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.