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The Curious Rise Of Secret Facebook Groups

by Tasbeeh Herwees

August 24, 2016

Around this time last year, Adiba G., a 21-year-old Muslim-American based in California, felt like she’d run out of people to talk to. She wasn’t comfortable going to her parents about her problems with love or sex. And whenever she’d approached a counselor or therapist, the responses she received were toxic—even xenophobic.

I just spilled my guts to you and this is all you got?

“They'll be like, ‘Wellllll, it must be because your parents were arranged.’ Or just come out of nowhere with the mega-Orientalist shit, like, ‘It's probably because you're Muslim,’” she says. “I just spilled my guts to you and this is all you got?”

Adiba says that Arab and Arab-American women often have to deal with a “double stigma,” their behaviors unfairly judged first by their own communities, then the rest of American society. The latter, she says, has an “intense, exotifying fascination… with Middle Eastern women's experiences.” Whenever Adiba opened up about her personal narrative to outsiders, she felt she ran the risk that it would be used as fodder for someone’s anti-Arab agenda.

So with her friend Mariam, 25, Adiba founded Ishtar, a secret Facebook group and “sacred space” for Middle Eastern women in the United States. [All of the names and secret group titles in this article have been changed]. The two invited a select group of women they knew and trusted to talk about family disputes, mental health, and, as Mariam puts it, “things like sexual assault, relationships, queer sexualities, and being a sexual woman in a culture that’s told you that that’s the worst thing you can be.”

Ishtar is, for all intents and purposes, a “safe space”—a concept that in recent years has become a lightning rod for controversy. Free speech absolutists spit the phrase out with disdain, arguing that the call for safe spaces on university campuses and online platforms are examples of a politically correct culture gone awry. Political commentator Jonathan Chait and professional atheist Richard Dawkins are members of this cabal.

But what these critics fundamentally misunderstand about safe spaces is that they’re intended to be self-contained, entirely independent of the public sphere. The phrase was deployed as early as the 1960s to describe gay and lesbian bars, and in the 1970s to describe women’s “consciousness-raising groups.” These were domains where marginalized people could organize and connect with a community of their peers—people who’ve had similar experiences with homophobia or sexism.

Unfortunately, physical safe spaces are vulnerable to attack. Regulars at Pulse, the LGBTQ nightclub where 49 people were killed by a mass shooter, considered it to be a safe space for queer folks. And earlier this summer, a male professor at the University of Michigan-Flint sued the school over a women’s lounge that he argued violated the “civil rights” of men on campus; the private gathering area is set to be opened up to all students on campus.

In the face of this kind of hostility, more people like Mariam and Adiba are retreating to virtual spaces. Tumblr for many years served (and, for some, continues to serve) as a safe online harbor. The relative anonymity of the platform and the way it was structured—as a rolling, reverse chronological feed of text and image posts—encouraged confessional writing and emotional responses.

In 2012, as Tumblr was gaining a reputation as the premier virtual teen hangout, observers noted gravely that Facebook was becoming the domain of—gasp—old people. Parents were sending friend requests to their children. Grandparents were posting memes and commenting on their photos. In February of 2013, Blake Ross, Facebook’s director of product, resigned via a public goodbye letter echoing these concerns.

“I’m leaving because a Forbes writer asked his son’s best friend Todd if Facebook was still cool and the friend said no,” Ross wrote in a now-deleted post to his Facebook profile. A Pew Research Center poll released that same month suggested that even adults were tiring of the site.

Yet more than three years later, Facebook has surpassed Exxon in total market value, the fourth most valuable company in the world behind Apple, Google, and Microsoft. In January, the company announced that it had hit 1.59 billion users. According to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 1 billion of them are active in Groups, a feature that was turned into a standalone app in 2014.

Facebook’s revised focus on Groups signals a recognition that users are migrating to the closed-off margins of their Facebook feeds, where they’re able to vent about daily trials and tribulations—an endeavor that’s become increasingly difficult on main profile pages. Ellis Hamburger of The Verge attributes this to the platform’s “friend problem”: A typical user’s vast network of friends includes coworkers, former pals from middle school, people encountered briefly at parties or conferences, and distant relatives.

If Facebook profiles have become our polished digital business cards, these discreet communities give us permission to get messy.

Mona, a 37-year old mother of three, started a Facebook group for Arab “mommies,” where she could feel comfortable talking openly about being a stay-at-home mom. “Within Arab communities, there's a facade that you have to portray outside of the house,” she says. “Inside of the house, it's a different situation. I think this group does give a little relief to that.”

Still, as closed-off online spaces increase in popularity, some are starting to feel less than safe. “I'm a part of a lot of different ‘secret’ Facebook groups,” says Hanna, a 24-year-old writer. “I have only one where I feel safe enough to share personal details, mostly because they're spaces where we have built up relationships of trust… You can't guarantee, no matter how curated your Facebook/Twitter is, that you won't get a man popping in and ruining shit.”

You can't guarantee, no matter how curated your Facebook/Twitter is, that you won't get a man popping in and ruining shit.

Mona counters that it's possible to regulate her group pretty tightly. Members aren’t allowed to discuss what happens within the group to non-members. “We do have a rule where you have to participate,” she says. Those who don’t are subject to being kicked out: If you’re not confessing, you have no personal stake in protecting the group’s security. 

For a generation that came of age on Facebook, the assumption that everything posted to a Facebook page is public is one widely taken for granted. In the groups, however, it’s likely users won’t know every participant or member—or anyone at all. And that’s, in fact, one of the draws. “There are some people in groups in general who I've never met or spoken to one-on-one that know information about me people close to me don't even know,” says Hanna.

“It really is just a bunch of floating names in space,” adds Adiba. “What if you hate these people in real life? It doesn't fucking matter. Your personality stuff doesn't matter, because you’re doing this intense spiritual work together that's really liberating and beautiful.”

Illustration by Emily Lin

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The Curious Rise Of Secret Facebook Groups