IT was winter break at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro. The campus was largely empty, devoid of the usual students going to and from class. The women’s hostel, where female students who do not have family in town stay during the school year, was also largely empty. It was here that a young student named Naila Rind would meet her end.
According to police and media reports, Naila was found dead late on the evening of Sunday, Jan 1. She had returned from her village the day before to complete work on her Masters’ thesis that was due on Jan 15. In previous years, Naila had bagged a top position in the university exams. Her body was found suspended from a ceiling fan in one of the rooms of the hostel. In one more example of the callous disregard towards women, at least one Pakistani media channel obtained a video of the moments when the young woman’s body was recovered. Now available on the web, the intrusive and disrespectful video has received several views.
Cyberspace was not only the venue of the posthumous disregard of Naila; it may also have played a crucial role in pushing her to death’s door. One of the items seized by police after the body was discovered was her mobile phone. It is apparently based on data available on the phone that police were directed to the alleged involvement of a lecturer at a private university in Jamshoro, who allegedly befriended Naila on Facebook and pursued a relationship with her. According to the police, he refused to marry her and began instead to blackmail her. A number of text messages to him were found on Naila’s phone; he was also the last person she is said to have called prior to her death.
Naila Rind’s case reveals just how vulnerable Pakistani women are to cyber harassment and blackmail.
A few days after the young woman’s body was recovered, the police, that had declared the death a suicide, conducted a raid at the lecturer’s home and arrested him. The man, whose father is also a higher education official, has now been charged upon the complaint of Naila’s brother Nisar Rind. The family had always held that the case was not (as police initially held) a case of simple suicide. Naila had never had a history of depression nor were there any family problems that would have precipitated her making such a move.
Naila’s case reveals just how vulnerable Pakistani women are to cyber harassment and blackmail. In the past decade and a half, hundreds of men have taken to the internet to prey on unsuspecting women and girls. They then harass and blackmail them on the basis of information they gather. While the exact details of the lecturer’s relationship with Naila are not yet known, most of these incidents of cyber harassment follow a familiar pattern.
Men target women and girls, often gathering information about them, their family and their friends from social media websites. Once they zero in on a victim, they pretend to pursue a relationship, even marriage, all the while coaxing their victims into divulging information about themselves that could prove to be embarrassing, wheedling pictures out of them and involving them in intimate conversations and encounters. All of this material becomes the basis for their ultimate plan, which is extortion, blackmail and harassment.
Naila’s case reveals one set of facts via which harassers can hurt the young women of the country. In others I have heard, the harassing and blackmailing men are family members, husbands and cousins and relatives, who force women into compromising situations, make videos and pictures and then use those to ensure further compliance.
Pakistani society provides a particularly perfect ecosystem for cyber harassment. The internet is increasingly and widely available, offering both a window to the world and a place to ‘meet’ members of the opposite gender in a way that was previously impossible. Even as they are able to access the internet, few Pakistani women are aware of the dangers of sharing information online or that the men who may offer compliments can easily turn into abusers. Add to this the fact that social mores always and forever hold women responsible for all the ills of society and you have a perfect storm, where new technology meets archaic ideas about honour and women’s inferiority, tying a noose around the neck of all Pakistani women.
As is the case with issues such as workplace harassment and ‘honour’ killings, laws against cyber harassment do exist but they are rarely enforced, with culprits going largely unpunished.
As a letter written by Nighat Dad, who heads the Digital Rights Foundation, aptly summarised, the recent cybercrime bill fails women like Naila because it makes such crimes federal matters. The consequence of this is that local police in places like Jamshoro are ill informed and largely ignorant as to how cyber activity can play a crucial role in the harassment and death of women.
Glaring evidence of this, the letter notes, is the fact that the FIR lodged in Naila Rind’s case charges the accused under Section 9 and 13 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance of 2009. That law lapsed several years ago. The letter, addressed to the minister of information, begs the rules for the new (and recently passed) Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 to be made public and to actually equip the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency.
In the meantime, what the government has failed to do, the Digital Rights Foundation is trying to do. If you or anyone you know is a victim of cyber harassment, you can call the recently inaugurated Cyber Harassment Helpline; its number is 0800-393-93. Call the number and remember that the internet, like the rest of Pakistan, can be a dangerous place for women.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn January 11th, 2017