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Feminist activism in digital spaces

With the advent of numerous social media platforms, people of all ages, class and dispositions have come together to form groups and individual connections, which has changed the dynamics of the world view, as a whole. Politicians, terrorists, military, celebrities, clergy, feminists and the general public alike use social media to voice their opinion, stand against oppression, express their points of view against régimes, interact with likeminded people and even educate people about their ideologies.

While many do not know about the concept in depth, feminism is not a new phenomenon and has been around for ages. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Feminism is the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.” Each successive wave of the movement over the years has had its own significance and demands. During the US Presidential election campaign of 2017, Donald Trump passed derogatory and slanderous remarks against women in general and his competitor Hillary Clinton in particular; to counter his remarks, women in the US held a Women’s March, the engagements and mobilization for the march started on Facebook and transformed into a huge gathering on 21 January 2017, when hundreds of thousands of women gathered in Washington, protesters from across generational lines made their way toward the White House.

Today feminists all over the world use digital spaces to express their views against patriarchy and create space for themselves; this is considered to be the fourth wave of feminism. They demand equal rights and an inclusive society. Women of all ages are a part of this movement which interestingly, is a leaderless movement. People are collectively talking and working on the empowerment of women through social media.

According to Moira Donegan, a former assistant editor at The New Republic who anonymously started the ‘Shitty Media Men’ spreadsheet online believes “feminism’s fourth wave is characterized by a division between two ideological camps – one the individualist, pragmatic approach based on self-sufficiency, and the other the collective, idealistic approach which speaks to solidarity and community building.” Remarkably, the idealistic approach has made more progress and engaged people.

Social media is under-estimated as many consider that only key-board warriors are using this space for their political or religious agendas, however there are feminists women and men who use social media to not only organize and mobilize, but also debrief, learn and follow-up with plans. Today many consider social media as a safe space, as compared to actual campaigning which exposes one’s identity. Women who are tied by cultural norms to the four walls of their houses resort to voicing their opinions online without being afraid of exposure. Feminists are creating waves by their activism in the cyber world.

Even though digital spaces are not gender segregated yet this may not be a welcoming forum especially if one is a woman and a feminist. While online harassment is not country specific, keeping in view Pakistan’s patriarchal setup and culture, feminists have been targeted for their beliefs. Men in particular, and women who have internalized misogyny are part of this culture, and do not belong to any particular background yet all aim to suppress feminist voices and actions.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (2016) has not been very successful in curbing the threats and challenges women face online. Often discussions on women’s issues or women leading debates in online forums are hijacked by men labeling it as ‘yahoodi saazish’ (Jewish conspiracy), or ‘feminism is cancer’. They assume that feminists want to roam around naked, spread vulgarity and break their cultural traditions leading to threats of rape, bodily harm and acid attack, often they are trolled to an extent that they end their online activities or need psychological help.

Photoshopped pictures of women and their family members get circulated and personal details are made viral, at other times they receive unsolicited pictures in their personal inbox. These encounters leave a lasting impact on mental health and create a hostile environment in online spaces.

Even though they face numerous hurdles, activists show their power and strength through social media hashtags to highlight their message, easily as it emphasizes information with a theme or specific content. Some hashtags emerging around feminism, equal rights, and women issues in Pakistan were #Auratmarch #GirlsAtDhaba #JahezKhoriBandKaro (Say No To Dowry) #MeToo #AuratAzadiMarch (Women’s Liberation March) #ChangeTheClap #WhyLoiter #WhyIMarch #AbAurNahi (No More). Each hashtag has a background which plays an important role in creating waves. Since the past three years #AuratMarch and #MeToo has taken lead in talking about sexual assaults, harassment and issues faced by women in their daily lives, talking of women rights being human rights and highlighting why women gathered for the Aurat March.

This year UN Women’s New Year resolution is “Generation Equality –Realizing Women’s Rights and an Equal Future,” and asks member countries to give women their equal rights; however even today it is hard to convince the flag bearers of patriarchy that women are human. These flag bearers don’t want women to speak to or understand that their opinion matters at any point in life – even choosing a life partner; some cultures expect women not to be seen outside the four walls of the house. Not allowing women to vote, and in many cases not even allowing to get an education; they are just birth giving machines and cooks; even their medical needs are not catered to nor do they have any right over their own body.

Many heart breaking stories are shared by women anonymously to explain their ordeals. Today feminists speak about issues considered taboo for hundreds of years; they have gained government’s attention, acknowledged examples of this being maternity leave and safe online spaces for women issues.

Activism in online spaces has its own importance but how it spills over in offline spaces is another issue. Considering that just a handful of women are talking about feminism in Pakistan, it is sad that they are looked down upon. When some activists go from digital spaces to working on the grassroot level they face different challenges. Apart from threats by the state they face trust issues, accusations like belonging to  or colluding with ‘foreign funded mafia’ or ‘mombati mafia’ (candle mafia). Initially organizations working for women gained support in rural areas however now they face resistance from religious and other factions who malign these and ridicule women who want to improve their poverty stricken life.

Even though many success stories have emerged from online feminist movements, they have also left a mark on society. After singer Meesha Shafi came forward with her claim that singer and actor Ali Zafar had harassed her, Eman Suleman a Pakistani model, actress and activist, and nominee of Lux Style Awards as Best Emerging Talent in Fashion, announced that “I do not wish to be part of an accolade that is shared with an alleged harasser.” The picture of a girl sipping tea at a dhaba (kiosk) created ripples online resulting in a discussion on how women need to reclaim public spaces, as an outcome women started holding small gathering in parks; Women on Wheels (WoW)was initiated so women become less dependent. In an incident a student from a famous university threatened a girl with rape, soon people identified him and reported him so eventually the university took action against him.

Such incidents show the power of social media and its impact in offline spaces also, however it will be a while before people realize that women are not a commodity to suppress forever. This is an ongoing battle but it’s time to understand that in a progressive world women can no longer be chained to stoves or be forced to only exist to fulfill dynastic expectations – they need to be provided equal rights to live a decent life and fulfill their dreams.

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