27 November 2022
By Ahmed Saeed and Aown Kazmi
LAHORE: Since October this year, the tiny clay stove in its tiny house has not been burnt. The ashes that once glowed, when Nabila used to cook there for her four children, gather only dust now, like ghosts from the past. And like Nabila herself, the house in the remote village of Havaili Lakha in Punjab’s Okara district, seems to have lost the life within.
On October 1, distressed and humiliated by constant talk about her reputation, the 31-year-old killed herself.
AN UNFOLDING TRAGEDY
The news of Nabila’s death triggered as much commotion and chatter in the village as her name did while she was alive during her last days.
The whole situation began in July, when pictures of Nabila, edited into objectionable poses were sent around the village via Whatsapp. These digitally morphed and sexually-graphic photographs of the young woman were passed from one man to another. Nabila received no sympathy from the village people. Instead, the men and women of her village gossiped harshly about her “loose-character”, ostracising her from their company, and placing Nabila in a position of ridicule and humiliation.
Nabila went to her husband Ghulam Nabi for help and to clarify her innocence.
Speaking to Voicepk, Ghulam Nabi recalls the incident. “When her pictures went viral, she came to me first and said to me, “they are all fake”,” he said. “I told her I knew and that I trusted her.”
Ghulam Nabi set out to track the perpetrators behind the fake photos.
“I tried to contact the people who had made these pictures and pleaded with them not to do this,” he explained. “I told them, I was a poor man and that this was all wrong. I begged them four, five, six times but they did not agree and challenged me to take legal action instead.”
A BOTCHED INVESTIGATION
Nabila’s mother, Shahnaz Begum, urged the couple to go to the Federal Investigation Agency to take action against those involved, including the main accused, a woman named Fatima and her male accomplices who had created and shared the fake photographs due to personal grievances against the victim.
Shahnaz Begum recalls how she went from one office to the other in trying to get access to justice. But despite providing ample evidence, the FIA authorities delayed the filing of a first investigation report (FIR) for around two and a half months. This was when Nabila was still alive.
Nabila’s mother and husband both say that even when it began, the investigation itself was nothing but a farce.
“Fatima, the woman who started all this, came back from the FIA office and told the entire village that she had given Rs300,000 to the investigating officer and that he deleted the data from the mobile phone in front of her. ‘Now Nabila can try to do what she wants’, Fatima said,” recalls Shahnaz Begum.
But the elderly woman did not give up. She continued her struggle in going to see FIA officers and each time she received false consolation.
“I told the entire story to FIA Deputy Director Waqas, and he told me that the FIR would be registered on September 26,” says Shahnaz. “But when we returned on that date the case had still not been filed.”
The struggle to get justice broke the family – especially Nabila. Shahnaz Begum knows that there was only one reason her daughter gave up – the hopelessness she felt from the authorities’ attitude. She knew if they would not help her then no one would.
On October 1, Nabila, consumed poison in the middle of a crowded market, ending her life.
“She went to buy something from the market, but at 10 o’clock I got a call from my daughter’s mobile number,” remembers Shahnaz. “A stranger spoke to me saying that my daughter’s condition was very bad and that she was vomiting and it seemed she had consumed poison.
I instantly called my son-in-law and asked him to reach the spot. My son-in-law reached the place and contacted rescue services but when they did not arrive, he took her to the nearest hospital in a rickshaw which washed out Nabila’s stomach. Then they told us to take her to Lahore for treatment. My daughter was still in the ambulance when she died.”
The lines around her eyes show how distraught Shahnaz Begum still is by her daughter’s death.
It was not till after Nabila’s suicide, that a case was registered – this time by the police under Section 322 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Three of the accused were detained. But still, the main accused Fatima got away with a pre-arrest bail and was not arrested. But an investigating police officer said that all the named suspects were involved in Nabila’s death because they were the ones who had created and spread the fake pictures.
After the news of Nabila’s suicide was reported in the media, it was then that the FIA suspended two female investigating officers of the case and reached out to Shahnaz Begum ensuring her that justice would be delivered.
“FIA authorities came to me saying that my daughter was the initial complainant but now I could be the complainant. I said what use was it now that my daughter was dead. If they had done their work properly, maybe she would still have been alive. Today the media is also here, and the police also came to me themselves. But if only they had listened to me when I had gone to their office – my daughter wouldn’t have died.”
With tears in her eyes and anguish in her voice, Nabila’s mother questions the injustice of her daughter’s death and asks if the reason for the inaction by the FIA is because they were poor.
According to Shabbir Hussain, a criminal lawyer with the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, the police should investigate this case in the context of suspected murder instead of murder. In his opinion Nabila’s death was not just suicide, it was a case of pushing someone to commit that suicide.
Moreover, till the publication of this report, FIA has still not filed a case despite all the evidence. According to FIA officials, a case will be filed but they are presently overburdened with other cases and are waiting for the approval of the legal branch and higher authorities. It should be noted that Nabila the victim of this cybercrime first made her complaint on July 18, 2022.
Nabila’s case represents one of the 44,000 pending cases with the cybercrime wing of FIA. Around 18,000 of those cases have been filed by women and involve digital violence against them. In most cases, sexually graphic photographs – whether real or fake – are used to intimidate, shame and silence women and girls. Without help from authorities, victims may end up taking their own lives.
Meanwhile, since the death of their mother, Nabila’s four children have become depressed and miserable. They do not go to school anymore. The younger son sits near the clay stove, wishing that his mother would come back and make bread for him again.
This report on digital violence is part of Voicepk.net’s series 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence and was made through the support of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (#CFLI).