Women harassment in Pakistan has taken an ugly turn with the increased use of the internet. Women are being harassed through acts of online stalking, image-based abuses, doxing, cyberbullying, digital violence. In 2022, total 2,695 cases of online harassment were registered in Pakistan, of which 58.6 percent victims were women.
According to the United Nations, 40 percent of women in Pakistan faced various forms of harassment on the internet.2 Moreover, Pakistani women faced digital violence more often than men. Rights activists and journalists constitute the major share of women that are subjected to online harassment.
Women who faced online harassment and digital violence hardly received any help from the Pakistan government. Misogynistic stereotypes still persist in Pakistan, which are a result of patriarchal norms and extremist religious views. The male-supremacy prevails in the Pakistani society at all levels, which leads to suppression of women rights and even to deny basic liberties.
Women who try to break the glass-ceiling and talk about women’s rights are exposed to contempt, judgment, and objectification. This leads to violence against them. Now women are defying male dominance and seeking equal rights.45 Pakistani women organise ‘Aurat ’march in major cities to observe International Women's Day.
Online media was assumed to have provided them a safe platform to voice their opinion and demands. However, the rising case of cyberbullying and digital violence has proven it wrong. Film student Javaria Waseem shared screenshots of abuses her sister received online following Aurat march.
“I have a 16-year-old sister who posted on her Instagram supporting the Aurat March and a random group of boys made a group just to abuse and harass her, calling her names and talking about doing sh*t with her. SHE IS JUST SIXTEEN,” Javaria wrote on Twitter.
University student from Karachi, Maria experienced digital violence for talking about women rights and feminism on social media. It came as a shocker to her. “Many men started sending me lewd and abusive messages on my Facebook and some of them even copied my pictures from my profile, threatening to doctor them just because they did not agree with my views on women’s rights,” she said.
There are allegations that Pakistani agencies have been unable or incapable of addressing the problem. Human rights lawyer Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir said her experience with investigating agencies have been “frustrating”. She said “The FIR that they registered in my case as well is very weak compared to what it should’ve been like considering the seriousness of the offence and the level of danger I felt.”
Journalist Javeria Siddique faced repeated personal attacks and a malicious smear campaign as she tried to secure justice for her husband who was allegedly killed in Kenya over instruction from Pakistani agencies. “I did not write anything controversial against any institution. Despite this, I am facing online harassment. My husband was killed with a bullet. I will be killed through character assassination,” said Javeria.
Many women made official complaints about the online harassment they faced. But they did not get any response, said Nighat Dad is the Executive Director of Digital Rights Foundation. “It’s rare the cybercrime wing will register cases lodged by women activists, and even if they do, it usually takes years for anything to happen,” says Dad. “So I was never expecting that they would be so shameless as to take action against women survivors who are speaking up.”
Women journalists blamed government officials and politicians for instigating online violence against them through “a well-defined and coordinated campaign.”
Shehar Bano, the editor of The News International newspaper and vice-president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said “Women journalists are an easy target to harass online. And these are not ordinary people harassing you. These are people who know you. These people have political support.”
Pakistan has passed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, which makes online harassment a punishable offense.13 However, lax attitude shown by the enforcement agencies have failed to rein in online harassment. Harassment and digital violence, said Syeda Abida Bookhari, an Advocate High Court at the Sindh High Court. “Implementation has been slow and insufficient. Due to the slow and lengthy procedure, the victim gets frustrated,” she said.
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