Nighat Dad is empowering young Pakistani women by creating a safe digital space and helping them tackle cyber harassment.
by Aisiri Amin
In a country where having a social media account is a revolution for girls, Nighat Dad founded a platform to educate young girls about online harassment and help them respond to it. Pakistan is far from being open to the idea of making internet accessible and safe for women but Nighat is changing the scenario by starting the not-for profit, Digital Rights Foundation in 2012 with the aim to make people, especially women, aware about their virtual rights.
Gendered violence on the Internet has made it an unsafe space for women. Lewd messages, abuse, online harassment have instilled a sense of fear in them which makes them distance themselves from the online world. Nighat Dad has been awarded the Dutch government’s Human Rights Tulip award 2016 for her efforts in making the Internet a safer place for women.
Nighat Dad talks to INKLINE about her inspiring initiative and her fight against online harassment.
INKLINE: How did the idea of founding Digital Rights Foundation come about?
Nighad Dad: I’ve been noticing the grave condition of gender based violence on the internet for quite some time. I had seen women sharing their stories of online harassment and their cry for help. I often asked myself if, being a lawyer, I could do anything for them. The absence of any legislation around cyber-crimes in Pakistan at that time was a major let down for anyone who cared about women rights in the country.
I understood the problem better when I started speaking about it online and faced the similar harassment and abuse. This violence was hard to absorb initially – someone who I don’t know and someone who doesn’t know me is sending me a message and calling me names and abusing me, threatening me of what they called ‘serious consequences’ if I didn’t shut up. I’d first start worrying about my safety and would distance myself from the Internet in hopes that this will pass.
But the moment I’d come back and speak again, the cycle would repeat. I wanted to help the women who were still censoring themselves online, and were living in constant fear of facing those ‘serious consequences’ of their online actions in the offline spaces.
In 2012, the Government of Pakistan blocked YouTube for indefinite period of time. There was no accountability, and no one to question the authorities on restricting people from exercising their right to experience an open internet. The mere realisation that in times when technology is changing how people interact and mobilise, there’s no one to talk about people’s digital rights in Pakistan led me and my fellow activists to take charge of the matter and question those who take decisions on citizens’ behalf without asking them for their opinions. This is how and when DRF was established.
I: DRF’s work towards making internet a safer place for women in Pakistan is inspiring. Tell us more about the kind of work you do at DRF and about your Hamara Internet campaign.
N: A lot of work that we do at DRF focusses on gendered aspect of technology. Hamara Internet is a project that equips young women with the information that they need in order to counter the challenges they regularly face online. In the recent years, we have seen the growing trend in gendered online violence globally. The situation gets critical in the context of Pakistan because even though there is now a law to curb cyber-crimes, there are no mechanisms in place to effectively implement those laws.
Further, there’s little to no awareness among the citizens around the protection that these laws and legislations grant. Hamara Internet has so far trained over 1,800 young women in colleges and universities throughout Pakistan, on digital security, and empower them in a way so they can experience secure digital environment where women can participate freely.
I: As the digital space is growing, so is the reach of online perpetrators. How do you tackle this problem in Pakistan as a digital rights activist?
N: In December 2016, we launched Pakistan’s first Cyber Harassment Helpline to help the victims and survivors of online harassment in seeking help that they need. The helpline was established after the realisation that came through Hamara Internet project that women are getting harassed online on a regular basis, but they don’t have any help at their disposal.
As a result, they face serious consequences from their families, friends, and the society in general where they are cornered and blamed for what happens to them online. They’re asked to leave the Internet, they’re being told that “they asked for it”, and often the situation gets worse where they’re killed for the abuse that they received online. So the avenues for them to speak about it are already very limited in a conservative Pakistani society.
The Cyber Harassment Helpline provides these girls with a platform where they can share their experience of online violence in complete confidentiality. However, surprisingly enough, the complaints that we received at our helpline were not only from women but 37% of these calls in the first four months were from men. We work with the Cybercrimes wing – NR3C – of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to bring the perpetrators of cyber harassment to justice.
We also have trained psychologists and digital security experts on board to help the survivors of cyber harassment deal with their ordeal better. The service that the helpline provides is free, secure, confidential, and non-judgmental so the callers who are already going through the trauma of being abused online can seek help in a safe environment.
Apart from that, we also conduct regular trainings and awareness sessions on grassroots level where the lack of awareness towards online violence is most high. We regularly conduct researches and surveys to address the increasing online abuse, while keeping the process transparent for our stakeholders to follow.
I: Ironically, in a world that is rapidly becoming a digitised world, most people lack information regarding digital rights. Why?
N: When I was starting DRF, I was laughed at for talking about digital rights in Pakistan. I was told that people don’t have basic human rights here, and you’ll go around talking about the rights of the people in virtual world. Ironically enough, in 2011, the UN declared the internet as basic human right. So technically, digital rights are human rights too. Even now, when my team is conducting any session or training, we are often asked the same question.
Most of the times, people don’t know what rights they have in the digital world, and how and from whom they can demand them. Digital rights and the awareness around it often take the backseat as the issues that pose as ‘urgent’ in nature take the limelight. The unawareness is further advanced by the threats and violence that the activists face when they’re working on such issues. And working in a sensitive socio-political environment such as in Pakistan, it’s a pretty common occurrence.
I: How pervasive is online harassment in Pakistan? How safe is the Internet for women?
N: Pakistan isn’t yet open to the idea of providing free and safe Internet to women. Women, like I said, have even been killed for putting their photos online, and in some cases, just for having an online account. So when women speak about their experiences of cyber harassment openly, they’re killed by their families, deserted by their friends, judged and ridiculed by the society, and if some hope is left in them, then the law enforcers kill that too by victim blaming.
A recent study by DRF found that 67% of the respondents use Facebook regularly, and 50% of them say that social media is the worst platform for online harassment. Further, 70% of the respondents are afraid of posting their photos online because they can be misused, whereas, 48% knew people who stopped using social media after being harassed online.
I: As you go around making women aware about their digital rights, helping them deal with online harassment, what are some of the problems that you have faced?
N: The biggest challenge that we still face when we talk about digital rights is the non-accepting nature of people when we go to rural areas where even though they have access to the internet, the awareness around the responsible use of it doesn’t exist.
Often, our sessions are designed particularly for women so they can openly speak about their issues in a safe environment. But we have been criticised by them for not including their men in the discussion as they are the ones who shall be dealing with any kinds of issues. The patriarchal norms are deeply engraved in their way of life that they don’t accept a safe place specifically for women only.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?
N: DRF was started with only two people in the team. Now we’re 15 people strong, where 11 team members are women. Seeing my organisation that I started from my TV lounge, grow into something bigger than I’d initially expected has been uplifting. Every member in my team is such an incredible being, professionally and as a person, that DRF can’t help but flourish and it makes me really happy.
I: What advice would you give to millennials who aspire to follow a similar path?
N: I’d tell them to be ready to face challenges that they’ve not even expected. However calculated your moves may be, you can never make everyone happy. You can never reach the point where everyone will feel the same emotions towards your work, but that is alright.
When you work for a cause that is greater than the hatred you receive, you either care about the trolls or you focus on what you’re doing. I’d advise the aspiring leaders of development to keep moving forward and challenge the norms if they must.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.