This is how Human Rights Watch’s latest World Report described the government of Pakistan’s efforts toward the empowerment of women and girls in 2015: “The government took inadequate action to protect women and girls from abuses including rape, murder through so-called honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriages.” The report goes on to mention child marriages, the forced conversion of non-Muslim women, and denial of right of vote to women in various parts of the country. Essentially it paints a miserable picture of women rights in Pakistan.
However, much to the appreciation of the women of the country (who make up nearly 49 percent of total population, as per the World Bank) things have started to change since last year. The government has had bouts of “liberalism” and women have been stretching their muscles to reclaim their space in society. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for a “liberal” Pakistan and condemned honor killings, he made waves both inside and outside the country. And then there is the now-infamous Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act 2016, designed to curb domestic violence against women, as well.
Nonetheless, while Pakistan’s women may being seeing some success in their fight for empowerment offline, there is a crucial battle that has to be won online as well. The misogyny and hypocrisy of Pakistan’s men becomes more prominent when hiding behind a computer; cyber harassment is a serious problem in Pakistan.
Here, cyber harassment is meant to include a variety of online actions: cyber stalking, bullying, trolling, intimidation, blackmail, extortion, revenge porn, and the invasion of privacy. Side by side with “real-world” violence, there is technology-related violence against women (VAW) as well — and it’s now growing to epidemic proportions.
The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international network and non-profit organization, defines technology-related VAW as “acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted, or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as phones, the internet, social media platforms, and email.” Cyber stalking, harassment, and misogynistic speech are all possible examples. APC further notes, “Technology-related violence against women is part of the same continuum as violence against women offline.”
Thankfully, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015, recently adopted by the National Assembly of Pakistan, contains a special provision for the protection of women online. The article makes it punishable by law to threaten a woman with sexual violence or post sexually explicit images (real or doctored) of a woman online without her “express or implied consent.” If cyber activity “threatens injury to [a woman’s] reputation, her existing state of privacy, or puts her in fear for her safety,” the offender could face imprisonment for up to a year, a fine of one million rupees ($9,500), or both.
These legal protections are much needed. Of the cases registered with the Federal Investigation Agency involving the misuse of technology, cyber stalking is the most reported offense, accounting for more than 80 percent of all complaints. And, as Dawn reports, “Most of the victims are young women facing blackmail, harassment, and extortion.”
Even more worrisome is that this cyber harassment has been generally accepted as a routine part of Pakistani women’s daily lives. It is usually shrugged off as less important because the abuse occurs online. In truth, harassment both online and offline can lead to psychological intimidation and emotional distress.
The National Response Center for Cyber Crime (NR3C) — a law enforcement agency which combats cyber crimes in Pakistan — lists various cyber-crime prevention tips for the secure use of smart phones, online banking, social media, and so on. It provides an online cyber complaint service as well. But Pakistani officials believe that reporting mechanisms, such as those provided by the NR3C and FIA, are underused.
Cultural norms and the idea of “honor” may be a reason for victims not to seek help and report harassment. But on a more basic level, there is is simply a lack of awareness and education about cyber harassment. Victims generally do not know how to seek help and where they can report the issue. Hence it remains a highly under-reported offense.
Pakistan’s grade school and college students should be taught about internet safety, their rights to privacy and freedom of expression, where they can report issues, and how they can seek legal remedies. Media outlets and opinion-makers should also come forward in order to highlight this issue and spread awareness. Most importantly, an enabling environment should be provided for survivors so that they can voice their experiences. And once victims and civil society come forward and raise the issue, it may well have a snowball effect.
Just as patriarchy and gender discrimination pose worrisome challenges for feminism offline, online gender-based harassment should also be dealt with with the same vigor. After all, the tech world is a shared cyber space, not a male-only domain.
Mahboob Mohsin is a political scientist from LUMS, Pakistan. He is a media professional and works as a research analyst at the country head office of Channel 24 News in Lahore. He tweets @MohsinMahboob.