Activists take Pakistan’s fight against patriarchy and gender-based violence online

Activists take Pakistan's fight against patriarchy and gender-based violence online

Khadija Siddiqi, pictured here at the Lahore High Court in Pakistan, won a rare legal victory last July against the man – a former classmate – who tried to kill her by stabbing her 23 times.

Last year, the #MeToo campaign exploded on social media as a vehicle for women to share their stories of abuse by powerful men. While women in the western world have been harnessing the internet for gender equality, women elsewhere are also using social media to provoke vital conversations in their societies.

When Khadija Siddiqi, a 22-year-old Pakistani law student and women’s rights activist, was stabbed 23 times, finding legal representation proved near-impossible. Presenting lawyers with her case – “On May 3rd, 2016, I was ambushed and stabbed 23 times by my classmate, Shah Hussain, the son of an influential member of the legal community” – she was given a wide berth. The tightly-knit Pakistani legal community, bound by loyalty to one of its own, shunned Siddiqi.

“I almost gave up,” Siddiqi recalled in an interview with The Guardian, in October last year. “Social norms took priority over justice, even for lawyers.”

Noor Zafar, a Pakistani activist and lawyer, describes Pakistan’s legal fraternity as a “testosterone-fuelled, self-righteous collective,” whose members – the supposed bastions of the legal system – frequently endorse lawlessness.

“Nepotism has become the underlying fabric of the profession, and allegiances to senior bar members take precedence over the rule of law, the right to fair trial and counsel,” she tells Equal Times.

However, the barriers Siddiqi encountered in the offline world seemed to dissolve in online spaces, where she met a community of rights activists who helped her clinch a rare conviction against her assailant last July. “Social media turned my case into a nationwide movement,” she says.

Siddiqi is one of the many young women in Pakistan using social media in the fight for gender equality. Although the internet mirrors, and in many ways, magnifies offline issues and power dynamics, the internet has become a hub of feminist activism in the fight against patriarchy and injustice.

After months of imploring lawyers to support her, Siddiqi was relieved to meet one who conceded, but once again, she was threatened by patriarchal strictures. During their meeting, the lawyer gave her father a CD containing photos of Khadija in the company of male friends, at university events and casual lunches. The photos were perfectly innocuous, but in Pakistan’s more conservative circles, they could easily throw a woman’s ‘moral character’ into question and cast doubts on her claims.

“He told us that if we pursued this case, these photos would become public and our family’s reputation would be ruined,” Siddiqi recalls. Another lawyer tried his hand at religious mediation, urging her father, a religious man, to consider an out-of-court settlement in accordance with Islamic traditions, which encourages followers to forgive wrongdoers out of goodwill, or in exchange for blood money. Her father told the lawyer he would consider forgiving her daughter’s attacker only when he observed sincere remorse in him. He never did.

Over the next few months, Siddiqi saw many lawyers come and go, each of them quick to remind her that ‘chastity’ was a greater virtue than murder a sin. “Somehow, it was not about what my attacker had done, but who I was,” she says, “I felt like my soul, my character, my patience, had been put on trial.”

Meanwhile, her attacker was granted bail to take his law exams at the same time and in the same hall where Siddiqi was to sit hers. The British Council, the examining body, first offered to accommodate her in their offices but Siddiqi refused to forfeit her right to sit with her fellow students, while her attacker sat in the same room, free of consequence. After an online petition secured nearly 5000 signatures, the British Council shifted Hussain’s exams to a different venue.

Finding refuge online

During her most difficult moments, Siddiqi found refuge in online discussions with activists who gave her advice and encouragement. One of them, a budding lawyer named Hassan Niazi, offered to take her case. He proposed an unconventional strategy: a social media campaign designed to counter judicial bias and raise public outcry.

Niazi knew that the “nuisance value” of this approach could backfire. Judges tend to dislike counsels that run parallel media trials. He decided to take the risk, he says, because, “Khadija had tried every conventional option available to her.”

Although his plan was a last resort, it was not a mere stab in the dark. Niazi had extensive experience in designing online campaigns as a youth activist for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Pakistan’s third largest party.

PTI, which is led by the former international cricketer Imran Khan, owes its success, in part, to an urban and tech-savvy support base that has built a digital movement for its anti-corruption platform. As a lawyer, Niazi brought not only political clout to Khadija’s case, but his 28,000 Twitter followers, too.

“As an activist you develop a sixth sense for stories that could potentially resonate,” says Niazi. “Our mainstream media had ignored the story, so the idea was to create some momentum on social media in order to reach mainstream platforms.”

Niazi asked Siddiqi if she was willing to release graphic photos of her injuries. “The pictures were really gruesome and traumatising, and they hit me in the heart when I saw them,” he explains. “I felt the world needed to see the sort of brutality we were up against.”

Releasing the photos meant that they would become public evidence, and be exposed to the voyeuristic gaze of the entire nation. Siddiqi’s suffering would be scrutinised, judged and possibly denied. She prepared herself for agonising reactions from nay-sayers, as well as those who believed she provoked the attack.

“It was not easy,” she says, “but people were already sceptical. They would say, ‘How can someone be stabbed 23 times and live to tell the tale?’” Siddiqi wanted to show the public that she had not exaggerated her attack, and that her undeniable trauma – which is shared by millions of Pakistani women – deserved not only sympathy, but justice.

The day Niazi posted photos of her wounds on his Facebook page, Siddiqi’s case was transformed. Horrified outcries and condolences replaced the once much louder apologists and deniers. Facebook groups with names like ‘Justice for Khadija’ were launched. The hashtag #FightlikeKhadija started trending on Twitter. Prominent TV anchors invited her on their prime-time shows.

Siddiqi’s trial became a linchpin for a much-needed national discourse, in which the issues of gender inequality, the rule of law, class politics, and democracy converged. ‘Justice for Khadija’ became the rallying cry of activists, NGOs and journalists alike.

Overwhelmed by Siddiqi’s ever-more-powerful social media campaign, the defence threatened her with another assassination attempt – this time, her character. ‘Compromising’ photos, they said, would discredit her case.

But Siddiqi was defiant. “All the mudslinging proved that they didn’t have a leg to stand on,” she recalls. And the courts agreed with her: her attacker was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for attempted murder. It’s an unsatisfactory verdict if you consider the brutality of the crime but it is an unprecedented victory in a country where violence against women is too often ignored, especially when it is carried out by influential men.

Vital but embattled spaces

Siddiqi’s case demonstrates that online spaces can serve as a platform for female activists, helping them overcome the constraints and barriers of the real world. But of course, the internet mirrors social realities. Women face abuse and violence online as well as offline, and internet access for women is concentrated in urban areas, for both technical and cultural reasons.

A study published by Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), depicts online spaces as a vital, but embattled, resource for women. Sextortion, revenge porn, body-shaming and smear campaigns are cited as some of the many offenses which force women to “retreat from whatever little space they have managed to take up or carve out for themselves,” the study concludes.

Furthermore, governmental efforts to police online spaces have resulted in a double-edged legislation, that offers legal remedies against cyber harassment while simultaneously placing excessive and discretionary powers in the hands of the state.

The last two years have seen an increase in assaults on digital freedoms after several activists critical of the army and its attitude towards militant groups went missing. All of them used the internet to disseminate their opinions. When some of them resurfaced (a rare occurrence in such cases), they accused Pakistan’s notorious secret services of abducting and torturing them. The military denies all allegations.

Raza Mehmood Khan, a member of Aghaz-i-Dosti (Start of Friendship) – a group that works to build peace between arch-rivals Pakistan and India – is the latest activist to go missing after posting comments on Facebook critical of the military and its suspected link to some Islamist hardliners who at the time were protesting against the civilian government.

Nighat Dad, founder of DRF and Pakistan’s first cyber-harassment helpline, says that Pakistan’s cyber-harassment laws are designed to criminalise dissent under the pretence of protecting women in online spaces.

“The legislation includes vaguely-defined terms like ‘immoral activity’, which could criminalise online expressions of gender equality, especially because standards of morality tend to be different and tougher for women rather than men in Pakistan.”

Siddiqi is now encouraging young women from all over Pakistan to “break their chains and make some noise”. Scores of young women from rural areas have reached out to her over the internet, seeking advice and moral support. Though their circumstances do not allow them high-flying legal backing, Siddiqi believes a new network of support is in the making.

Recently, Pakistan erupted in a furore over the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl, Zainab Ansari. Three Pakistani celebrities – using the hastag #JusticeforZainab – responded by publicly revealing their own stories of sexual abuse suffered as children, urging Pakistanis to openly talk about the prevalence of sexual violence in the country. They also used the hashtag #MeToo, linking their stories with the international fightback against patriarchal violence.

Siddiqi believes this growing trend of online activism in Pakistan offers a pivotal force in campaigns for gender justice in Pakistan. And yet, at present, the country has one of the world’s largest gender digital divides.

Women, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, face barriers to internet access relating to cultural mores, online abuse, finance, infrastructure and literacy. These will need to be broken down if more women are able to harness the internet’s capacity for movement building. “When I fight for women’s digital rights,” says Dad, “I fight for their equality.”

This story is part of Well-connected Women, a European Journalism Centre project, telling stories of women harnessing the internet for gender equality in Pakistan. For more stories, follow @wconnectedwomen

With additional reporting by Sophie Hemery.