya kaheingey [what people will say],’ it only makes sense that Swineryy’s followers jumped at the opportunity to share their secrets, with the promise of confidentiality and no judgement. For years now, people have found and tried to foster safe spaces online, where users can speak their truths that they usually cannot voice, and rid themselves of the burden of secrets.


A CATHARTIC EXPERIENCE

“Tell me a secret and I’ll post it anonymously, and it will be cathartic for you…” television writer and Instagram star Jordan Firstman first posted to his over 733,000 Instagram followers early this year. Firstman has continued to do calls for secrets. It was his posts that inspired Swineryy to try it out with her followers.

Firstman’s post was based on a simple insight: saying out loud something that one has been keeping inside them can be very liberating. But the things that people keep to themselves are also informed by the societies they inhabit. Indeed, the nature of responses that Firstman and Swineryy received differed in many ways.

“I’m not sure of exactly what I was expecting,” Swineryy tells Eos. “I thought I’d just react to some submissions and have a little fun with the viewers.” And, expectedly, much fun was had. Many Twitter users tweeted saying everyone should head to Swinerry’s page and check out the stories. “Thank me later when you’re done,” one user tweeted.

But when people also started to confide in the Instagram star with more serious ‘confessions,’ she was not surprised. “I feel lucky that many Swineryy followers feel that they can trust me,” she says. “I can’t read or respond to every message, but my DMs [direct messages] are open, and have been a safe space for a number of people to write in for quite a long time. I’m proud of that!”

Swineryy thinks that her anonymity might also be a factor in people trusting her. “The fact that I may not be from their city/country or have any link to them makes it safe as well,” she says. Another important factor, of course, is the anonymity of the posts themselves.

The internet’s ability to give people a certain degree of anonymity has done a lot of damage. Much has been written about ‘faceless trolls’ and people feeling comfortable hurling abuses and threats at others on social media, because of the anonymity online. But while this anonymity has allowed for a ‘troll culture’ to develop, it has also given people relative safe spaces, and the freedom to type out things that they would not dare voice. This was clear to see on some of the posts that were shared in response to Swineryy’s call for secrets, and can also be seen on social media platforms like Twitter, where people feel somewhat safe talking about subjects like sexuality, that are otherwise considered taboo.

While Swineryy’s secrets have been much talked about lately, we have seen versions of similar calls for secrets online before. In the early 2010s, one of the biggest trends at universities across Pakistan was having dedicated ‘confession’ pages on Facebook. Most can still be found online by simply searching any major university’s name with the word ‘confessions’ next to it.

In a culture where we are conditioned to constantly worry about ‘loag kya kaheingey [what people will say],’ it only makes sense that Swineryy’s followers jumped at the opportunity to share their secrets, with the promise of confidentiality and no judgement.

These pages took inspiration from the concept of confessionals at churches, and some posts started with the phrase, “Forgive me Father for I have sinned.” In 2013, one of the confession pages run by students at Lahore University of Management Sciences posted that to “mark the start of a new era,” those messaging their confessions should say, “Abbu mujhe maaf kardo,” instead.

These pages were so popular back in the day that most major universities had multiple rival pages, fighting for likes, shares and, of course, the juiciest confessions. While these pages could not absolve anyone of their sins, they still attracted a large number of responses. The ‘confessors’ were not digging deep into their souls either, but using the comfort of anonymity to confess to crushes, ask who the cute boy they saw in their Economics class was and own up to shenanigans like putting their class’s reading link in the “Internet Explorer exceptions” list, making it impossible for the instructor to access the material. Sometimes alumni also joined in. “I liked this friend of mine but never told her,” one university alumni wrote in his confession. “Her daughter calls me Mamu now.”

The trend of confession pages has died now for the most part. On today’s social media platforms, perhaps the Mamu post would be suited for a ‘gham [sorrow] hour’ tweet instead — a Twitter trend in Pakistan, where people share their sorrows, heartbreaks and vulnerabilities after midnight.


ALONE TOGETHER

One user shares an image of a rickshaw with the words, “Mountains can fly, rivers can die. You can forget me, but never can I,” painted on it. The accompanying tweet simply reads, “Gham Hour.” “Meer Taqi Meer is the vibe of our gham hour today,” another user tweets. Another asks, “Hey, you all doing sad tweets, has gham hour started?” apparently responding to afterhours material being shared before the appropriate time.

By tweeting about heartbreak and loneliness, users find ways to bond and feel less alone. As the saying goes, ‘Dukh baatney se kam hotey hain aur khushiyaan baatney se barrhti hain [Sorrows reduce when shared, happiness increases when shared].’

But most gham hour posts would not qualify as secrets. Talking heartbreak is hardly a taboo in Pakistan. While expressions of love and public displays of affection between couples are a rare sight, you see declarations of heartbreak everywhere. “If you go out right now, you’ll see ‘Sanam beywafah [unfaithful lover],’ written on every other bus,” says Ahmer Naqvi, a pop culture writer, who currently has over 72,000 followers on Twitter.

Illustrations by Samiah Bilal
Illustrations by Samiah Bilal

“Celebration may seem like a weird word to use here,” he says. “But South Asia really celebrates heartbreak and sorrow ... What you see on Twitter is the same vibe, that has now been translated for the digital world.”

Naqvi believes that gham hours have always existed in this region in some way or another. “If after a certain point in the night, you turn on FM radio, there will be a host, who has a really smooth voice and is playing sad songs,” he says. “People also call and say, ‘Meri shaadi nahin horahi [I am not getting married],’ or ‘Main koyi shair sunaana chahta hoon [I want to narrate a couplet].”

But some gham hour posts go beyond heartbreak and show signs of someone battling with their inner demons. One user posts a series of screengrabs from the 1997 Abbas Kiarostami film Taste of Cherry. “I know that suicide is one of the deadly sins,” the subtitle on the first screengrab reads. “But being unhappy is a great sin too. When you’re unhappy you hurt other people. Isn’t that a sin too?” the subtitles on the subsequent frames continue.

“Today’s gham hour is all about this,” the user tweets with the images. Her chosen screenshots, talking about suicide being a sin, seem to be in direct conversation with the sort of responses one may receive if they were even to mention having suicidal thoughts to someone in our society. But on Twitter she posts freely and even gets responses — some kind, others less so.


ONLINE SAFE SPACES

Last year, Zoya Rehman, a writer and researcher working in the development sector tweeted that she identifies as queer, despite being married to a man. The Twitter thread she posted talked about her experiences of being bisexual and coming to terms with her sexuality.

Talking about sexuality in Pakistan is hard enough, but doing so as a married woman, under her own name, was a bold move, and one that Rehman has never regretted. “The responses I got were extremely supportive,” she says. “I obviously got a couple of weird, trolly [troll-type] comments. But those comments were very few compared to the amount of support that I got.”

“I have found a great feminist community, and most of that happened online,” she adds.

Naqvi believes that gham hours have always existed in this region in some way or another. “If after a certain point in the night, you turn on FM radio, there will be a host, who has a really smooth voice and is playing sad songs,” he says.

But, lately, Rehman has also experienced “a lot more vitriol and a lot more trolling,” on Twitter. She first joined the platform because it seemed to be a space where she could post relatively freely, without the presence of a lot of family or people she personally knows. But over the past few years, there has been a mainstreaming of Twitter, and the dynamics have shifted.

Naqvi agrees. “2014 onwards, globally, Twitter and other forms of social media became legitimate arenas for political parties and actors,” he says. “That had a significant impact.”

Another event that majorly changed the dynamics for feminists like Rehman was the Aurat Azadi March. While social media spaces have helped activists come together and the movement to grow on the one hand, it has also given space for more abusive behaviour towards the activists. Rehman, who was one of the organisers of the march in Islamabad where stone-pelting took place, says that she feels a lot more drained this year. “Everyone’s attention is online, because most people are stuck at home,” she tells Eos.


ANONYMITY ONLINE

Rehman had an anonymous account on Twitter at first. “But then my friends started recognising me and tagging me in stuff,” she says. Putting her name out has impacted what she posts. “I have felt the need to self-censor a little bit,” she says.

Swineryy says that there are different reasons for her anonymity. For starters, she sees little reason to share her identity. “My work is centred around my characters, their storytelling and comedy, and I think my face and identity would just take away from that,” she tells Eos. “I create these unique characters, their voices and their stories, and right now I don’t really see a place for just myself amongst that,” she says.

Related: Instagram account Swinery has over 26k followers, but who is behind the viral videos?

But, she adds, “I am also able to enjoy my privacy and safety this way. Both of which are important but, in our society, with my kind of work, the latter is probably a little more important.”

When you have a big following, putting yourself out there almost always attracts personal attacks. While the conventional wisdom is to ignore the trolls, that is sometimes easier said than done. “It also depends on your personality,” Naqvi says. “The kind of person I am, I always think about how people are reacting to what I am saying.”

But being so visible on Twitter has forced Naqvi to become better at rolling with the punches. “The internet in general, but Twitter in particular, is a very no-holds-barred place,” he says. “While 80 percent of the responses may be positive, someone will always say, ‘Bhai, apney naakhun saaf karletey [You could’ve cleaned your nails],’ irrespective of whether one’s nails are dirty or not.”

Naqvi’s mother once saw such comments on his post and was very concerned as to why people were saying these things about her son.

The rules are different for people like Naqvi, Rehman and Swineryy, who enjoy varying levels of visibility online, but people who are on social media platforms anonymously for personal use, or with smaller followings, have relative freedom. There are also still spaces, including closed Facebook groups, where they can speak somewhat freely. Increasingly, however, more curbs are being placed on what can and cannot be said online as well. Things are particularly bad in Pakistan, which every year finds itself in American non-profit Freedom House’s list of countries where the internet is ‘not free.’ But, unfortunately, Pakistanis do not enjoy many free spaces offline either.

The world over, people have made use of anonymity online for a sense of security. True anonymity online and on social media platforms, however, is next to impossible.

Read: Social media curbs setback to Pakistan, says Wells

In 2012, an app called Whisper became popular around the world, finding users in Pakistan too. Whisper is an anonymous social media app that lets people post without their names. The app was positioned as “the safest place on the internet.” Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that Whisper had left users’ confessions and other details exposed on the Web, “raising alarm among cybersecurity researchers.” Similar concerns were raised in 2014 by The Guardian.

“We need to understand that the kind of technology we are using is designed to work against us,” says Rehman. Mistrust in tech has only grown over the recent past. Yet, ironically, it is sometimes on the same platforms that users feel safe saying things they would not say offline, and find individuals who they can trust to be judgement-free.


SOMEONE TO TALK TO

The response to Swineryy’s call for secrets showed just how important it is for people to have someone to talk to. Someone who listens without judgement and respects confidentiality. Someone like a therapist.

Therapy and counselling offer a safe space for individuals to say whatever is on their mind, without fear of judgement or their private thoughts being shared forward. Of course, there are many misconceptions about therapy and a social stigma, which keeps many from seeking help. But there is also a large ‘treatment gap.’ “This means that there are fewer psychiatrists and mental health professionals than are needed,” Zehra Kamal Alam, a clinical psychologist tells Eos. According to one estimate, there are currently only 400 trained psychologists in all of Pakistan.

Alam says that, although it may not always look like it, we have come a long way as far as attitudes towards therapy are concerned, and also in terms of what we can and cannot say. When she started working, about two decades ago, if she and her colleagues wrote something about sexual abuse for newspapers, the staffers would turn around and say, ‘Please remove the word sexual.’

Rozan’s Alam stresses the importance of confidentiality to the counsellors under her training, who answer the phones. “It is a basic principle in what we are taught the world over,” she says. “But in Pakistan there are no protocols, and no checks and balances.”

There is a lot more awareness today, she says. Prefacing her comment by stating that this is not necessarily true across different demographics, she says that some youngsters now talk to their parents about therapy. “They are so much more aware because they have access to information on social media.”

Alam believes that everyone should have easy access to help. This is why she supervises Rozan Counselling Helpline, a project that is trying to ensure that people always have someone to talk to if they need to. The helpline is operational seven days a week, from 10 am to 8 pm. “The idea is to provide callers with any support or information that they need and, if long term support is needed, that is available too,” says Alam.

Another similar project is the Taskeen Helpline, which was launched a few months ago. “Our trained wellness counsellors provide compassionate listening services to those who seek our help easing their distress,” the helpline’s official description states. “During the consultation, they also conduct a mental health screening to ascertain if the beneficiaries require specialised mental health services. If the beneficiaries do require such services, then they are connected to our partner mental health service providers.”

Rozan’s Alam stresses the importance of confidentiality to the counsellors under her training, who answer the phones. “It is a basic principle in what we are taught the world over,” she says. “But in Pakistan there are no protocols, and no checks and balances.”

What the counsellors do or do not do is entirely up to them alone. “Being careful about maintaining confidentiality is not in our culture in the same way,” Alam says. “Elsewhere, even a gynaecologist or a heart specialist will keep a patient’s details confidential.”

Confidentiality is one of the things Relive Now, an online therapy platform promises its user. According to Relive Now, people sometimes opt for online therapy when they “know a lot of the people who go to the same professional and don’t want to be seen due to privacy issues.” The service also allows clients to choose to remain anonymous during the session, or use a pseudonym.

But these services are few and far between, and limited in scope and size. In a culture where so many things are treated as secrets, there are curbs on what one can say, and a severe lack of open spaces where one can freely speak, clearly a lot more work needs to be done. 


The writer is a member of staff, a visual artist and filmmaker. He tweets @FahadNaveed

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 8th, 2020