Image description: Different people walking, cycling.

Image description: Different people walking, cycling. Some have surveillance cameras as heads. Image source: based on original artwork by Paru Ramesh

Does technological progress support or hinder the human rights of women and gender diverse people? And what about their privacy rights? On the one hand, the right to privacy protects online spaces where people can securely navigate their sexual and gender identity. Yet, on the other hand, privacy has historically been considered a tool to control sexuality and gender identities by patriarchal institutions.   

My interest in online privacy started with a very simple reflection: as a feminist activist, what is my online footprint, who has access to that information and can it be used to harm myself or others? It got me thinking about all the online petitions, and even online shopping, that I have participated in during the last years, and how this information could be collected for many different reasons than its original intent.  I could not silence the question in my head: Where does this information go? How does it get stored? Is it protected and if so how? How were other rights activists negotiating these questions? Who were some of the global organisations seeking the same answers and how were they protecting online privacy?  What are some of the things that we need to inform women? My search for answers brought me to Pakistan, where a digital right activist Shmyla Khan (SK) from Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has been working on identifying how data collection impacts the real privacy rights of Pakistani women and the LGBTQ communities. From her home in Lahore Pakistan, via teleconference, Shmyla shares her thought and concerns about privacy rights and gender equality in Pakistan.

My search for answers brought me to Pakistan, where a digital right activist Shmyla Khan (SK) from Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has been working on identifying how data collection impacts the real privacy rights of Pakistani women and the LGBTQ communities.

Bianca Baldo (BB): Digital Rights Foundation was recommended by as an important community organisation in the field of data collections and online rights.

Could you please share with us a little about the work being done in Pakistan by DRF? 

Shymyla Khan (SK): DRF is a non-profit organization and we have been working on the protection of privacy since the organisation was formed in 2012. We aim at conducting the research, examining the loopholes and mapping the gaps in current research. What are the local institutions doing in Pakistan? How are they collecting data and what are the emerging issues in Pakistan from a gender perspective?

What we have found is that privacy rights violations are primarily being done by telecommunication companies and that the majority of people who are on the receiving end of these violations are women.  And so, our focus has been to examine the real impact of these practices rather than limiting the narrative to abstract rights. Apart from that, we have been involved in advocacy because we don't have a dedicated data protection law in Pakistan and we don’t have any other provisions in the existing legislations that allow for individuals to hold government institutions or private companies accountable for data breaches. So, part of our activity is to advocate at the national level to get such a law passed.

We have seen positive movement at the federal level in the last few months. The government has proposed a bill to address privacy gaps, and we will be proposing policy recommendations and engaging with the relevant ministries linked to industries and following up on the bill.  Even within this process, one of our main concerns is to ensure that the concept of individual redress for the harm experienced by survivors becomes a legislative priority. This demand is based on the feedback received from women who approach us. They are interested in pursuing justice with a process that holds the perpetrators responsible rather than sort of just generalized gender policies that may not allow social, financial or political accountability.

We also get a lot of cases from our cyber harassment helpline. These cases often involve criminal liability based on a breach of privacy. Another of our key activities is to reach out to individual institutions and inform them that their current practices contravene privacy rights, and we link the violation to larger policy issues relating to cybercrime against women. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act includes acts such as cyberstalking as crimes in Pakistan.

The majority of the cases that come through the hotline relate to a breach of privacy and often involve women or members of the LGBTQ community. Our findings illustrate that privacy violations are happening particularly to a set of individuals because society considers them to be engaging in improper behaviour.

Women are interested in pursuing justice with a process that holds the perpetrators responsible rather than sort of just generalized gender policies that may not allow social, financial or political accountability.

BB: It is almost as if violating the privacy of those who challenge the mainstream narratives about gender is acceptable, and this is the justification needed to disproportionately target members of the LGBTQ community, perpetuating cycles of violence towards survivors.

SK: For example, if a person’s private information and pictures have been accessed without permission, the reputational harm, and blackmailing that women or individuals from the queer community experience will be much more than for a man. So that is what we have been looking at -- the disproportionate effect on marginalised groups, not only just in the abstract sense but also through the cases that we're pursuing. So this is the broad description of the work that we've been doing relating to datafication and privacy.

 We have also been researching the policies and practices that telecommunications companies have adopted, and the impacts on human rights and security issues. For instance, we've been looking at the privacy policies of ride-sharing apps and how the companies can be held accountable. Critical privacy questions like how is their data being stored? We are examining the notions of urban surveillance, safer cities, and security for women. We question if this application of surveillance actually leads to an increased feeling of safety for women, who are the primary users of ride-sharing applications.

BB: I'm interested in looking at how pieces of information on their own are not necessarily as dangerous but when they're brought together, the collection of information can be harmful and lead to instances of doxxing.  Have you seen any cases in your work?

SK: Doxing and data gathering is very common in Pakistan. For example, we’ve had cases of doxing women's rights activists where their private information -home address, phone number and pictures are coupled, and put online as a means to intimidate and send threatening messages to women. Often centring on activists reflecting on religion and gender, the collection of information or documents can lead to violence from different non-state actors. By taking a stance that might be against the religious right and religious sentiments, they face attacks that are particularly gendered. The kind of language used in these threats, even if only rhetorical, attacks the gender identity of activists. For example, rape has often been used as a threat to silence women’s rights.

But we've also seen cases where women’s privacy is violated and pages upon pages of women’s pictures accompanied with their phone number are shared with online groups, on Facebook. This has resulted in these women receiving upwards of 150 phone calls per day. Sometimes, this has led to women deciding to shut off their phones and completely going offline or changing their numbers. Sometimes that does not even make it stop, especially if the information leak is being done by someone that knows them personally. That's increasingly becoming common, and some people have just decided to avoid those messages, or close their account on those platforms or on Facebook.

We've also seen some cases of men being unwillingly added to new groups that keep popping up on the WhatsApp application. In many occasions, they've had to completely delete their profiles because you can't stop someone from adding you to groups, even if you have blocked them. All these applications are structured in a way that leads to doxing, putting them in harm's way by leaking their information on online platforms.

Sometimes, this has led to women deciding to shut off their phones and completely going offline or changing their numbers.

BB:  Could you please provide information on the nature of these groups where women are being added?

SK:  The majority of these groups are all-male groups, deeply rooted in misogyny, where they targeted women being added by sharing false sexualized and intimate information, sharing pictures and blackmailing them. Individual blackmailing is one of the most common types of cases that we're getting through the helpline. Furthermore these groups also share generalised threats, jokes and content to intimidate women.

BB: Last year the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill in Pakistan was passed, allowing for a transgender person to have a right to be recognized, registered and to change the name and gender as per his or her self-perceived gender within all government departments. This act prohibits harassment of transgender persons both within and outside the home, based on their sex, gender identity and/or gender expression.

What effects have you noticed as a result?

SK: In recent days with the passing of the Transgender Act, we've seen an increase in visibility and online engagement of transgender activists; there are still barriers to visibility around sexuality, but particularly on gender equality from the transgender community. That has also resulted in numerous lapses of security on the basis of privacy. We've had cases where information sometimes has been made voluntarily public without realizing its true impact, which can lead to physical violence. We have had a case where a transgender woman was attacked after her personal information, including the address and phone number, was made available online by someone intending to cause harm. These events were linked to activism and visibility online as the victims were vocal on social media.

We have had a case where a transgender woman was attacked after her personal information, including the address and phone number, was made available online by someone intending to cause harm.

BB: Could you please speak more about the violations experienced by the LGBTQ community?

SK: As for the LGBTQ community, there is a lack of visibility (and in some cases complete absence) of lesbian women in these spaces.  What we do see is that numerous gay men are using  WhatsApp and Facebook groups to communicate with each other. However the dangers of being open about your sexuality in online spaces are quite high. Several queer individuals use dating applications such as Grindr, but we’ve seen that screenshots of profiles are used to blackmail the person. The main problem is that in Pakistan many people are not openly out due to religious and social factors.  Furthermore, there is a real fear of criminal liability based on the fact that Pakistan still has laws on the books that prohibit homosexuality, left behind as a reminder of colonial law. Section 377, which was declared unconstitutional in India, is still on the books.

Just the fact that you have a post on these online forums is an indication of your sexuality, the mere fact that you are on an application, can result in violence.

BB: From my place of privilege, it took a little while even to just understand how dangerous these things can be, and to imagine the impacts of this violence on people that have to have to deal with it in their everyday life.

Could you please explain the challenges experienced when advocating for equality in sexual orientation and gender identity?

SK: Absolutely, it has an extreme impact on activists. Being visible is inherent to being an activist, but for many women and queer folks, visibility is not possible because you cannot represent yourself as yourself. Online harassment and abuse pushed communities further into secrecy. It is bound up with the notions of shame which not helpful for young people who are considering coming out. When privacy is violated, you cannot even share your experiences with a small community online because it is no longer safe. It is hard, but we are hoping one day that we can have the movement for LGBTQ rights as in India.

BB: So in terms of your experience, how did you become aware of these issues?

SK: There wasn't a lot of work being done in Pakistan in this particular area; it was relatively new in Pakistan. After my masters, I wanted to work in the non-profit sector and I was interested in gender and women's rights and found myself inclined towards some sort of digital rights formation. Particularly, I had experience in some cases of workplace harassment and I was informed that DRF was planning on opening up a hotline against cyber violence harassment, and I thought that was really interesting because the law on cybercrimes had just been passed a month before. Initially, I thought I would just join part-time, but when the hotline got going, I realised that this would be a full-time commitment. I have never looked back.

I saw other aspects of the field starting to open up, not just the issue of harassment. I saw the intersection between violations of freedom of expression, the right to privacy and violence against women as influencing each other. So my point of entry was more linked to gender than the digital rights aspect of it. The gender perspective allowed me to look at the issue holistically. For example, if you are looking at harassment and cyber violence, it is a good idea to examine the intersection between online and offline gender violence. In our approach, we try to make sure that we see the bigger picture. For example, even in cases of workplace harassment, there is an online element emerging.

Surveillance of female journalists in Pakistan: a research study by Digital Rights Foundation


BB: Gender-based violence exists online and offline and is often interlinked. The online space does not exist within a vacuum; it is fuelled by sexism, racism, classism and privilege.  Interestingly enough, gender-based violence can sometimes be easier to identify, visualised and pinpointed in the online world as it always leaves a trace. The same does not always apply to gender-based violence within the family or in the private sphere. Too often, society can turn a blind eye to family violence as it is considered to be a private and family matter. Gender dominance, gender stereotyping and violence are considered socially accepted methods to correct deviation from established social norms.

Does this reflect your experience in your work?

SK: We take an intersectional approach to online harassment, no violence happens in a vacuum. Interesting, we've had some unexpected success with cases of online harassment, since offline harassment does not necessarily produce evidence. It often happened in a semi-private space, like in an office where there are no witnesses. Yet with online harassment, there's always some sort of message, some online trace that you identify as proof and go back to when prosecuting. In that sense, we look for some online hook that can really get you the evidence you need even in cases of offline violence.

BB: In my experience, I was often unable to understand how easily people will write things online that they would never write on a piece of paper.  Somehow it is not considered by people as intimidation or violence. I have seen many examples of high school students writing threats on social media platforms such as Facebook or Snapchat. When asked why they would write criminal threats on Facebook, they honestly believe that these threats had no value as they were online. The need for training with young people was identified as key in the dismantling the notion that online threats are harmless.

Could you speak to the work that your organisation does on training?

SK:  We do a bunch of workshops, and I am mostly involved in the training at schools with younger women. We also provide a mixed-gender training setting, for boys and girls, to make sure that they're part of the conversation. We are also involved in more advanced training around awareness and digital security for journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and civil society groups.

But in terms of awareness and education institutions, I try to ensure that while we are offering training on online spaces, we also examine concepts such as masculinity, dominance and control. It is important to discuss ideas about how gender manifests itself online, the reporting mechanisms available and the security gaps that we saw in recent years.  Our approach began with the Hamara Internet campaign, which means “Our Internet”, that focused on training for young women in university. These participants were slightly older, and in the demographic of 18 to 22 years old. Recently we have branched out to schools but we haven't been able to provide consistent training due to challenges in securing funding. Our work is on a volunteer basis for the schools. Moving forward, we want to focus on this target age as we increasingly see examples of these cases in our hotline cases. Disturbingly, we see that non-consensual pornographic materials are coming from schools and with younger audiences.  We are seeing brutal cases of sexual violence threats being put online. In these cases, prosecution is not an option because the violators are under 18 years of age. Training becomes the most effective method to address the problem head-on.

BB: Many young women do not want to come forward with what has happened because they are worried about the impacts that this will have on their families. Compounding trauma cannot be underestimated: first with the act of violence itself, then the unauthorised recording of the act, then having to relive it with their families, then seeing it online, and then it being open in the public sphere.

How do you cope with this in your work?

SK: In the many cases we have seen, where the girls are so young, it is heartbreaking. You need to separate yourself, find protection mechanisms and talk in euphemisms. Sometimes people will get upset by the apparent indifference to the violence, they say that I am talking like someone in a not-for-profit organisation, but as someone working on this type of violence, you need to distance yourself from it. Especially with younger complainants, it is very difficult not to reveal your feelings in those cases.

 BB: Why is talking about this issue so important in your context? Could you highlight some of the changes relating to technology identified in Pakistan?

SK: In Pakistan, there's been a relatively new explosion of free online services. It has really been in the last 4 years that we have seen an increase in internet use. Obviously, internet services have been in Pakistan for quite some time, but having access to these services for the general population is a relatively new phenomenon. Before this, it was considered to be restricted to upper and urban class people, because the cost of setting up an internet connection was very high and most people could not afford it. But, since the introduction of 3G and 4G licenses in roughly 2013, the proliferation of the mobile Internet has allowed for the cost of acquiring access to the Internet to go down considerably. That has resulted in a lot of people coming online.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been a corresponding increase in awareness or education or understanding of the implications of how to behave online. There are still are prevalent attitudes that do not consider online conduct as important, meaning that many of these cases were being dismissed. For example, if there is a privacy breach, it won't be taken seriously even though it can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. We have seen an increase in privacy advocacy activities, particularly amongst young queer activists, as the internet is considered a space for self-expression of sexual identity. Given the legal context, it is impossible to do it offline.

It has really been in the last 4 years that we have seen an increase in internet use.

BB: How do you negotiate the right to expression with the right to privacy and the reality of how the technology is being used?

SK: So even within closed groups, there is the belief that the content is protected and remains private.  Members don't always understand the implications of having that information leaked to the public.  It is not to say that people are careless but rather you sense that people believe in their right to privacy, not always understanding how this information can be used to hurt them.

We don’t want to be pro-censorship; there are still so many taboos about having any sexual relationships, especially when you're young and a woman. We are reluctant to discourage women from sharing pictures of sexual nature but emphasise the need to develop the reflex to give and ask for consent when circulating photos. We don't want to stop women from accessing and using these spaces, but we do need to increase awareness about the risks.  It is a difficult line to tread sometimes because even when we do our workshops, we are mindful not to come across as saying: “do not say things online”.  As a feminist organization, we want to be having these conversations because we understand that that sometimes digital security approaches are emerging but do not necessarily examine this issue from a gender perspective or the perspective of sexual freedom. Unfortunately, we are more likely to see law enforcement agencies with campaigns which essentially tell women to stay off the internet.

We are reluctant to discourage women from sharing pictures of sexual nature but emphasise the need to develop the reflex to give and ask for consent when circulating photos.

BB:  A potential problem is a lack of women that are actually working in cybersecurity. One way to encourage change in the industry is to promote women and gender non-conforming people to undergo professional training that provides them with baseline expertise in cybersecurity from a feminist perspective.  I am not sure if in Pakistan there is a big market for cybersecurity and if women would have access.

Do you think that this is an idea worth evaluating in Pakistan?

SK: Yes, this is generally true all over the world, and Pakistan is no different. It is obvious that there is a lack of women professionals and trainers in technology and cybersecurity. That's something that we would love to do - to encourage woman to develop their own capacity. We believe that this type of threats assessments would be beneficial as it could introduce gender from a different perspective. It’s not that men cannot be sensitised, but I've noticed that in many situations those male trainers can lack sensitivity to gender issues. The lack of awareness can result in misguided advice, we have seen even in trainings sometimes there is a reliance on gender stereotypes like comparing cyberviolence to issues of cosmetics or fashion. We are trying to make digital security a relevant and relatable issue but we cannot be perpetuating sexist tropes. In my experience, a women trainer speaking to women is always better. However, it is hard to get it perfect, mostly when you are developing messages at the mass level.

BB: How do you negotiate restrictive religious views of women and women's rights against cyber violence?

SK: Religion is one thing that always comes up. As an organisation, we have often reflected on whether or not we should engage on the issue of religion - Should we try to incorporate women's rights within religious principles or should we adopt a secular approach? In Pakistan, there has been a big debate amongst the feminist circles for decades now. What approach do you take? A lot of feminists say that they do not want to take on religion on at the moment. Presently, feminism is already considered a dirty word; we do not want to take on religious organisations who pose additional threats. It's interesting the decisions we make about our own activisms.

Our approach is greatly based on with whom and where we are providing the training. Urban NGOs, for example, may be using certain words and trying to reframe the questions that are relevant to them, like feminism. Depending on the context, this may mean something completely different to others. Identifying which words work best in your context will afford you more room for your advocacy. If you do not adapt to your context, then even if people like you, they won't listen. It's always a negotiation. Otherwise, the conversation can get shut down before you even have a chance to discuss cyberviolence and gender in general.

If you do not adapt to your context, then even if people like you, they won't listen. It's always a negotiation. Otherwise, the conversation can get shut down before you even have a chance to discuss cyberviolence and gender in general.

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