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Online harassment of women is a global problem, with the consequences and the risks varying from country to country. In few places is the contrast between the internet’s liberating possibilities and its most troubling hazards for women more sharply drawn than in Pakistan. Many women there, as well as other religiously-conservative countries, such as Afghanistan, do not inform their families that they use social media, for fear of physical retaliation from their families, and women are particularly vulnerable to harassment, intimidation or blackmail in these countries.
In this article, Nighat Dad, a lawyer who founded the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), talks about female students at a Peshawar, Pakistan university that were being blackmailed by someone who had set up a Facebook account containing their personal information. The page, which first appeared in 2011, included their phone numbers, photographs and details about their personal lives along with false claims that they were prostitutes. The perpetrators told the women they would take down the pages only if they were paid via online money transfer or if they divulged other friends’ personal information. Facebook’s policy team lacked anyone who could read Pashto, the language in which the pages were written, so refused for months to take action. It is an example of why it is essential for platforms to understand the social and cultural contexts in which they work, Dad says.
Hamara Internet (Our Internet) is a programme run by the DRF to teach women in the least developed parts of Pakistan about internet safety. Digital Rights Foundation is a Lahore-based outfit that carries out research and policy work and provides training for journalists, minorities and civil society groups. Recently, its attention has been focused on fighting a draconian cybercrime Bill, which gives “blanket power” to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to ban any content it deems obscene, immoral, anti-army, anti-Islam or anti-state.
Dad herself must be cautious online. "I think 10 times before writing anything on Twitter or Facebook. Who is watching me? Why are they watching me? If they’re watching me, how will they interpret my message or my post on social media?"
Also see Virtue & reputation in the developing world, a blog I wrote as a caution to humanitarian and development workers wanting NGOs and government agencies to engage more on social media, about how guidance must be provided for the women who would be expected to manage online activities on how to stay safe and protect their personal reputations.
-=-=-=-=-=- Jayne Cravens Author, The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook