For Pakistani women, social media can be deadly

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Feb 10 2023 11:47 AM

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc, Pexels
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc, Pexels

In Pakistan, the brutal practice of "honor killing" is often carried out by male family members when they consider a woman's behavior "disgraceful," whether that means by refusing an arranged marriage, being the victim of rape, or in the internet age, posting videos on social media.

In January, a teenage girl was shot dead in a village in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a male colleague uploaded a video of her dancing on TikTok. She worked as a maid and allegedly refused the man's romantic advances. In response, he uploaded the video and sent it to some residents of her village.

It is not the first time in the conservative Islamic nation that a girl has been killed for dancing in a video on social media.

In May 2012, five women were killed after a video surfaced on social media showing them singing and dancing at a wedding ceremony in Kohistan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the most conservative areas of the province.

How can women protect themselves online?

Both incidents sparked outcry, but little is being done to protect women on social media. Nighat Dad, founder of Digital Rights Foundation, an NGO that advocates women's rights in the digital space, said that many women get into trouble after allowing their friends and family access to their personal information online, including images and videos.

Dad told DW that she receives complaints from women about non-consensual use of information and content, which leads to blackmailing, threats, unsolicited contact, as well as defamation.

These types of complaints make up about 72% of the cases she receives via her organization's hotline, she said.

Women from all sections of Pakistani society face threats, blackmail and harassment online. Bushra Gohar, a former lawmaker from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told DW she has been threatened online by her political opponents and that social media has become a toxic space for women in the south Asian country.

In Pakistan's extremely religious conservative regions, women face harm if they are photographed or if their images are made public.

This can create mortal danger for women if their families consider their "honor" to have been disgraced. Dad said that some women have physically been abused by their families just for having their names and faces on the internet.

Blasphemy accusations are another danger on Pakistani social media, with numerous cases seen over the years involving people accused of insulting Islam online.

Last year, a Pakistani court sentenced a Muslim woman to death for allegedly posting blasphemous material on WhatsApp.

Kishwar Zehra, a Pakistani parliamentarian, believes that allegations of blasphemy against women are very difficult to disprove, and Pakistan's blasphemy laws also exacerbate the problem.

"Instead of abolishing this law, which has also been used against women, we are introducing more religious laws that would create more problems," she said.

What can authorities do to help?

Former lawmaker Gohar said that when she faced threats, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) did not take effective measures to address the issue.

Zehra, whose party is part of the current government, also said that the agency is not effectively performing its duties.

She added that the system works against women. "I know women working at parliament who were harassed and blackmailed, but when I talked to male members to take up this case, they showed extreme reluctance," she said.

Zehra added that the FIA asks too many irrelevant questions. "If you are defamed on social media then you become socially outcast, and if the authorities also pester the complainants instead of nabbing the accused, why would women come forward to lodge their complaints?"

Activist Dad said the FIA has "shown progress in how they respond to cases that victimize women, especially over intimate images," but added there is much more than can be done, if more resources were available.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn