The fight for equal rights for women is an age old struggle, one that the women of Pakistan are familiar with. This conflict has catalyzed after Aurat March held since after 2018, when the peaceful women’s day march morphed into a more radical Aurat March.
Voicepk.net sat with two prominent participants of the Aurat March, who faced the brunt of digital violence because of their association with the march.
Leena Ghani, a women’s rights activist and artist, has experienced significant online harassment and threats as a result of her work. Ghani says she was overwhelmed by the reaction to her activism, and did not expect the level of harassment and threats that she received. Among these were numerous rape threats – a regular feature in her social media inbox – and in 2020, a targeted campaign especially after the filing of an FIR by Ali Zafar. Ghani’s name and face were made public, leading to further targeting and harassment, including on a Facebook post about harassment where she received several threatening comments.
Along with Leena Ghani, digital rights activist Nighat Dad, also encountered harassment and threats. She spoke about the digital violence faced by other women participating in the Aurat March. In her interview, she identified a pattern of “bad actors” who threaten and harass women, particularly those who are vocal and visible in their expression of their beliefs through posters, slogans, and interviews. She attributes the increase in polarization in society, in part, to the proliferation of YouTube channels that create sensational content about women for viral and monetizable content. This includes extremist content that objectifies and threatens women, as well as content that promotes hate speech and violence. Dad has personally experienced hate and harassment for her work, and is concerned about the potential for online narratives to turn into offline actions, particularly in the context of the Qandeel case and the Kohistan case, where women were killed for their actions or beliefs.
Meanwhile, according to Jahanzeb Nazir, the Director of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Pakistan, all complaints of online harassment are thoroughly investigated. If the offense is deemed cognizable and there is sufficient evidence, an FIR (First Information Report) is filed. Nazir emphasized that investigating cybercrime involves following a digital footprint, which can be a time-consuming process as it requires forensic assessment and potentially reaching out to international entities such as Facebook for additional information. He noted that the FIA may be dependent on this information in their investigations.
According to Nighat Dad, a digital rights activist, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Pakistan faces challenges in effectively addressing online harassment and violence. She cites lack of resources and lack of political will as significant issues, noting that investigation officers may have a high volume of cases and may not be fully equipped to handle them efficiently. Dad emphasizes the need for swift action in addressing tech-facilitated violence, as the damage is often done quickly and cannot be undone. She also notes that it can be difficult for the FIA to take action against perpetrators when their identity is unknown or when they are able to remain anonymous online. In these cases, the virality of harassment or violence can be difficult to control.
The interviews revealed that in a patriarchal society, women are vulnerable and become obvious targets. They are already unsafe offline and are indirectly told they don’t belong in the outside world. But when they express themselves in digital spaces, they are made to feel as if they do not belong there either.