Online harassment in Pakistan – and how women are fighting back
Digital rights activist Nighat Dad blogs on how women in Pakistan are being attacked online, and what they’re doing to stop it.
There’s a stereotype in some parts of rural Pakistan that the internet isn’t for women. It’s where people watch bad stuff or make illegitimate relationships. In a conservative Muslim society, women are not supposed to be online. Many women choose to use the internet in secret, so their family members – especially men – don’t know about it.
And that’s one of the reasons why women in some areas don’t feel safe online. They feel threatened in the same way they do offline. I’ve seen blackmail, photoshopped pictures, hacking of personal accounts and rape threats. Women activists and feminists are trolled and targeted as “unethical western agents”. Nearly half of reported cyber crimes are connected to the harassment of women on social media.
Shame and blackmail
The most shocking case I’ve seen is when some men filmed the rape of a female teacher in a remote village and then spread the video by MMS. The community reacted terribly towards her. The accused are behind bars but the woman’s life is totally ruined. She can’t go back to teach kids because her village sees her as the guilty person.
Online blackmail is a real problem too.There was a recent scandal in Peshawar where two male students hacked women’s Facebook profiles. They said they would post the women’s personal details – phone number, home address, details of intimate relationships, everything that they could find – unless they received money.
The women complained to Facebook, but they said the pages did not violate their community guidelines. The problem was that the Facebook teams had no knowledge of the local language, Pashto. Eventually, they took the pages down and the girls reported the case to the Federal Investigation Agency who arrested the two hackers.
And then there’s trolling, the worst of which is directed at female journalists. Our society is changing, but women are still meant to make babies, cook food and look after the home. They are not supposed to be intellectual or take part in political discussions. So whenever a woman speaks out on social media, some men see them as a threat
Information and opportunities
Women do need to be cautious online. But being safe is less about using specific security tools and more about changing behaviour. That’s why I’m teaching young women at universities and colleges about using the internet safely. It’s about really basic things, like how to make a strong password to stop your profile being hacked, or making sure you use a secure web browser. They’re also learning about the law and how to make a complaint so that it is properly considered by the authorities.
But the internet is brilliant for women in Pakistan.It’s a way for them to stay in touch with their families. It means they can speak freely and get the information they need. And it gives them a way to earn a living without leaving their house, for example by doing data entry or writing online articles. Women need to be able to deal with the negatives of the internet so they can make the most of the great opportunities it provides.
I’ve been many times to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Malala is from, to do ‘safe online spaces’ workshops with young women and girls. The spark and shine when I see them using social media for the first time is amazing. They’re like: “Wow! What is this?” They make their own Twitter accounts, they send each other Tweets, and just absolutely love it. I can see the sense of liberty and freedom in their eyes. I have to kick them out of the lab in the evening!
Note: The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent Amnesty International policy.
Nighat Dad is a lawyer, activist and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan and an adviser on Amnesty’s Technology and Human Rights Council. In 2015, she was named one of TIME magazine's next generation leaders, for her role helping Pakistani women fight online harassment.