The country’s first cyber harassment helpline is providing legal and psychological support to women facing threats on social media platforms.
In January 2016, Suman was on her way to take her university exams when she was approached by a motorbike. The man grabbed her, took her to an isolated location and poured acid on her face. Despite her shrieks for help, the area was deserted and no one came to her aid. Suman’s face burned, stinging and swelling to the point where her lips and eyes were no longer visible.
The assailant – Suman’s brother-in-law – had a long history of harassing her. In the years before the attack, he had initiated unwanted sexual advances and implored her to marry him. In 2014, her brother-in-law had even pinned her down, taking compromising photos that he stored on a USB drive.
Despite threats of physical violence, Suman was undaunted by her brother-in-law’s intimidation, filing a legal case against him. He used the illicit photos as leverage, threatening to circulate them via mobile phone to his friends if she did not drop the battle, and carrying through on his threat when she continued to push her case.
Suman’s story reveals a dark side of South Asia’s telecom boom. Today, there are more than 136 million mobile phone users and 34 million internet users in Pakistan, making online spaces new crucibles for women’s safety. In Pakistan, there are few avenues for women like Suman to seek support. Alarmingly high rates of violence against women persist: since 2004, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has recorded more than 6,000 cases of sexual violence and over 2,200 domestic violence cases against women. Worryingly, the offline violence is increasingly connected to online forms of abuse, harassment and blackmail. Last winter, the Lahore-based Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) recognised the scale of the problem and unveiled Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline, a nationwide initiative to provide legal and psychological support to women facing threats online. The majority of cases involve blackmail, revenge porn and cyber stalking and harassment.
Since its launch, the helpline has received more than 700 calls [pdf] from women seeking help. On average, the helpline fields more than 80 calls a month, more than 60% of which are from women. It’s proven difficult to get some women to call of their own accord. “A lot of the calls have been from male members of the family calling on behalf of women, which means we have to build more trust,” says Shmyla Khan, the head of the helpline at DRF.
“This helpline has been a dream of mine for years,” says Nighat Dad, the founder of DRF, who notes that last year’s death of the Pakistani social media icon Qandeel Baloch paved the way to creating the confidential helpline. “After Baloch’s murder and the victim-blaming that followed, I became convinced that there was an urgent need to empower women and other vulnerable groups in the online space,” Dad says. “I envisioned creating a helpline that reached out to women all over Pakistan – including where the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has no offices – to provide them with assistance and support to reclaim online spaces.”
Baloch’s murder was one of the first times that people discussed online threats and abuse in Pakistan, says Khan. “It’s still quite revolutionary to name this violence,” she says, noting that not everyone recognises the legitimacy of threats in a digital space. “For some people, violence needs to be tangible.” In Pakistan – where women are already burdened by legal and social challenges that make it difficult to contend with violence – reporting online harassment is daunting. For example, registering a cybercrime with the FIA – the law enforcement agency that monitors and investigates cybercrime nationwide, along with corruption, trafficking and terrorism – requires disclosing one’s national identity card number, phone number and father’s name. Even a trip to the local police station often involves revealing one’s name. Some families will not permit their daughters to leave the house unaccompanied – a restriction that is particularly harrowing when abuse comes from a relative.
However, Pakistan’s Cybercrime Act [pdf] criminalises the sharing of pictures without consent and levies heavy penalties if illicit photos are for blackmailing purposes. “If someone transmits or posts photos that are sexually explicit, they are punishable by up to seven years in jail and may be ordered to pay a five million Pakistani rupee (around £37,200) fine at the discretion of a judge,” says Syed Shahid Hassan from the Lahore branch of the FIA’s cybercrime unit.
On social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, abuse and blackmail continue to proliferate. “As soon as you have your data online, or a considerable cyber presence, you’re unsafe,” says Rameesha Fatima, a student in Lahore.
Moreover, while women feel the brunt of such aggression, they are not the only group singled out as targets. “While the friend requests and incessant texts may be harmless, there have been various incidents where people use online platforms to bully their victims over religious, social or other biases,” says Fatima.
“Everyone who is using the cyber platform is vulnerable. Cyber stalkers lash out at victims when they don’t reciprocate their affection. Most cyber predators seek attention from their victims and when they don’t get it they take it out by looking for ways to harm them.”
Another Lahore-based student, Eman Suleman, knows the problems associated with cyberbullying first-hand. At university, she started a “period protest”, scribbling messages on sanitary napkins to expose the stigmatisation around menstruation. Images of the protest soon went viral, catapulting Suleman’s social media accounts to the top of online harassers’ list. Her inbox was inundated with messages from legions of Pakistani men describing in lurid detail what they would do to her as punishment, forcing her to temporarily go offline.
“I’m more scared of online harassment than offline harassment,” Suleman says. “When there are three to four people harassing you in a public space, it’s easier to handle them. When there are thousands of people harassing you online – people you can’t see – you don’t know what they’re like, you don’t know if their threats are empty or real, and it becomes really frightening.”
For women in Pakistan, online harassment is unlikely to dissipate without challenges to patriarchal norms. This month, Suman was undergoing reconstructive surgery at a Lahore hospital, when she found out her attacker had been sentenced to prison. “I can’t explain in words how happy I was at that time, she says. “After the surgery, I couldn’t speak – I just wanted to shout with happiness.
“The online world has given women the space to voice their opinion freely, including the freedom to seek help and find solidarity. However, my perpetrator used this space to violate my rights and abuse women.”
Suman believes the courts still offer hope for acid attack survivors. “More enforcement of laws for both offline and online harassment can save the lives of women who are suffering,” she says. “We have to struggle for justice.”