When Mariam first heard of Sidra Humaid last year, she was swayed by her charming personality.
Up until this week, Humaid, a micro-influencer and entrepreneur in Pakistan, was big in closed social media groups, selling artisanal items, raising funds, and exhibiting a devout Muslim persona on Facebook. She is best known for running over a hundred financial saving “committees.”
In Pakistan, committees are a popular and traditional form of informal savings. By one estimate, 8 in 10 women in the country of 220 million don’t have bank accounts. For many Pakistani women, committees are their only route to financial freedom.
Mariam, who runs her own business, joined Humaid’s committees last year to help save for unexpected medical expenses. She put in nearly $1,000. Last week, she lost all of it, along with 200 women across Pakistan, who say they were swindled out of $2 million by Humaid.
Social media users and local news outlets are now calling Humaid a “Committee Swindler” or a “Facebook Swindler,” likening her to the protagonist of Netflix show The Tinder Swindler—a real-life scammer who conned several women to the tune of $10 million in a Ponzi scheme.
“Initially, I thought it’s financial mismanagement,” Mariam told VICE World News. She didn’t want to use her real name out of fear of online reprisals from people who still support Humaid. “But when other people also came out with similar stories like mine, it became a clear case of embezzlement.”
The losses became public after Humaid published a Facebook apology last week, acknowledging that she “messed up” by getting caught in a Ponzi scheme and losing an amount of money she “cannot even calculate.”
“I am not a scammer or someone who will rob someone,” said Humaid’s post. “It’s been up to three to four months that I’ve been in so much trouble because of my committees and the deadly cycle it created, and I was trying to cope with it but now I am in a position that I can’t even handle it.”
Humaid didn’t respond to interview requests but as of this week, she sought protection from the local court for being hounded by “thugs” demanding their money back. One victim quoted in Pakistani news outlet Dawn said that before last week’s apology, Humaid was posting about “new fancy belongings like expensive cell phones, watches, etc, which explained where all the money was going.”
Mariam said the scam has “shaken the trust” of women like her in a system intended to provide a safe space to women who are not financially literate or empowered. “I haven’t gotten my payout yet,” she said. “However, I will be involving the Federal Investigation Agency in my case.”
Committees are a uniquely South Asian concept created out of a culture that doesn’t encourage financial independence of women and a banking system that’s still highly inaccessible to women. A savings committee can be made of six to dozens of people – usually women – and it has a lead, one person, who holds monthly installments of cash from each member, and helps build a predetermined pot of money for payouts. For example, a committee of six women want to save $1200 each. Every month, six members contribute $100 raising $600 a month, and every two months, one member, based on a lucky draw ballot, gets a payout of $1200. The members who get the payout early are considered lucky, the ones at the end, not so much.
The money collected for payouts is not invested and there is no interest on the payouts. Some financial experts call committees a bad way of saving money since it doesn’t take into account economic downturns such as the ongoing global economic recession.
But for most women in Pakistan, committees are a reliable alternative to stashing away cash at home, which might be discovered, and used by other family members. In most committees, people know each other, it’s built on a circle of trust. Often there is no paper trail for a committee. Since it’s an informal, flexible system, many committees allow those in sudden dire need to get their pot of cash before their allotted date.
A 2018 World Bank report found that women saving in committees has been increasing substantially even though the number of banked women rose marginally across South Asia. Some of the reasons cited for this trend included a lack of awareness in financial services and institutions, and a lack of trust in them. One study estimated a $652 million injection of funds for Pakistan if more women started officially banking.
“The banks in Pakistan are not welcoming towards women,” a social media community builder who goes by the name Umm E Azaan told VICE World News. “Opening a bank account is really difficult because the banks ask for proof of income and aren’t very cooperative.”
Committees also help women save money for specific needs that banks don’t, and without hassle. Meenah Tariq, who runs a fintech company called Metric in Pakistan, told VICE World News that some of the most essential purchases in her family, from a bed to a car, have been through committees.
“Over the course of my life, I have seen assets bought, education and weddings financed, even businesses started, based on this interest-free honour-based tool, among the lowest socio economic segment all the way to the elite,” said Tariq.
“[The committee system] blew me away,” she added. “Even though I’m a HENRY (High Earning Not Rich Yet), I would not have been able to mobilise that kind of money so quickly.”
While bank loans are seen as an expensive and troublesome process, especially for those who aren’t that privileged, Tariq said many women are also discouraged by their families from taking financial decisions too.
“Financiers are [also] biased against women and tend to take them less seriously, or see them as higher risk, which greatly reduces their chances of availing financial services,” she said.
“Over the course of my life, I have seen assets bought, education and weddings financed, even businesses started, based on this interest-free honour-based tool, among the lowest socio economic segment all the way to the elite.”
Syed Faizan Raza, a financial service designer who studies Pakistan’s unbanked population, said that committees help women with little or no financial agency. “Even the most conservative families encourage women to take part in committees so that when they need it too, they can dip into those savings,” he told VICE World News.
Since news of Humaid’s alleged fraud has emerged, many on social media have taken the committee system to task for putting vulnerable women at risk. One Twitter user posted, “How were you people trusting someone with your money through social media accounts. That's absolutely nuts.” Another said, “Not sure if i should feel bad for the ladies whose money is confiscated by #sidrahumaid or be happy that they will finally learn to not trust someone else with their money.”
But Raza says this backlash ignores all the good committees have done for women in South Asia, even recounting cases where women have secretly saved money to get out of abusive marriages.
“Humaid’s case must have become a cautionary tale, but a lot of good has come out of committees,” he said. “Even the most well established financial entities are prone to fraud. The scepticism over committees is disconnected from the daily reality of many people for whom this is the only option.”
Similar scams have taken place in Pakistan and India. In 2015, a con-woman in Islamabad ran away with nearly $200,000 worth of committee investors’ savings, and in India, similar setups commonly called kitty parties were misused by organisers to embezzle money, resulting in arrests. Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies frequently warn citizens of the risks of investing in unrecognised saving schemes.
Azaan, the community builder, said she knew Humaid socially for over a decade and has many friends who lost their money to her this time. “She was known to be a very religious person and enjoyed great credibility online,” she said. “That’s why people trusted her with their money.”
Right now, Azaan said there’s a social media campaign to silence anybody speaking up against Humaid.
Another investor, Khadija Abid, who got her money back early this week, told VICE World News that she, too, was getting silenced online. Abid didn’t respond to specific questions but alleges that Humaid is “threatening all victims.”
Even though she got her money back, she’s in financial trouble because of the scam.
“I now owe money to five members and my parents’ commitment collapsed due to [Humaid’s] mis-commitment and lame excuses. She has ruined our peace of mind,” Abid wrote.
Azaan, who is helping victims get legal aid, said that 90 percent of the victims don’t want to take the legal route. “There’s a mistrust in the [justice] system,” she said. “They want to have an out-of-court settlement because that still feels like the only option.”
Yesterday, Humaid updated her investors saying she’s in the process of “adjusting [her] accounts” that will enable them to “pay accordingly to everyone whom we are legally liable to pay.”
Tariq said that the incident exemplifies fallouts of the global economic recession.
“With a lack of employment, high inflation, and global doom and gloom, everyone is looking to make some quick money on the side,” she said. “On the other hand, for women particularly, means of financial access are severely limited.”
“So what this story exposes is economic distress coupled with patriarchy and misogyny, which led to this fiasco.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.