All News

Making Online Spaces Safe for Women in Pakistan

News | July 30, 2015

In April 2015, Making All Voices Count ran a pitching competition in Pakistan, challenging individuals and organisations to share their ideas on how technology can improve governance at local, national and international levels.


The Digital Rights Foundation’s Hamara Internet project was one of the competition winners, focusing on digital security for women going online on Pakistan.

We interviewed Nighat Dad, Director of the Foundation and one of TIME magazine’s Next Generation Leaders, about her own experiences online, and why she believes digital security is an issue of culture as well as one of fundamental rights.

Nighat Dad conducting a session on Safe Online Spaces - Lahore University

Nighat Dad conducting a session on Safe Online Spaces - Lahore University

How did you first come to use the internet?

It started really in 2005, when I got married.

My in-laws were very educated and open-minded people, but not really used to having women use the internet or be familiar with technology. I used to use our home computer only when my husband went to work or my mother-in-law wasn’t at home. At that time Facebook and Orkut were the new thing and, as a housewife who stayed at home, having a computer and going online opened up a new space for me. It helped me to connect with my old friends and with new ones too, and it opened my eyes to other people’s experiences and lives across the world.

My use of the internet wasn’t frequent, though, because there was this fear of ‘what if someone found out?'

It could have been my in-laws or my husband, both of whom would have been concerned about me being online, meeting new people they didn’t know about, or using social networking sites without really knowing how to stay safe. Eventually, my husband did find out and we argued. After that, I stopped using internet technology at all.

My husband and I divorced in 2007, and I moved home to live with my parents. My father was a hardworking man – he began as a labourer on a construction site and 30 years later, even though he did not have an education, he had his own small business. So, when I moved home he said, ‘you have a law degree and a 6 month old son. We will support you, but we also believe that you should go out and explore the world for yourself’.  It’s because of that support and inspiration, I was able to move on, find a job, and begin exploring the world as my father wanted.

When I got a new job at a law firm I had my own desk, my own computer and a dial-up connection (remember that?!) to get online.

There was a huge sense of freedom in being able to use technology for myself, without restrictions – and that’s really where I started.

Digital Rights Foundation session on Safe Online Spaces – Multan, Pakistan

Digital Rights Foundation session on Safe Online Spaces – Multan, Pakistan

Why do you think the internet is such an important tool for women's rights?

Because of the experiences and the worlds that it can open up for you.

The internet can change your expectations, and help you find the information and the means to make a change in your circumstance.

In 2009, exploring online, I found an opportunity to visit the US under the International Visitors Leadership Program from the US Embassy in Pakistan. I was accepted and, despite my concerns about whether it was a scam (my parents and I had no real way to know) I decided to go.  At the airport I saw the inside of a plane for the first time, and headed to the US for three eye-opening weeks.

Every single day brought so many surprises for me. I would look at women talking in the streets, working shoulder to shoulder with men, demanding equal rights for doing equal work. In only 21 days it changed my thinking about women’s rights, and made me think about the constitutional rights for women in Pakistan, which are supposed to make men and women equal. It made me wonder why these rights are just in law, and not in practice.

When I came back, I was determined to start standing up for my rights no matter the consequences. After questioning my employer and asking ‘why are you giving me less money than men who are doing the same job as me?’ I was fired. But I don’t regret it.

I left my law chamber, where I had worked for 3 years, because I had to stand up my rights.

Why are digital rights and online security such an issue in Pakistan?

In 2009 and 2010, when the internet really expanded into Pakistan, there was a tension between the idea of freedom of expression online and the culture in our country. Men really had (and often still have) control of technology decisions – they decided whether a woman should have access to the mobile phone and the internet.

In the early years, the internet was seen as a notorious thing, where women could make friendships and have conversations with men and women who might not be approved by the family. And I’m not just talking about the families from villages, but also from the cities and urban areas who felt this way.

As me and my friends started to engage in the online space, we found bullying and harassment of women everywhere.

Some of my friends, and several other women who had been the victims of cybercrime, came to me as a lawyer asking what law could protect them. But I found that there wasn’t one. This is how I started thinking about how laws can and should be protecting women online – because what happens online is not just in an imaginary world, it has real effects.

There are many stories I can tell you to demonstrate this. What I talk about now is just one of them.

In 2012, in the town of Chilas in Pakistan, two teenage girls and their mother were murdered after the girls were filmed on a mobile phone outdoors and enjoying the rain near their home.

That 50 second clip, recorded without the girls’ consent, was sent via MMS to several other men in the area. Six months later the girls were killed. The girls’ stepbrother was convicted for murdering the women for ‘bringing dishonour’ to the family because of the sharing of the clip.

In Pakistan, this story is not unusual – in September 2013, the UK newspaper the Independent reported the case of a young mother of two, Arifa Bibi, who was stoned to death by her relatives on the order of a tribal court in Pakistan. Her crime was possession of a mobile phone. Arifa Bibi’s uncle, cousins and others hurled stones and bricks at her until she died.

Because of fear, many women on Facebook and social networking sites now use pseudonyms. It gives them a freedom to do so many things and provides them with a space they would never have.

Women’s participation in the online space is still really not acceptable unless you are from an elite and very liberal family – and because it is not acceptable, when women face cybercrime, blackmail or hacking, they can’t go to their family and can’t go for help because the family don’t know they are online.

So they stop using the internet and this world of supposed freedom is closed to them again.

20 years ago internet access was just emerging to the mass market. If you had a dream for internet use in 20 years' time, what would this be?

In 20 years’ time I dream that all women not only have access to the internet, but are not afraid of what will happen if men find out.

I know many young women who have mobile phones, but they do not tell their families. I want to see a time where women are not worried that people will see they have a mobile, and that they can post online under their own names, their own identities and not be scared.

Not just in 20 years’ time, but now, actually, I want all the women in the world have equal access to technology and have it acknowledged as a fundamental right.

I have already seen a change from when I started on my first campaigns. Men in Pakistan are now more accepting and welcoming of internet access. When I told the elders of my own family about how women can access the internet safely and securely, they understood. That was the change I also experienced in the wider men’s groups as well. When I talked with men, it was all about safe and secure internet access – the same as what they wanted to do for themselves.

Digital Rights Foundation training in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan

Digital Rights Foundation training in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan

How did these experiences feed into the development of Hamara Internet?

There are very many issues around government control of internet and monitoring of citizens, but Hamara Internet is needed because women are under surveillance by their own families, their partners fiancés and sometimes their ‘friends’.

Surveillance technologies are very accessible in the mobile market, where there is lots of software marketed as helping you to ‘keep an eye on your partner, but there are severe consequences when it is felt women have transgressed social boundaries and permissions.

Women need to have a level of tech literacy and security awareness to protect themselves, and nowhere more so than in Pakistan. Hamara Internet aims to make sure that everyone is able to use of the internet freely and without fear of danger or reprisal, and that is what I and our team, are committed to achieving.

I am really proud of the Hamara Internet project, because we seeded it with a small grant by Web We Want and the Tactical Technologies Collective, and now we are going to have a comparatively big grant from Making All Voices Count to get us really going, and to help make sure that work continues and extends to other countries in South Asia.