Women risk rebuke for speaking out against patriarchal oppression they suffer in families, workplaces and in the public sphere. Panellists at a talk on Monday stressed that the cyberspace is no different. They said that women journalists and activists who use social media get way more hate compared to their male counterparts and were often victims of mudslinging campaigns initiated by trolls.
They said efforts by human rights groups to spread awareness about this behaviour was often responded to with massive backlash from people on social media who described themselves as ‘men rights activists or meninists’.
The discussion on patriarchy in online spaces was organised at Books n Beans Café by Well-Connected Women, a journalistic project about how women are using internet for gender equality in Pakistan.
The panel included Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) Executive Director Nighat Dad; Dawn senior sub editor Sarah Eleazar and activist Shmyla Khan, who heads the DRF’s cyber harassment helpline.
Shmyla Khan told that gathering that at the helpline they mostly received cases of women being blackmailed either by ex-husbands or by someone whose marriage proposal they had rejected.
Commenting on online abuse woman journalists suffered, Khan said it was difficult for journalists to completely remove themselves from social media to escape the abusive backlash because they needed online platforms to spread and share their work.
The panellists agreed that Facebook’s community guidelines were not helpful when it came to action on harassment complaints. They noted that Facebook had devised a mechanism to clamp down on ‘fake news’, and that meant similar action could be taken to check online abuse and harassment.
Shmyla Khan told the gathering that most cases received at the helpline were of women being blackmailed either by ex-husbands or by someone whose marriage proposal they had rejected
Facbook and Twitter had hardly ever suspended accounts for hate speech even when serious threats were reported to it, Nighat Dad said.
“The content deemed ‘anti Islam’ and ‘anti-state’, on the other hand, gets removed easily. This is because the social media sites act only when they get an official request from the government to take a page or account down on grounds that it violates local laws,” she explained.
Earlier, the panellists referred to the killing of the social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch to highlight that abuse received online could lead to real life violence. They criticised the government for not having done anything to curb incidents of online harassment and bullying.
When the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act was finally passed in 2016, one of its objectives was to protect women from online harassment. However, it has ended up in only enabling the authorities to undermine civil liberties and clamp down on free speech
In view of this government inaction, Dad said the DRF had started a helpline where victims of online abuse and harassment could seek legal as well as emotional help.
“We hope to build pressure on the government so that it takes serious efforts against online harassment,” she said, “Officials from the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) cyber harassment wing do not respond to complaints timely. This negligence can have dangerous consequences for victim whose life can be danger in some cases,” she said.
The DRF helpline had received 1,000 cases in a year and 300 of these were referred to the FIA, but the investigative agency failed to deal with them effectively, Dad said.
Most victims approached the DRF helpline in fear of being reprimanded or attacked by their family members in the name of ‘honour’.
In 2012, when the DRF started working, there were not enough laws against cyber bullying, Dad recalled. When the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act was finally passed in 2016, one of its objectives was to protect women from online harassment. However, it had ended up in only enabling the authorities to undermine civil liberties and clamp down on free speech.
“We opposed the bill and resisted it for two years before it was signed into law. The IT minister accused us of being on the payroll of social networking sites,” she said.
She said the disappearance of secular bloggers earlier this year and the use of blasphemy law against them was a clear message to all activists across the country. When outspoken voices are silenced by force, all others tend to practice self-censorship for their own safety, she added.
The participants also noted that victims of online abuse or blackmailing could not easily open up to their families because it was almost always the victims who were blamed in such cases. They stressed on the need for making homes safer for victims by starting debate on Internet safety.
The audience also participated in the conversation and expressed disappointment at political parties’ failure to act against their members guilty of misogyny and bullying against opponents at online platforms.
Dad said that all political parties had teams of trolls on social media who were paid to defame opponents, mostly women, adding that misogyny was also used as a political tool.
Zehra, Ailia. On online misogyny, Pakistani govt and global social media powerhouses both fail women. Daily Times, October 18, 2017.