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Susan's 5 questions for Kanwal Ahmed

On International Women’s Day, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki spoke with Pakistani Canadian creator Kanwal Ahmed about how she’s bringing women together on her YouTube channel to talk about difficult but important issues.

Susan: You’ve made an amazing impact on the lives of women by creating a safe space for them to connect and express themselves. What made you decide to launch a YouTube channel for Conversations with Kanwal?

Kanwal: My YouTube Channel was inspired by the women on my Online Community (Soul Sisters Pakistan) and fueled by the lack of appropriate representation of women in local media. Locally, I found media was used to create and deliver content aimed at dehumanizing women. This dehumanized woman is seen in the storylines of popular Pakistani dramas, the aspirations of mainstream morning shows, and in the shaming strategies of marketing campaigns. The existing establishment excels at developing visual media that is directed by and further fuels values of a patriarchy—a trend that I knew from my work was at conflict with the viewing interests of the voluble and thoughtful women of today. The women I could see and speak to in my community. Internationally there’s very little representation—although now growing—of the regular South Asian woman and her story.

...I aimed to harness the power of storytelling and skillful videography to steer societal values towards positive development. I aimed to tell the world their time to oppress us is up.”

To this end I aimed to harness the power of storytelling and skillful videography to steer societal values towards positive development. I aimed to tell the world their time to oppress us is up. Because at heart this constant perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles has hurt generations of South Asian women, even now in this era of progress and education. Of course we cannot directly blame media for this. But when the same oppression we witness in daily life is reiterated non-stop on screen, they are definitely contributing to a vicious cycle. And that was the cycle I wanted to break. By bringing forward real, inspirational, aspirational stories of women that other women can learn from.

Susan: Your first episode was a powerful exploration of domestic abuse and shared one woman’s personal experience. How did you know this was the first topic you wanted to take on? And how do you decide the issues you’ll address each season?

Kanwal: As much as we wish it wasn’t true, as much as society shuns talking about it—there is an epidemic of violence against women in Pakistan. Statistics point towards more than 24 percent, but even that is questionable based on the definition of violence and the reporting. Because we forget, culturally it is shamed upon to “air your dirty laundry.” And that’s exactly why I decided to do it. To shatter the culture of silence around violence against women. I’m grateful to my guest Adeela who stood up, agreed to come on the show and speak openly not just about the abuse she bore but also how she got out. Her story instantly hit thousands of views on multiple platforms and while I was afraid that our viewers might feel upset at this “open” discussion of “domestic matters” I was pleasantly surprised. My audience was receptive. There were conversations generated in the comments sections and across multiple platforms. Clearly, everyone was waiting for someone to start the topic because they all wanted to join in.

Having said that, local issues from within my community and around me are the inspiration behind selecting topics for each season. I try to fit in as many things that are under represented or ignored. Issues that are real but often deflected. And the purpose isn’t just to start the conversation but to make people acknowledge that this exists. To make them aware. To inspire them and to remind them that they aren’t alone. That there are people out there who share their stories.

Susan: You’re helping women talk about difficult but important questions. How do you keep your community engaged as you discuss problems like child marriage, cyber harassment, and emotional abuse?

No story should feel like it’s not important enough to be heard.”

Kanwal: I think my engagement is derived from the fact that women see themselves authentically represented on screen. There is no censorship and no script. Just people baring their souls. Moreover, overall the show is bringing forward their stories that they could not find elsewhere on media. Because where do we see South Asian women openly talking on camera about the things that affect them, that matter to them? Things that their elders told them to keep quiet about?

My aim has consistently been to have anyone who identifies as a woman see themselves represented on my platforms. No story should feel like it’s not important enough to be heard. Every viewer should feel empowered seeing someone like herself talk about their story in front of everyone and that they too were living in times where the entire world hearing their voice was only one click away.

Susan: Your fourth season launched last month, and you have a creative new format that features conversations taking place around a meal. What inspired you to focus the conversations around cooking?

Kanwal Ahmed

Kanwal: With the last two years of COVID and and an overall experience of loss and dismay, I felt inspired by some of the comments in Season 3, where audience members urged for me to try something new.

Food happens to be such a big part of our culture in South Asia. Families and friends often bond over it and there’s so much intricacy in the way our dinner parties are planned out. How a major part of big events like weddings revolve around the menu. For me in a world that felt like it was growing apart, I felt we could reconnect over food while still talking about our stories with a special focus on relationships.

To top that we were able to partner with an upcoming food brand led by a female entrepreneur who supported us in the concept. And so combining our collective forces and creative ideas, I launched the season with a fresh format.

Susan: What can YouTube do to be more supportive of creators like you whose content is making a difference in people’s lives?

Kanwal Ahmed

Kanwal: Firstly, I have to say - for me YouTube is a very creator friendly platform. It gives us plenty of opportunity to sustain ourselves, build a community and for good content to shine through organically on the algorithm. My personal experience on YouTube has been incredible - and I think in a world where often random go viral over a second, YouTube gives those who want to invest time and thought in content, sustainable growth with a focused audience.

Having said that, I do believe there are ways YouTube can work with creators in my field to further their work. This kind of content isn’t produced on a mass level but it touches people’s lives. It creates ripples in society - quite literally. It gets people thinking and talking. We have had people taking action against domestic violence after watching episode one. And young women waking up to childhood abuse after understanding THAT’S what happened to them after seeing an episode about it.

Our stories are waiting to be heard, amplified, and celebrated.”

Yes, it is difficult to scale content like this - but that doesn’t mean it should. It just means it needs backing. Our stories are waiting to be heard, amplified, and celebrated. Underrepresented stories like ours also deserve a gateway to bigger audiences. If brand campaigns and programs that support creators doing social impact work were to open up for us they would give us that exact exposure and a great shot at telling the world what we are made of. That our stories too, matter.