Abuse in Pakistan: ‘I’m more scared of harassment online than offline’

The countrys first cyber harassment helpline is providing legal and psychological support to women facing menaces on social media platforms

In January 2016, Suman was on her way to take her university exam when she was approached by a motorbike. The human grabbed her, took her to an isolated location and poured acid on her face. Despite her screaming for help, the region was deserted and no one came to her assistance. Sumans face burned, stinging and swelling to the point where her lips and eyes were no longer visible.

The assailant Sumans brother-in-law had a long history of harassing her. In the years before the attack, he had initiated unwanted sexual advances and implored her to marry him. In 2014, her brother-in-law had even pinned her down, taking compromising photos that he stored on a USB drive.

Despite threats of physical violence, Suman was undaunted by her brother-in-laws intimidation, filing a legal suit against him. He utilized the illicit photos as leverage, threatening to circulate them via mobile phone to his friends if she did not fell the combat, and carrying through on his threat when she continued to push her case.

Sumans story uncovers a dark side of South Asias telecom boom. Today, there are more than 136 million mobile phone users and 34 million internet users in Pakistan, attaining online spaces new crucibles for womens security. In Pakistan, there are few boulevards for women like Suman to seek supporting. Alarmingly high rates of violence against women persist: since 2004, the Human Right Commission of Pakistan has recorded more than 6,000 cases of sexual violence and over 2,200 domestic violence cases cases against women. Worryingly, the offline violence is increasingly connected to online forms of abuse, harassment and blackmail.

Last winter, the Lahore-based Digital Right Foundation( DRF) recognised the scale of the problem and unveiled Pakistans first cyber harassment helpline, a nationwide initiative to provide legal and psychological support to women facing menaces online. The majority of cases involve blackmail, retaliation porn and cyber stalking and harassment.

Since its launching, the helpline has received more than 700 calls[ pdf] from girls attempting assistance. On average, the helpline fields more than 80 calls a month, more than 60% of which are from women. Its proved difficult to get some women to call of their own accord. A plenty of the calls have been from male members of the family calling on behalf of women, which means we have to build more trust, says Shmyla Khan, the head of the helpline at DRF.

This helpline has been a dream of mine for years, says Nighat Dad, the founder of DRF, who notes that last years death of the Pakistani social media icon Qandeel Baloch paved the way to creating the confidential helpline. After Balochs 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, Dad says. I envisaged creating a helpline that reached out to women all over Pakistan including where the Federal Investigation Agency( FIA) has no offices to provide them with assistance and support to reclaim online spaces.

Balochs murder was one of the first times that people discussed online menaces and abuse in Pakistan, says Khan. Its still quite revolutionary to name this violence, she says , noting that not everyone recognises the legitimacy of threats in a digital space. For some people, violence needs to be tangible.

In Pakistan where women are already burdened by legal and social challenges that make it difficult to contend with violence reporting online harassment is daunting. For example, registering a cybercrime with the FIA the law enforcement agency that monitors and analyses cybercrime nationwide, along with corruption, trafficking and terrorism necessitates disclosing ones national identity card number, phone number and parents name. Even a journey to the local police station often involves uncovering ones name. Some households will not permit their daughters to leave the house unaccompanied a restriction that is particularly harrowing when abuse comes from a relative.

However, Pakistans Cybercrime Act[ pdf] criminalises the sharing of images without consent and excises heavy penalties if illicit photos are for blackmailing purposes. If person transmits or posts photos that are sexually explicit, they are punishable by up to seven years in jail and may be ordered to pay a five million Pakistani rupee( around 37,200) penalty at the discretion of a magistrate, says Syed Shahid Hassan from the Lahore branch of the FIAs cybercrime unit.

On social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, abuse and blackmail continue to proliferate. As soon as you have your data online, or a significant cyber presence, youre unsafe, says Rameesha Fatima, a student in Lahore.

Moreover, while women feel the brunt of such aggression, they are not the only group singled out as targets. While the friend requests and incessant texts may be harmless, there have been various incidents where people use online platforms to bully their victims over religion, social or other biases, says Fatima.

Everyone who is using the cyber platform is vulnerable. Cyber stalkers lash out at victims when they dont reciprocate their affection. Most cyber predators seek attention from their victims and when they dont get onto they take it out by looking for ways to harm them.

Another Lahore-based student, Eman Suleman, knows the problems associated with cyberbullying first-hand. At university, she started a period protest, scribbling messages on sanitary napkins to uncover the stigmatisation around menstruation. Images of the protest soon went viral, propelling Sulemans social media accounts to the top of online harassers listing. Her inbox was inundated with messages from legions of Pakistani humen describing in lurid detail what they would do to her as penalty, forcing her to temporarily go offline.

Im more scared of online harassment than offline harassment, Suleman says. When there are three to four people harassing you in a public space, its easier to handle them. When there are thousands of people harassing you online people you cant see you dont know what theyre like, you dont know if their threats are empty or real, and it becomes really frightening.

For women in Pakistan, online harassment is unlikely to dissipate without challenges to patriarchal norms. This month, Suman was undergoing reconstructive surgery at a Lahore hospital, when she found out her attacker had been sentenced to prison. I cant explain in terms how happy I was at that time, she says. After the surgery, I couldnt speak I just wanted to shout with happiness.

The online world has given females the space to voice their sentiment freely, including the freedom to seek help and find solidarity. However, my perpetrator use this space to transgress my their entitlements and abuse girls.

Suman believes the courts still offer hope for acid assault survivors. More enforcement of laws for both offline and online harassment can save the lives of women who are suffering, she says. We have to struggle for justice.

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