For Nighat Dad, founder of non-profit organization Digital Rights Foundation, it was her personal struggle to gain legal custody of her son that alerted her to the abysmal state of women’s rights in Pakistan. Following a tumultuous marriage which lasted only 18 months, Nighat became embroiled in a legal wrangle with her influential ex-husband over sole custody of their child.
Although trained as a lawyer, Nighat saw the legal system conspiring against her, with her husband using his position as a government bureaucrat to pull strings and wrest control of the child. Despite advice to the contrary, she refused to give up and contested the battle single-handedly. While she eventually came out on top, others in her position weren’t so fortunate.
“Whenever I went for court proceedings I saw women who were miserable, harassed, and fighting lone battles for their kids. Many approached me for help and I wanted to ease their pressures,” Nighat tells Tech in Asia.
Despite winning the battle, Nighat, who hails from a family with modest means, faced an uncertain future. She needed to earn money to look after her infant child, but the only lucrative recourse was to pursue a career in corporate law. If she chose this route, it would have sidetracked her from doing what she was supremely passionate about: educating women on their legal rights and helping them claim what was rightfully theirs.
Again she decided to ignore the advice of her friends and family and dove into the world of advocacy and promoting women’s rights. Her initial work revolved around studying the Pakistani constitution in detail and examining existing parameters which guaranteed women’s rights. This was in 2007.
Protecting digital footprints
Around the same time Pakistan was witnessing an internet revolution of sorts. The web started permeating Pakistan’s urban populace and
there was an explosion in the number of social media users. Nighat says she was approached by several women asking for advice and help on how to deal with unruly online behavior. “While most [women] understood there were laws to deal with potentially harmful offline behavior, the online space was completely new to everyone. They wanted to know what the legal remedies were for online harassment,” she adds.
Internet users in Pakistan were not alone in voicing these concerns. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey revealed 73 percent of online adults had witnessed harassment online, with 40 percent personally affected by it. Young adults, in the 18 to 29 age bracket, were cited to be the most harassed demographic, with 65 percent experiencing some form of online abuse.
Nighat explains that this evolving space convinced her of the need to focus wholly on safeguarding women’s digital rights. Existing legislation dealing with cybercrime had lapsed as it wasn’t incorporated by parliament into a fully-fledged act. There was a legal loophole which could be exploited.
I thought to myself that this wasn’t right. If people are using technology then there should be safeguards. From there on I started working on policy implementations and improving legal structure.
One of the biggest obstacles Nighat faced in her quest was the complete lack of understanding of the space. Harassment, stalking, and blackmailing was considered to be a regular part of the online experience. People thought that if one decided to use the internet, they should be prepared to experience such behavior. Women, especially those from the more conservative areas of the country, were afraid to voice their concerns to government authorities and as a result would receive thousands of unsolicited messages, videos, and “friend requests.”
In 2010, Nighat joined a human rights organization and think tank focusing on information and communication technology. She quickly expanded her work to educate women from all parts of Pakistan on understanding their digital footprints and taking measures to safeguard their privacy. “As social media was a new thing, people were very excited and eager to join. But what they didn’t understand was that because of its very public nature, anyone could potentially view their profiles and read shared content. This led to unwanted behavior and online harassment,” she explains.
A couple of years later, Nighat branched out on her own and started the Digital Rights Foundation. She was involved in the Take Back the Tech campaign – a global initiative promoting online privacy, internet governance, and related policies, but soon understood that a more local, contextualized effort was required to help women in Pakistan.
While she remained involved with Take Back the Tech, her next project was‘Hamara Internet’ (Our Internet), which centered around helping women reclaim the online space. Nighat, who by now described her passion as “working with women in technology,” aimed to help women realize that the internet isn’t just for men to use. Women should also be able to share their opinions without fear of bullying or reprisal.
For over a year, the Digital Rights Foundation operated on a shoestring budget as it wasn’t funded by any external grants. Nighat worked a day job at the UN, and dedicated her evenings to promoting digital rights. She had one more person on the team, but even that was on a voluntary basis as she didn’t have the money to pay for salaries.
However, stories about her work with far flung communities started to filter through and slowly the organization started to receive contracts for consulting. Part of the reason for that was Nighat’s insistence on investigative research, as she believed advocacy efforts were pointless without proper baseline studies.
Nighat’s organization worked closely with local NGOs and in cities such as Hyderabad, Multan, Muzzafargarh, and Nowshera. Women in these cities were still relatively unexposed to technology, but were eager to learn more. As a result, her training would sometimes boil down to simple tasks such as having secure passwords, training on combating online harassment, and when to involve local government authorities. In some cases the Digital Rights Foundation would develop websites for local administrative bodies and teach government employees on procedures to register and follow up on complaints.
Such training may seem outdated, but can be very crucial. For example, in conservative parts of Pakistan, many families frown upon women using the internet or social media. Hence, while women are eager to use technology to expand their worldview, they often hide this behavior from their parents for fear of reprisal. If they face harassment online they cannot turn to their family for help, as they would be admonished for being online in the first place.
Nighat cites a recent example where some hackers, based in the conservative frontier city of Peshawar, cracked several profiles of women and shared their contact details on the internet. This included phone numbers, residential addresses, and education background. Threats were made warning them not to inform the police. The women approached Nighat for help, and she contacted the Facebook product team. After detailed discussions with Facebook, Nighat convinced them to delete the offending accounts and pages. Some of the women went on to lodge complaints and the two hackers were then arrested.