Taking Back the Internet for Pakistani Women

Lawyer and activist Nighat Dad is making the web a safer, more open space.

Fellows 2017

By Saba Imtiaz

August 08, 2017

Also published by Lenny Letter

When you buy pads or tampons in Pakistan, grocery-store owners double-bag the purchases, ostensibly so people on the street can't see what lies within layers of brown-paper bags.

Photo: Xia Gordon

This culture of secrecy and shame around women's lives and bodies is an apt parallel of life for women in Pakistan. Conversations about everything from sex lives to physical health are "brown-paper-bagged." If women do speak, they do so in hushed tones or they're immediately shouted down.

The Internet is opening up spaces for women, leading to private Facebook groups like Soul Sisters, a space for women to seek advice from their peers and talk about personal issues, with over 16,000 women who discuss everything from workplace issues to marital dilemmas.

But despite the apparent freedom of 140-character updates, Pakistani women are still slut-shamed and criticized and silenced online. The Pakistani author and researcher Ayesha Siddiqa was subjected to an organized trolling campaign accusing her of being a spy. In 2016, the social-media star Qandeel Baloch was allegedly killed by her brother because he objected to her posts and said her behavior was "intolerable."

Nighat Dad, 36, is trying to make the Internet a safer open space for women in Pakistan. Dad is a Pakistani lawyer whose advocacy is informed by her personal history and politics. After a financial crisis, her parents couldn't afford to keep sending her to a private school, so she had to study at a bare-bones, government-run school. Dad didn't have access to a cell phone or the Internet at law school; her brother curtailed her personal and online freedom by taking away her computer at home and objecting to her going to university. An abusive marriage led to a severe bout of depression.

"This is where my personal politics came from," Dad says. "We're often labeled 'privileged feminists' by critics. I belong to a very lower-middle-class family. I started from zero. I have no privilege. It's very important to set the record straight: that my personal is my politics."

Dad was named a TEDGlobal fellow in 2017 and is also an affiliate at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Science. Dad and her Digital Rights Foundation work on everything from state surveillance to online harassment. Her initiative Hamara Internet ("Our Internet") aims to instill a sense of ownership over the Internet in women, create safe online spaces for them, and offer a support network, including a help line, for women whose digital privacy is violated.

Saba Imtiaz: I want to talk about online spaces for women. But can you tell me about yourself first?

Nighat Dad: In 2007, the year I got divorced, I got my law license and started working at a law office in Lahore. I had access to the Internet and found this great world. There was a lot happening online. You can speak your heart and mind, make friends, and do whatever you want. After leaving a suppressed environment, when you find this space, you can do wonders.

My friends said they got a lot of unsolicited messages and friend requests and porn-type messages. I started looking at online spaces from a legal perspective: Is this harassment; is it entertainment?

The Internet, especially in conservative middle-class families in Pakistan, was always considered entertainment or a place to find friends. There was always a negative aspect. I think that's why women weren't allowed to use it. This forced me to look into the politics of the Internet: who has access and who doesn't; who is being harassed and by whom.

I expanded into Internet governance and freedom of expression in online spaces, access to information, surveillance and privacy, and the politics of the Internet and feminist Internet. My major focus was why vulnerable communities don't have access [to the Internet] the way men do, especially in closed societies.

We did the Take Back the Tech international campaign in Pakistan, and I met all these amazing women online: Sana Saleem, Fariha Akhtar. Jahan Ara, the president of the Pakistan Software Houses Association, really inspired me to do a lot.

SI: How did you start Hamara Internet?

ND: There were organizations working on offline harassment, but I thought, who was going to work on online spaces? This is where we can set a precedent.

I founded the Digital Rights Foundation in 2012. I wanted to work on the ground, but I didn't have money. It was just an idea. Sana [Saleem] was a huge support during those years. That's why I feel women are so important for each other. She registered the domain and helped make the website.

At DRF, we work with young women and talk about how harassment is also a form of violence and the need to realize and report this. If they can't report it because of their circumstances and where they live, they can document it and find support networks and know how to fight harassment. We tell them that the Internet is our space; we have as much of a right to it as others.

We went to around twelve universities. We went to the university in Charsadda just a month after the terrorist attack there. More than a hundred women attended. We went to universities in areas where nothing like this [information events] had ever happened and covered 1,600 young women.

After a year of awareness sessions in universities, we started getting a lot of calls and messages from women about what they were facing. Hamara Internet became a movement. We got so many complaints that we thought about starting something more organized.

Then Qandeel was killed. There was a lot of slut-shaming around her murder and arguments like "She didn't deserve to be killed, but …" There was a whole story after the "but."

SI: How does the help line work?

ND: We started it in December 2016 with very little money. [As of May 2017, the help line had received more than 700 calls, an average of 82 a month.]

We offer digital-security support on hacked accounts, identity theft. We provide legal support and advice and support from a counselor for emotional trauma. We get calls from girls crying, "For God's sake, do something, and get us out of this."

A lot of girls ask if we have a lawyer who can take on their case. That's a need we've identified, but we don't have female lawyers in Pakistan working on online harassment.

We also get calls from men. This goes back to the deep-rooted patriarchy; that men can't talk about the violence they face, harassment, or blackmailing — sextortion.

We get a lot of complaints where people have shared data with their partners and feel helpless. We've gotten calls about rape cases, like the woman who was blackmailed — for years — over a video [of her rape by the man blackmailing her]. That messed with my head.

Girls have called saying "If you don't do anything tonight, my dad will kill me in the morning" because people have found their anonymous profiles and posted their names and numbers and tagged their family members.

We started talking to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, saying that you need to understand the context of Pakistan. Your reporting mechanisms are so shitty.

SI: Oh my God, yes.

ND: I always shame them — your reporting mechanisms are shitty, you don't even understand local languages. We're lobbying Internet companies. The target audience for their products lives in Pakistan and closed Muslim societies where culture and religion has an impact on daily life. It took us years, but they're now realizing they need to address this issue.

Now if someone's life is at risk, we can reach them directly and say, "You need to do something in a couple of hours or a few minutes." Due to our lobbying, they've hired people who can understand languages and analyze content and translated their reporting mechanisms into different languages.

SI: There's always a narrative around women. Qandeel and even Benazir [Bhutto, the late prime minister] were trolled. [Ed. note: Women in the public space in Pakistan are routinely subjected to organized vilification campaigns that target their personal lives or reveal personal information. Bhutto's images were doctored to show her wearing revealing clothes and distributed in public.]

ND: It's the same mindset shifting to the online space. The traditional way of doxxing is that girls' names were written on walls with their numbers and addresses if someone wanted to harass them. Social media is not bad, it's people using it wrongly. The long-term solution is to integrate digital literacy into our syllabus.

SI: Are you optimistic?

ND: That's why I keep coming back to this despite risks and threats. Just yesterday when I was talking about the hijab [on Twitter], so many men were angry at me.

SI: Someone commented on your hair …

ND: It's body-shaming. If it's a victim, they'll victim-blame; if it's a feminist, they'll say feminazi. I don't know if you saw, one guy said all feminists are apostates. This is [what happens] when you speak your mind.

This interview has been condensed and edited.