On a typical evening in Pakistan, where women are discouraged from visiting public spaces on their own, women with access to the internet head online. They use the web to communicate, express themselves, maintain social connections, and obtain information and entertainment.
There are nearly 30 million internet users in Pakistan, half of whom use mobile phones to access social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
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Yet, the internet has, in recent years, become an unsafe space for Pakistani women. Instances of online harassment, abuse, and blackmail are not uncommon.
Worse, social media companies have failed to protect women from developing countries because they fail to understand the language and the cultural context in which the harassment takes place. In Pakistan, where online harassment can result in physical violence, this is an inexcusable failure.
Oppression of women
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Certain sections of society have long insisted Pakistani women are responsible for their own harassment or assault.
The abuse is justified by charges of inappropriate dress, venturing into areas deemed “unsafe”, holding down jobs or going to school.
In extremely conservative areas, women are subjected to honour killings if they are judged by their families to have acted inappropriately, for misdemeanours as simple as speaking to a man, or being filmed dancing in the rain.
That same mentality can sometimes extend itself to online spaces where users can take refuge behind a certain degree of anonymity.
Recently in Peshawar, one of Pakistan’s most conservative cities, two men were arrested on charges of online harassment and blackmail. The case first originated in 2011 when they created a fake profile on Facebook called Edwardian Girls.
On the profile page, they posted photographs, telephone numbers, and information about the personal lives of female students from the co-educational Edwardes College, Peshawar.
It's true that anyone who joins social media is interacting with a business and becomes subject to their rules and policies, but nobody should have to give up the right to be safe from online abuse as part of that deal.
They obtained the data through social circles and by hacking the girls’ social media pages. Contacting the victims, they promised to remove a woman’s personal information if she either sent them money through the mobile phone money transfer facility “EasyPaisa”, or agreed to divulge information about her friends.
Since the women were too scared to let their families know about the harassment and blackmail, they kept quiet for years.
But news of the network, which had expanded beyond the original two criminals and handful of victims, reached some of the victims’ families, who finally took formal complaints to the Federal Investigations Agency (FIA) in 2015.
The FIA’s cybercrime unit, which has become extremely active in recent years, traced the criminals, arrested them, and sent them to jail after a court trial. Currently, the FIA is currently investigating 50 related cases of blackmail.
News of the Peshawar blackmailing ring had been reaching Nighat Dad, Pakistani lawyer and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation, over the last four years.
Dad is the founder of a grassroots organisation, Hamara Internet (Our Internet), which trains women in rural areas of Pakistan in online safety.
Information about privacy settings, Facebook, privacy policies and digital rights are taught to women in conservative areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, such as Peshawar, Nowshera, Multan and Muzaffargarh.
“These women were coming and crying to me, telling me that if their families found out what was happening, they would be killed,” she says.
Yet, Dad found Facebook’s approach to the problem problematic. First, the blackmailers’ page was written in Pashto, but Facebook’s policy team in the US lacked anyone with Pashto language skills – there is no office in Pakistan, only a regional one in India.
Second, many victims filed reports only to be told that the page didn’t violate “community standards”, a common response to many complaints.
When Facebook did take down the page, the blackmailers created another page. “They simply didn’t understand the language or the cultural context in which this was happening,” says Dad.
To this end, Dad is working to translate the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s handbook for Privacy and Safety on Facebook into Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi and Pashto.
Yet this is not enough. Widely-used social media sites like Facebook – which has 8 million users in Pakistan -need an iron-clad guarantee for the online protection of women – on the other hand, Dad praised Twitter for its more effective anti-harassment policies.
With recent examples of GamerGate doxxing online female activists and Indian feminists having their pages removed from Facebook after complaints by those who harass them, online safety for women is a global problem.
Effective policies must adopt a uniform approach. Indeed, Dad warns against a policy specific to developing countries that might be conducted through government authorities already eager to impose Internet restrictions.
The IT industry should participate in the training of vulnerable communities, particularly women, to teach them to protect themselves from online abuse.
It’s true that anyone who joins social media is interacting with a business and becomes subject to their rules and policies, but nobody should have to give up the right to be safe from online abuse as part of that deal.
Bina Shah is an award-winning Pakistani writer from Karachi. She is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times and writes a monthly column for Dawn, the biggest English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.