When protectors become accusers

There is no understanding at FIA that their role is not to moralise but to protect the women who are harassed online

Aisha Sarwari January 07, 2018
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. She blogs at www. aishasarwari.wordpress.com. She can be followed on Twitter @AishaFsarwari

I was invited on behalf of an organisation called Bytes for All to speak at the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) on gender rights and the internet in Pakistan. I didn’t expect to find many takers of the importance of giving women’s agency back to them on the internet, but I didn’t expect the very institution tasked to protect women online, shame and blame women who turn to them for help. It was both alarming and disastrous.

In my presentation I talked about the various forms of violence women face online — when women have an opinion they are driven off the internet by abuse hurled at them and their character. Their pictures are often morphed and shared on the web. Their personal information is put up on the web with blatant calls to end their lives. They are told on their families for being on the web and that is dangerous because families that are patriarchal can punish these women severely, and these women are tracked down and sometimes abused and killed by stalkers. Many women who take up activism in the real world and online face death threats online, as is the case of renowned activist Marvi Sirmad who spoke at this event. By no measure are these issues to be trivialised.

This is why the chairman of the NCHR, Justice (R) Chohan, brought multiple stakeholders together that day so solutions could be discussed. I illustrated the gender landscape online by recent examples of the murder of Qandeel Baloch and the horrific hate content spilled online at Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy when she was offended at a doctor sending her sister a friend request after examining her. I spoke of the importance of women forging networks, of being mobile, of gaining financial independence and above all for harnessing their reproductive rights and commanding their sexuality. In the end I acknowledged two young female counterparts from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) — the government institution tasked to deal with cybercrime. The FIA is to work under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act.

But is it really? I certainly doubt it now after I got to learn the views of women working there. The two people representing the FIA were asked to respond to the concerns from the civil society and their take was that it’s the women’s fault. That the women who are harassed themselves make the mistake of being online, being in intimate relationships online and upload or share provocative pictures. The women from the FIA also went on to say that as Muslims this is depraved of women to do and also being in intimate relationships online is outside morality’s ambit.

I did a double take. What I was essentially hearing was sexism, bigotry and exclusivity and letting personal religious doctrine interfere in law enforcement. To this, I pointed out that women should not be punished for the crime, and let’s be clear it is a crime to manipulate or publicly expose what was shared for a private audience.

There is no understanding at FIA that their role is not to moralise but to protect the women who are harassed online — and admittedly by FIA, the majority of complaints from women are from intimate partner relationships that have turned against them. There is no gender sensitivity training. There is no inclusivity training, it seems. This may come as news to FIA colleagues but not all of Pakistan is Muslim and neither do the men in this country need more help to bolster their toxic masculinity. There is already plenty of that. Also another thing: sometimes patriarchy’s biggest defendants are women themselves. Therefore just instilling women at positions that prevent cybercrimes against women is not enough. Those women cannot be propellers of the status quo.

Status quo is seemingly the going diet at FIA. They are having their fill to eat. Meanwhile, according to a report by Digital Rights Foundation, 40 per cent of women online face rampant harassment in Pakistan. Look at our South Asian counterparts and Pakistan’s women lag behind dismally in terms of internet penetration. Internet is where the power is at. It’s where women can transform their status from being a product of men to more independence and financial empowerment.

About time we took a closer look at the watchdogs — bring more accountability and transparency. Also these institutions suffer from huge funding crunches — for months employees haven’t been paid.

It is time to understand that power rests with data and the internet not so much with stopping sin, instead of stopping crime.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 7th, 2018.

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Khurram | 6 years ago | Reply Dear writer, Pakistan being a Muslim majority country is not news to the masses you however, seem to have problem digesting it otherwise, what that FIA official said is a shiny thorny truth. Women themselves are to be blamed for showing off and sharing their photos in the first place, official was also correct when she tried to rouse your moral and ethical senses but, the problem is you upstarts have black hearts and prefer to do things your own way and rather not be advised. Well then, so be it, but then be ready to bear the harsh and otherwise avoidable this so-called tight situations. Because men can hardly be told to sit home, not look at a joker or share photos to get a few laughs at stupid looking clothes or poses.
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