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Silent Battles: How Pakistani Women Counter Harassment in Cyberspace

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Silent Battles: How Pakistani Women Counter Harassment in Cyberspace

“Unless these issues are addressed in the real world, they will continue to exist and increase in the online world.”

Silent Battles: How Pakistani Women Counter Harassment in Cyberspace
Credit: Pixabay

For 23-year-old Zarmeen Arif, social media has become a tool to not only voice opinions but also fight for the causes she firmly believes in. It is her escape from the usual, the mundane, and the ordinary. It gives her a sense of purpose and provides an unlimited set of opportunities to showcase creativity, from routinely sharing motivational videos on life to reviewing books and talking about women’s rights in the largely patriarchal society that Pakistan is. Her Instagram boasts over 8,000 followers, and she gets even more views on her videos and Insta stories.

Arif is a media student; hence the quest to create and share her work has always been her thing. But it hasn’t been an easy ride. In a whirlpool of followers and influencers with differing opinions, what comes across as the biggest challenge to her is shattering the glass ceiling, breaking misogynistic stereotypes that still exist in Pakistani society while simultaneously being exposed to contempt, judgment, and objectification. Arif talks about feminism, increasing rape incidents in the country, and the oppression of women, particularly those who are underpriviledged. Where her posts should ideally garner sympathy and support, some are met with backlash, moral policing, spiteful comments, and online trolling.

“Usually I don’t reply [to these trolls], but sometimes it becomes a necessity. It is sad when you are trying to educate people on such important issues, such as sexual harassment and the MeToo movement, and all you get is an inconsiderate and insensitive response, bullying and more victim-blaming,” she laments while sharing screenshots of abusive messages that she received over a post on consent in relationships.

“Most men only follow you for your photos, how you are dressing up and how you look, and not what you talk about,” she elaborates, calling it a problematic trend. She shares her own experience with stalking and online harassment. “When you make profiles public, you want to influence people in a positive way, but what is the point of all this when they [men] only follow you to judge how appealing your photos are, the way you are standing, or how your butt is looking?”

Arif shares that she has received explicit DMs (direct messages) centered around her photos and personal life, with absolutely no regard for the severity of issues she points out. But what was once a source of disenchantment to her is now a ladder to activism and thought-provoking conversations.

“Initially it did bother me a lot, but now I have started blocking and writing more. It is a good strategy to protect yourself but unfortunately doesn’t address the bigger picture. We can also not stay quiet because of all this,” she maintains, insinuating that she is committed to promoting women empowerment.

Arif’s story is not an isolated case. More Pakistani women have come out in recent times to share miseries of biblical proportions.

Last month, a girl named Fatima Aamir reported that she had been harassed online with rape and murder threats for the past four years by one man, sharing screenshots and voice notes of their conversation. The incident created an uproar on social media in the country and stirred a debate on women’s safety and harassment in cyberspace, ultimately prompting authorities to arrest the culprit. The case came to light after a much hyped motorway rape incident that shook Pakistan and created a national outcry over women’s safety, with demonstrations in all major cities.

The incident was reminiscent of the horrific murder of a social media icon, Qandeel Baloch, whose online posts and videos offended many. Baloch was killed “for honor” by her own brother for posting “obscene and immoral content” on Facebook. It was after the tragedy that discussions related to online abuse started taking place.

“We have not learned anything from what Baloch experienced on the internet and how it led to her murder. We see such examples very often,” shares digital rights expert from Pakistan Hija Kamran. “One example is that of Naila Rind, who died by suicide after being cyber harassed and blackmailed for three months and had no support at her disposal.”

Kamran says that as a society, the country has a long way to go to ensure women’s safety online and offline. “We need to revisit our priorities when it comes to regulating the internet. Imposing vague ideas of morality on people will not solve the much bigger problems of addressing never-ending violence against women in the country that ironically associates its honor with the same women it abuses and kills every day,” she states.

In September, yet another man was reported and apprehended for blackmailing a woman with her photos. Blackmailing and harassment particularly were the most reported cyber related crimes in 2018-19 in Pakistan. Many cases still go unreported despite taking a psychological toll and having long-lasting repercussions for the victims.

Kamran says that these incidents are not new and have been around since the internet became popular and accessible in Pakistan.

“These are societal issues that are being replicated on the internet, and unless these issues are addressed in the real world, they will continue to exist and increase in the online world as well,” she asserts, adding that creating boundaries is not a viable solution because that would mean asking women to self-censor, make their accounts private, or not be on the internet at all.

Alarming Numbers

Underlining the severity of the issue, Digital Rights Foundation, a research-based advocacy NGO in Pakistan, has reported an upward trend in cyber harassment. The NGO received 2,023 complaints to its Cyber Harassment Helpline in 2019, “accounting for 45 percent of the overall complaints received in the last three years” with 58 percent of the grievances being from women. The report further revealed that 40 percent of women in Pakistan have experienced some kind of harassment on social media platforms, including messaging applications like WhatsApp; 70 percent are afraid of posting their photos online. Meanwhile, many internet users are unaware of their rights: Only 25 percent understand the terms and conditions on social media websites,  while 72 percent are unaware of cybercrime laws in the country.

The organization’s founder, Nighat Dad, also indicated a rise — as much as 189 percent — in cyber harassment complaints again during the COVID-19 lockdown in the early half of 2020.

In an interview with Pakistan’s Express Tribune, Dad underscored that most of the cyber harassment cases are concerned with “non-consensual use and distribution of women’s intimate images and videos, or doctored images that show them in a compromising position.”

“Owing to that, women are hesitant about reaching out for help because they do not trust how their privacy will be handled by the law enforcement agencies,” she said.

Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Interior Ijaz Ahmad Shah in July also pointed toward the prevalence of increasing cybercrime cases while addressing the country’s National Assembly. He informed legislators that a total of 50,505 complaints had been registered during the last year, out of which 11,389 complaints were converted into enquiries and a total of 1,071 cases were registered through September 30, 2019.

Legal Framework

Pakistan has enacted several laws to combat crime in digital spaces with strict punishments as well as jail terms for offenses. Hacking, identity theft, cyber bullying, cyber stalking, doctoring images, and digital piracy are recognized as serious, punishable offenses by the National Response Center for Cyber Crimes – FIA, an agency constituted to fight cybercrime. Moreover, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) of 2016 grants punishment of up to three years, a fine of 1 million rupees, or both for cyber stalking, spreading false information about an individual to harm reputation, and taking photos or making videos of an individual without his/her consent. In addition, making explicit videos or taking photos in “sexually explicit conduct” can result in five years of jail term, a fine up to 5 million rupees, or both.

Despite the promulgation of acts to combat cybercrime, lawyers and rights activists lament that implementation has been slow and insufficient.

“The procedure needs to be fast-tracked and made more responsive to encourage women to come forward and lodge their complaints. Penalties for such crime are too soft, therefore they don’t have a deterrent effect,” says Advocate High Court Syeda Abida Bookhari as she sheds light upon what prevents victims from reporting cases. “It’s the long procedure that women in Pakistan don’t want to get into. Going to authorities many times for the follow up and making sure that their complaint is being investigated can be exhausting,” she adds.

Discussing why abuse and trolling is becoming a normal part of the online experience, especially for women, as indicated by the largest ever survey on online violence by Plan International, Bookhari holds the law enforcement authorities responsible.

“It is mainly because people think it is easier to get away online. The cyber laws are not as effective as they were intended to be. It’s not about drafting and passing the law but implementing them,” she maintains, adding that unless the laws are implemented, they will amount to nothing more than lip service.

“Implementation has been slow and insufficient. Due to the slow and lengthy procedure, the victim gets frustrated,” Bookhari observes.

Women Journalists in the Crosshairs

It seems as though women in Pakistani media are especially exposed to online abuse and trolling merely for doing their jobs and expressing opinions. In August, at least 36 female journalists from Pakistan, including famous anchorpersons, issued a joint statement condemning “vicious attacks” via social media and trolling against them, allegedly by government officials and the ruling party’s supporters.

They claimed that these circumstances had made it difficult for them to carry out their professional duties.

“The target of these attacks are women with differing viewpoints and those whose reports have been critical of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government, and more specifically its handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” the statement read, adding that to further “discredit, frighten and intimidate” women journalists, they were referred to as peddlers of “fake news” or “enemy of the people,” and accused of taking bribes. The attacks have also been of a sexual nature, involving abuse and smear campaigns, as reported by the country’s female journalists.

Bookhari suggests empowering NGOs and rights organizations to help victims of online harassment, including women journalists. She regrets that most of the women’s rights organizations haven’t been able to assist victims of cybercrime in getting justice in Pakistan.

“Off the top of my head I can only think of Madadgaar that has helped many women. Other than that there are many NGOs that were started for this purpose but haven’t done much with curbing down harassment and helping women,” she states.

Allia Bukhari is a journalist from Pakistan and an Erasmus Mundus Journalism scholar currently based in Denmark.