By MEHREEN ZAHRA-MALIK
When a Pakistani lawmaker said this past week that she had received “inappropriate text messages” from a male colleague, she was met with a wave of vitriol on social media.
The episode has attracted widespread attention, as the man she accused is Imran Khan, the former cricket star who is now one of Pakistan’s leading politicians, with a large social media following. The case also illustrates the rise of online abuse against women in a country considered one of the most dangerous in the world for them.
On Tuesday, the lawmaker, Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, from Pakistan’s tribal South Waziristan region, accused Mr. Khan of sending her “objectionable” text messages, and said women were not respected in his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The party denied that Mr. Khan had sent any such text messages to Ms. Wazir.
Social media users unleashed profanity-filled tirades against Ms. Wazir, calling her a liar and an opportunist. Many tried to shame her because her sister, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, a top squash player, has competed in international tournaments in shorts, the kind of attire considered immodest in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Some messages were more frightening. “Ayesha Gulalai KILL YOURSELF,” one Twitter user wrote. Another Twitter user threatened to kill her. Others proposed throwing acid in her face.
Women around the world face online abuse, but in Pakistan, with its entrenched culture of discrimination and violence against women, the threats are not idle. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, about 500 Pakistani women are killed each year by family members who believe their honor has been damaged if a female relative refuses an arranged marriage, socializes with men or even claps and sings at a wedding.
In a country where 33 million people use Facebook and at least five million are on Twitter, social media has become a frequent platform for obscene and virulent outbursts. In some cases, online abuse has incited physical violence.
“Instead of responding to my accusations or proving that I am wrong, people are saying throw acid on me?” Ms. Wazir said in a telephone interview. “I can’t believe they have fallen to this level, but it is just part of a larger culture encouraged by the society and political parties here.”
Ms. Wazir said she was afraid to publicly share the objectionable text messages out of fear of further antagonizing Mr. Khan’s followers. But she said she was prepared to present the messages to a judge or an investigating authority on the condition that they remain confidential.
Maria Waqar, an Indiana University graduate student who has interviewed dozens of female lawmakers in Pakistan for her research on the legislature, said the abuse directed at Ms. Wazir was not surprising. She said that “the web is littered with websites, videos and message boards dedicated to objectifying and degrading women parliamentarians in particular and women in general.”
In a survey of women in 17 Pakistani universities, published by the Digital Rights Foundation in May, 34 percent said they had experienced online harassment and abuse. The actions included cyberstalking, bullying, and the leaking and manipulation of personal information and pictures.
Many women reported threats of physical violence and vandalism, blackmail, sexual remarks and false accusations meant to humiliate, threaten or discredit them. Seventy percent of the women surveyed said they were afraid to post their pictures on social media websites.
The country is taking some steps to address the problem. Last year, Parliament passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which was widely promoted as a tool to curb online sexual harassment. Pakistan’s first cyber harassment help line, also set up last year, received 763 complaints in the form of calls, emails and Facebook messages from Dec. 1 to May 31.
In July, a man was sentenced to 12 years in jail for blackmailing a woman in the northern city of Peshawar. And in two cases still to be decided, a university professor in the port city of Karachi was arrested on charges of setting up fake Facebook pages and publishing doctored pictures of a female colleague, and two boys were arrested in 2015 on charges of using a fake Facebook profile to harass and blackmail up to 50 girls in Peshawar. Yet online activity has still led to real-life violence, including in July of last year, when Qandeel Baloch, a social media sensation, was strangled in what is known as an honor killing. When Ms. Baloch’s brother was arrested in connection with her death, he said at a news conference that he had killed her because he was incensed over her risqué Facebook posts.
Nighat Dad, the executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, a Pakistani internet advocacy group, said, “There is a culture of violence against women that already exists in the home, the workplace, in public places, and now it is increasingly manifesting itself in online spaces as well.”
In another case, Saman, a 19-year-old university student from Lahore who asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her safety, said her sister’s husband had propositioned her for years before spraying her with acid, disfiguring her, in January 2016.
When she filed a case against her attacker, he threatened to post what she says are doctored nude pictures of her online. Last month, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison, but Saman said the harassment persisted.
“Even from behind bars, the threats continue,” Saman, who has seen the photos, said in a telephone interview. She said she had told the authorities about the images, “but they say they can’t do anything until the pictures are actually published.”
Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani journalist, said people on social media had called for her to be publicly raped and killed over her views on the rights of women and minorities.
“Women who are opinionated, who are professionals doing jobs traditionally done by men, who are entering politics and media, of course they are going to be in the line of fire on the internet,” Ms. Sirmed said. “And when they fight back, the abuse just gets worse.”