In a faux-wood-paneled lecture hall at Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology, Nighat Dad watches as a hundred or so young women raise a hand in the air. Dad is leading a workshop about online privacy and has just asked the room of female students, “Who among you has experienced harassment online or in person?”
The overwhelming response is why Dad, a 34-year-old lawyer who used to practice criminal and family law, set up the Digital Rights Foundation in 2012. The not-for-profit organization educates Pakistanis, particularly young women, about how to respond to online harassment, and also campaigns against legislation that gives the government broad powers of surveillance online, and the dissemination of personal information collected by telecom firms regarding customers’ lives and habits to foreign and domestic state agencies and businesses.
“We tell Internet users how to adjust their privacy settings, to make sure they have secure connections, change their passwords regularly and not to share unnecessary information,” she says. “And women should come seek help if they are targeted and not feel ashamed.”
The problem of online harassment is global, and across the world, young women are most at risk. A 2014 Pew survey found that 65% of Internet users ages 18 to 29 had been the target of online harassment, with young women suffering disproportionately high levels of online violence. Twenty-six percent of women aged 18 to 24 reported being stalked online and 25% had suffered online sexual harassment. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency says it investigates hundreds of cases of online sexual harassment each year, and say that many more likely go unreported. But in a country where more than 1,000 women are murdered in so-called “honor killings” each year, and a woman is raped every two hours, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, online threats of harm can contribute to a culture of real-world fear.
One student in the Lahore audience, asking to remain anonymous, describes how she was duped into befriending a man on Facebook who subsequently launched a vicious stalking campaign. “He took a photo of me and my sisters, pasted our faces onto naked women and posted the doctored photos online,” she says. “He sent me the links and threatened to show my family.” Gripped by panic, she canceled all her social media and email accounts and digitally sequestered herself to avoid further contact.
Such cases are why Dad has been lobbying for a comprehensive Cybercrime Bill since 2009. Although the government is finally considering one, it contains few protections and actually “writes a blank check for abuse and overreach of blocking powers,” according to a joint statement from the DRF, Human Rights Watch and others. Dad’s organization also works to challenge the government’s use of surveillance technology and to protect online freedom of speech in Pakistan. The government intermittently censors sites like the blogging platform WordPress and has banned YouTube since 2012, following the release of the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims on the video-sharing website. All forms of encryption are prohibited without prior state approval.
“Every new law has one or two provisions that are really about regulating Internet space in Pakistan,” says Dad. “I explain laws in layman’s language to inform people what the government is trying to do.”
Dad’s work has earned many admirers. “Nighat has established herself as a recognized international leader in such a short period of time,” says Gus Hosein, a co-founder of London-based NGO Privacy International, which advocates for enhanced privacy protections and investigates surveillance practices by assisting local NGOs around the world. “When other partners say they can involve 30 people for a project, Nighat worries about only getting 700. I just love that ambition.”
It is ambition she has shared with many others, including Nobel Peace Prize–winning women’s education activist Malala Yousafzai, 17, who attended some of Dad’s workshops prior to being shot by the Taliban in 2012. Fellow Lahori Mohammad Farooq, 31, provides digital-security training to young people and also pens a regular technology column for national newspaper Dawn. “Nighat’s shared a lot of tips about how I can improve myself, and given me more confidence to write and share what I have learned,” he says. “She’s a symbol of hope for many young women in Pakistan.”