WHEN campaigning for democracy, digital governance and security, Pakistan needs determined individuals to lead from the front. In this respect, the achievements of Nighat Dad, a lawyer and digital rights activist, are valuable. Her Digital Rights Foundation supports women victims of online violence and educates the public about online privacy settings — especially significant as information is misused online. Over the weekend, Ms Dad was awarded the Dutch government’s Human Rights Tulip Award 2016 — a well-deserved honour for upholding the right to internet expression and promoting women’s rights. Founded in 2012, Ms Dad’s not-for-profit organisation teaches women how to respond to online harassment; it has also campaigned against cybercrime legislation that gives the state powers of online surveillance. The citation explains how Ms Dad, despite receiving threats, has fought to improve adherence to human rights in a “unique and innovative way”.
In 2012, when she started talking about online privacy, women and technology were perceived an uneasy fit in Pakistan. Since then, not much has changed for women internet users who are repeatedly harassed and trolled. Given societal conservatism, shame and ‘honour’ stop women from reporting trolls. With some 23m Facebook accounts registered in Pakistan, it is primarily women, especially those in the public domain, who are subjected to cyber bullying — for instance, journalists in unpoliced spaces. With cases of online sexual harassment increasing and the FIA investigating hundreds each year, online insecurity is reflective of misogynistic offline behaviour and can contribute to a culture of real-world fear. Uncovering the identity of trolls will not always stop the abuse, although naming and shaming them often works. In the longer term, the state will need to consider, in partnership with digital rights groups, how social media can create proper online protections and a safe environment without focusing on censorship. Meanwhile, when determination drives innovation and human rights protection, it calls for praise. So does Ms Dad’s promise of realising her next project — Pakistan’s first cyber harassment helpline.
Published in Dawn November 8th, 2016