While freedom of mobility for Pakistani women remains precarious, shopping was always one reason to get out of the house. Women would chat and haggle, joke and laugh as they passed among the bazaar stalls in the heat of the midday sun. Bazaar shopping was a focal point of the day, a joyous activity that provided connection as well as a way to replenish supplies. But when lockdown struck and markets were closed, those lifelines were cut off. By Rameeza Ahmad.
Pakistan is currently experiencing a third lockdown as authorities clamp down on restaurants and marketplaces to curb the spread of coronavirus. But when the lockdowns took away these experiences in the physical world, Pakistani women decided to recreate them digitally through the use of the Facebook live feature in groups.
Several groups have been set up and hundreds of thousands of women have turned to them throughout lockdown. My Home Market members during the pandemic grew to a 1000,000. Another group by the name of MPFHS Bloggers (Makeup, Photography, Fashion & Health Street Bloggers) has been around for four years but according to admin member Nuzhat Akram, membership has skyrocketed during the lockdown and the group currently stands at over 300,000 members. These female-only communities are fantastic networks for businesses to sell their wares. “The response to online shopping has been great during the lockdown”, one seller tells me.
MPFHS’ success is such that they recently held a sold-out ticketed festival by the name of ‘Dhoom Fest’ in the city of Lahore last month when restrictions had slightly eased. There was palpable excitement as the event drew near: I saw various posts and comments by women discussing what they would wear, what time they would meet, and the fact we could meet one another in person at last. I realised that these groups are the main source of connection for many women outside of their families, a vital way to stay in touch with the outside world.
There are also surprising benefits to a digital-only space. While walking around a local bazaar, I would often be beset by fears of harassment. But now the communities have moved online, I am able to experience all the benefits of female entrepreneurship and connection without being concerned for my safety. It is liberating and also more inclusive, enabling those who may not be able to get around so easily to partake: in fact, it was my elderly mother who introduced me to them. The digital communities have also opened the door to entrepreneurship opportunities that are usually denied to women. “Most of these online sellers are young unmarried girls,” my mother tells me. She feels proud of what these young women have achieved, of the fact that they are financially supporting their families.
Even when lockdown eased in Pakistan, I still saw the same amount of live sessions with the same levels of participation. Aqsa Noman, who sells makeup, tells me that her sales have gotten even better, presumably due to economic situations improving for people. I for one, hope the trend never ends; where else online can I find a woman convincing me that imported Irani snacks will be the perfect accompaniment for my evening chai?