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The web and women’s harassment


LAST week, law-enforcement officials from the Federal Investigation Agency arrested an assistant professor at the University of Karachi. According to an FIR registered against him, he had made five fake Facebook profiles of a female colleague. The profiles had been created as early as 2015; her picture had been used and in at least one case included lewd and immoral content. The arrest was made under Section 21 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, and the suspect will remain in police custody for 14 days until a remand hearing and, eventually, a trial date is set for him.

The KU cyber-harassment case is not unique. According to the FIA, there were 3,027 cases of cybercrime in the 2014-2015 period, and 45 per cent of these concerned the online harassment of women by men. According to the NGO Hamara Internet, cases of stolen Facebook profile pictures are routine and in some cases have forced women to completely stop using social media sites. In several cases, women report having their Facebook profile picture stolen and manipulated through the use of photo modification software, which is cheap and easy to obtain.

These doctored pictures are then used to blackmail women, especially those who are not particularly web-savvy and do not know how to contest such claims or lodge complaints on Facebook. Afraid of the consequences and the censure of male family members, most do not report the harassment to law-enforcement agencies. They (and often all other women who hear of such cases) stop using the internet altogether.

The exclusion of women from digital space is a tragedy.

This sort of exclusion of women from digital space is a tragedy. As is well known, women in Pakistan already face all sorts of harassment and restrictions on entering and inhabiting public spaces. Given this, the internet space had over the years become a venue where they could participate in discussions, debates and make their perspectives (so ignored or marginalised otherwise) known.

However, as is the case of the actual physical public sphere, online harassment by men seeks to exclude and push them out of this new realm as well. It could even be argued that since cyber-harassers can maintain their own anonymity, the realm offers even more opportunities to target and stalk women with little fear of being found out.

Cyber-harassment does not simply exist in the theft and proliferation of doctored profile pictures without the consent of the victim. At home, women are often not given the right to privacy in their digital interactions. As a Hamara Internet report documents, many Pakistani women are forced to share their password information with brothers, fathers, husbands, etc as a condition of their being permitted to use the internet at all. Smartphone passwords and email passwords have to be supplied for regular inspection by these male family members. Of course, those male family members do not share their own password information with their female relatives.

This practice is so commonplace and considered so justifiable within families that it is hardly, if ever, discussed or critiqued. In reality, it presents a form of discrimination that rests upon the assumption that only men have a right to privacy, while women’s digital lives (like their actual lives) must be approved and analysed by their male guardians.

The premise is wrong in real life and wrong in virtual life. If women must share because ‘they have nothing to hide’ then so must men, whose refusal to do so suggests that they may have a lot to hide.

The particular perniciousness of the cyber-harassment of women is also attached to shaming norms within Pakistan and their clever exploitation by cyber-harassers. The fear and panic that women experience following the theft of a profile picture is a consequence of the fact that even the most superfluous suggestion of wrongdoing (even if fake and doctored) is enough to condemn a woman as immoral in Pakistani society.

The fact that the picture is fake or the information incorrect is often insufficient to remove this taint. Cyber-harassers know this and exploit it well. Their own conscience is shelved, an act made easier by the fact that many of those who use virtual means to harass and stalk women imagine these actions to be less real, and hence unpunishable.

The work of NGOs like Hamara Internet and the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) presents some hope in this regard. The former regularly holds workshops around the country trying to educate women on how to prevent cyber-harassment, how to report it and how to manage their own digital shadow.

They recommend that women begin conversations with male family members regarding their right to digital privacy, put password codes on all their devices, and regularly utilise anti-virus software so that their data is not compromised. They recommend using a search engine like DuckDuckGo to see the personal information about them that already exists online. A reverse image search using a Facebook profile picture can also show if that data has been stolen.

According to Nighat Daad, who heads DRF, the recent case of cyber-harassment at KU is not the first time the institution has had to deal with the issue. It is the first time, however that something has been done about it. It is a good first step, but it does not take away the potential misuse of the law by state authorities to impose greater restrictions on the use of digital spaces in Pakistan.

Her point is a useful one; ensuring that the web is both free of state intrusion and constraint and also free for women is a delicate balancing act. It is also, however, a very worthwhile one.

The worldwide web is an interface of opportunity, a forum where Pakistanis, so often excluded and marginalised, have a window to the world. It is worth their efforts to keep it open, free and equally available to men and women.