Feminists Insist The Internet Is Not A Safe Space In Pakistan, Where Women Still Get Stoned To Death

(REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

Ian Miles Cheong Contributor
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Cyber harassment is one of the most urgent topics for feminists in the United States and Europe.

Displaying ignorance of the dangers of living as a woman in Pakistan, The Guardian has penned a piece celebrating the launch of a cyber harassment hotline in the South Asian country — including a quote from someone who claims she fears online harassment more than offline harassment.

Prominent feminists and “cyberviolence survivors” Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian told a United Nations Women panel hosted by the Broadband Commission Working Group in September 2015 that the harassment they dealt with went beyond threats, and also included the “day to day grind of ‘you’re a liar,’ ‘you suck’, making all these ate videos to attack us on a regular basis, and the mobs that come from those hate videos, et cetera.”

While the United Nations has yet to act on the proposals raised by the commission, the labor of their complaints have finally started to bear fruit. A Lahore-based organization called the Digital Rights Foundation has created the country’s first cyber harassment hotline, which is designed to give women who deal with stalkers, blackmailers and harassers a way for them to feel safe.

Nighat Dad, a female Pakistani lawyer who founded DRF, told The Guardian that the hotline was launched following the death of social media icon Quandeel Baloch, who was targeted in an “honor killing” by her brother for posting sexually suggestive photos online in 2016. Her social commentary on the country’s backwards attitudes towards sexuality angered traditional Pakistani Muslims, including her brother, who strangled her to death.

Despite the brutality of Baloch’s slaying, the traditional Muslim country was divided on whether he did the right thing, igniting a debate over honor killings. According to the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan, a thousand such cases are reported each year.

“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,” said Dad in the interview, adding that the hotline gave women across the country a way to receive assistance and support in dealing with online predators.

In Pakistan, women who lodge reports with the country’s Federal Investigation Agency for cyberstalking are required to disclose personal information, including their national card number, phone number, and father’s name. Many traditional families do not permit their daughters from traveling unaccompanied without a male older sibling or father, so they can’t even make a trip to the local police station if family members are involved.

However, women living in cosmopolitan cities like Lahore tend to experience cyber harassment of a different sort. A feminist activist, Eman Suleman, told the Guardian that she started a “period protest” by writing messages on sanitary napkins to fight against the stigmatization of menstruation. In response, men inundated her with both threats and lewd messages on social media, forcing her to go offline.

“I’m more scared of online harassment than offline harassment,” she said. “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.”

Strange words coming from someone who lives in a country where husbands are permitted to physically abuse their wives.

According to Acid Survivors Trust International, an estimated 400 women suffer from acid attacks every year in Pakistan, but many of these crimes go unreported due to the perpetrators involved. An estimated 1,000 women die in honor killings each year, many of whom are stoned to death over slights as small as adultery or marrying someone their family does not approve of.

For women who deal with online abuse, the cyber harassment hotline may offer solace and a place for them to find solidarity, but it does little to improve life for women without free access to the Internet.

Harassment — whether online or offline — is unacceptable, but perhaps feminists in the U.S. could use a bit of perspective.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken media critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.