The Digital Rights Foundation’s Cyber Harassment Helpline 2022 annual report makes for grim reading when it comes to women and their ability to access and use the internet as equal participants in public life. In 2022 alone, the Cyber Harassment Helpline recorded 2273 cases of cyber harassment, out of which 2133 were confirmed to be from within Pakistan, with women constituting 58.6 per cent of the victims. This is in line with general trends, with the helpline having received and responded to 14,376 cases overall, with women making up 59 per cent of those assisted. In most cases the harasser is male and unknown or a stranger to their victim. According to the report, women are more likely to be targeted by “sexualized threats and comments” and “actions that attack their reputation, particularly in front of their family and friends”. The report also notes that women in more public-facing roles, journalism in particular, are especially vulnerable to online harassment.
As bleak as the picture painted by this data is, it is not quite unexpected. Pakistan ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, and gender disparities are highly prevalent in everything from education and employment to healthcare and financial independence. These threats and disparities are underpinned by a culture of misogyny that does not view women as equal members of society. Although this culture is not wholly representative of Pakistani society, it represents the reality that many Pakistani women face. In this context, simply reaching out to the authorities or an NGO to report an instance of online harassment can be a daunting task. The report notes that in several cases of cyber harassment involving women, the complaint is filed on the victim’s behalf by someone else. Many women do not want their families to know of their situation for fear of how they might react, and many women do not go to the authorities as their families might restrict their online access and personal autonomy. This ensures that many cases of harassment simply go unreported.
Victim blaming is not the only way official channels of reporting online harassment are compromised. The report notes that the complainants find the FIA’s helpline and online complaint form to be unreliable, the number of cyber-crime wings is insufficient and that physically going to an office to file a case is simply not an option for many women. When one has to seek permission from family to simply leave the house, lacks their own income, anticipates that their situation will only worsen if they air their issues and faces institutions that are mostly indifferent, if not adversarial, one becomes an easy target for harassers both on- and offline. Addressing this problem thereby requires removing the restrictions placed on women’s autonomy and their power to seek redressal. Moreover, there is a need to challenge the attitudes that see no role for women outside the boundaries of the home and view those who stray too far from the invisible red-lines as asking for trouble.