Nighat Dad is founder and executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation, based in Lahore Pakistan.
Tell us about the Digital Rights Foundation and your role?
I’m the founder and executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation based in Lahore Pakistan. We are an advocacy based NGO that focuses on how information and communication technologies support human rights, democratic processes, and digital governance. For we believe that everyone should be able to exercise their right to freedom of expression without being threatened.
There are numerous organizations that work to end violence against women and girls in offline spaces. But what I realized is that in today’s fast changing society, many a times violence in physical spaces often translates into violence in the digital spaces and vice versa. Therefore, we at Digital Rights Foundation aim to empower Pakistanis when it comes to their digital rights and have a special focus on women.
It is important that organizations like ours exist, or else women and girls often internalise the violence they face on daily basis in online. Often they truly believe that THEY are at fault. This is why it is so important to counter this victim-blaming.
By empowering women to know about their rights and the digital security tools that exist to keep their online experience safe.
Tell us about key projects you are working on that deals with people’s fundamental human rights?
Nowadays violence against women has taken many forms, and one of those is online harassment. The instances of harassment increase every passing day as technology becomes more and more accessible to Pakistanis, which includes women. And given that technology is here to stay, we need to build a plan for people to use technology as easily and pleasantly as possible.
But this clearly is not the case in Pakistan.
For example, a month ago, a young woman was killed in Karachi because her brother did not approve of her using a mobile phone. This level of policing is common in Pakistan, where a women or girl’s father and brother determine her use of mobile phones and Internet. This policing varies in practice and can mean a men checking women’s phones to see what they’ve been up to. At times it can also mean an ex-husband or partner using personal information shared between a couple against the woman. A different form of this harassment in the West is better known as ‘revenge porn’.
It is so that we are exploring solutions to fight back patriarchal use of technology. One way we have done this is by introducing campaigns such as ‘Hamara Internet’ (translates to Our Internet). This project works with women and girls across Pakistan. It aims to inform them of their digital rights, their human rights and how they can reclaim spaces – both online and offline. We hold workshops where we introduce them to digital security tools and discuss how these tools and tips apply to their particular situation.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for user empowerment and rights online in the future?
Knowledge and awareness.
People need to understand that using the Internet doesn’t mean you are choosing to be harassed. Once people, and especially women, know this, they can fight back. This in itself has so many positives. ICTs offer women economic and social empowerment like never before. But to do this policy and political decision makers need to acknowledge that online harassment IS an actual form of violence.
Once they accept this then they can work to construct legislation that addresses this form of violence.
When Hamara Internet conducted a workshop in Bacha Khan university in Peshawar Pakistan – it was a significant event. Only four months before, the university had been under a terrorist attack from the Taliban. Yet when we went there we realized how willing the women and girls not only in the university but also in the surrounding areas were willing to learn. How willing they were to become knowledgeable and aware. This was the reason why over one hundred girls attended our workshop. They asked us questions and discussed solutions that would enable them to continue using the Internet to their benefit.
What do you consider as the most pressing threats?
This is why women are often obstructed from being educated, or from being able to use technology to its highest potential. One of the most pressing issues in Pakistan is the low literacy rates. This means that not only are people not able to understand how to best use their rights, they tend to deprive others of their rights due to the fear of the unknown.
But when women are able to access technology, when they do have mobile phones and an Internet connection – even THEN they face many obstacles. For example, one of the most recurring themes we found out during the Hamara Internet sessions was that when women and girls face online harassment online, their first instinct is to quit the online spaces. Quitting the Internet is not the answer. Women and girls have to learn how to fight back, while sustaining their online presence.
But we at the Digital Rights Foundation understand that change takes time. Perhaps even generations. But that only motivates us to keep on advocating for digital rights. While earlier generations had to adapt to the Internet and the technology that came after, kids today are exposed from a young age. The problems they face online are not only valid but have grave repercussions. This is a reality that is not only applicable to Pakistan, but all over the world. This is why more and more people and governments are working to combat online bullying and the suicides that occur as result.
How can people engage with your organization and projects?
If you’re interested in our work or would like to contribute, anyone can visit our site digitalrightsfoundation.pk for more information. The contact information is there. You can also choose to get regular updates from our Facebook and Twitter pages.
If people want to read more about issues faced by women in Pakistan’s online spaces, here’s a an article from the New Yorker.
Find out more about the work the Internet Society is doing on human rights by visiting our Internet and Human Rights Resource Centre.
Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.