On Patriarchy and Privacy

On 14th November 2014 Pakistan Feminist Watch had the honour of attending Pakistan’s first national conference on data and privacy rights. Organised by DigitalRights Foundation, the event was a great means of initiating public discourse on an issue that has become prevalent internationally, but is oft neglected in the Pakistani context. Nighat and her team did a fantastic job in setting the ball rolling on an issue that is not taken seriously.

Nabiha was on the first panel, Right To Privacy in The Digital Age, moderated by Amber Rahim Shamshi. She was joined by Adnan Rehmat (International Media Support), Naveed ul Haq (Internet Society) and Fouad Bajwa (Open Internet Activist). As PFW’s work focuses upon the complicity in perpetuating misogynistic and problematic norms and trends online, Nabiha focussed on the connection between patriarchy and privacy. She argued that women are not permitted bodily autonomy but rather are rather treated as public property – something which has manifested itself in cyberspace. Their digital presence, as in the real world, is heavily controlled and privacy for women is not tolerated. In societies with strong patriarchal family setups and social infrastructure, ‘honour’ lies in the body of a woman. Thus, the concept of privacy for women is regarded as a threat to the patriarchy, as it denies said patriarchy the right to police and control women’s bodies and social movement.

To identify as female and to be online is to encounter the same patriarchal policing and controlling of women’s bodies, and to face hostility for supposedly transgressing ‘acceptable’ online spaces. Nabiha has been called “ugly” and “fat” on her own personal blog, for instance – recurring body-centric hate-speech that is generally directed at women, and never at male bloggers. By pursuing hurtful ad hominem attacks, it is generally hoped that Nabiha and others will leave the public sphere, because of sustained attacks on self-esteem. What Nabiha has experienced and continues to experience is not a rarity. Rather, it is something reluctantly accepted by women as being something to put up with if one identifies as female online.

With hostility against women online, complete with triggering threats, one would be disturbed at the level of victim blaming that is prevalent. The Federal Investigation Agency – which is the Pakistani government’s only body that has a cybercrime wing – in regards, to the accounts of young women being hacked, inferred that they should “not let them be easily hacked”, rather than focussing on the hackers themselves. What happens to those young women that are hacked, and thus themselves in danger of being physically attacked, is considered to be irrelevant and unfortunate.

Nabiha was asked by the moderator if “revenge porn” was an issue in Pakistan, which she strongly confirmed. It exists in Pakistan, but it is not talked about, less so than rape. Whenever “revenge porn” (or RP) manifests in the real world or on social media, the victim is blamed for being “stupid enough to send photos/videos”, while the person who leaks the RP (usually an ex-boyfriend or former spouse) is not condemned at all. Public hysteria and ad hominem attacks on the woman will continue, even by individuals that would condemn rape. There is a distressing connection between RP and suicide, and if a women does end her life, those that would rake her over the coals will pity her as a victim, albeit briefly, and with slightly muted victim blaming (“it’s sad, but…”). The “Pindi Net Cafe” case, which took place a decade go, led to the suicides of women who were exposed on camera, once they were tracked down by people that bought CDs that had the videos on them. No charges were filed, however, and news coverage died down. Since then, there have been several instances of women and young girls being filmed, whether consensually or in most cases being sexually assaulted, with no support provided to the women and young girls involved. By not ending this culture of sexual violence, and instead trivialising and blaming victims, Nabiha noted, we are all complicit and have blood on our hands.

Interestingly, privacy as a concept was only recognised as a human right shortly after World War 2, and never regarded as a natural right, according to Waqqas Mir, who presented an excellent white paper on digital surveillance and security at the conference, Surveillance Laws and Practices in Pakistan.Thus, what we may personally consider to constitute “privacy” actually is fairly recent and not yet part of the total collective consciousness. This is quite the case in Pakistan, where requesting privacy, or choosing to not hand over passwords or other personal information to friends and family, is considered “rude”. This does in part go back to patriarchal controlling mechanisms, where women are not generally “supposed” to lock the doors to their rooms, and are lectured for doing so.

Strong women asserting their rights and encouraging others to do so are a threat to the patriarchal state set up. Tech tools used to control privacy are new tools for patriarchal infrastructure. The liberty and freedom of speech that we celebrate the internet for, and that people rightly defend, is also abused without serious repercussions or consequences. Men, Pakistani and otherwise, have total impunity online or at least behave so, making dangerous threats and vicious rape jokes that they would not utter in polite company in the “real world”.

Pakistan Twitter users, for example, exploded with venomous hatred towards the teenage activist for female rights Malala Yousafzai, when she spoke at the UN general assembly in 2013, and again when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Though there were some positive tweets from Pakistanis, an overwhelming number of tweets wanted her to be shot again, some included rape threats, among other things. The vitriol did not go unnoticed, with the BBC, Guardian, New York Times and other international media commenting on the hatred from her fellow Pakistani. Had she been a man, it is unlikely that she would have been given such horrific treatment online, as a successful and effective change maker who “happens” to be female will usually lead to the patriarchy, and its feral conscious/subconscious defenders, lashing out leads to patriarchy lashing out.

Mir asked if we “are living in an age of the death of privacy”, and perhaps the digitally native generation raised on social media, and who believe in sharing everything, could find our generation’s views on privacy to be archaic and perhaps obsolete. As Nabiha said at the conference, our conception of our rights is necessarily connected to shifts in our consciousness regarding rights.

As with Mir, however, we caution against advocacy that appears to infer surveillance is a recent phenomenon. For those of us raised by activists and journalists in repressive states, the concept of bugged phones and the authorities reading your mail existed long before the internet. “National security” has long been used to justify government surveillance, with no clear definition as to what exactly constitutes “national security”. In the absence of any concrete definitions, feminist activists can and have been declared enemies of the Pakistani state, as they were during the lawyer’s movement, which itself is barely ten years old. Strong women that assert their rights and encourage others to assert theirs are regarded as threats to patriarchal state institutions.

Mir also noted that an argument used to defend surveillance and anti-privacy arguments is that when we are online, we generally share information in public ourselves, by choice. However, this argument leaves out any concept of consent, with consent presumed simply because we are on the internet. This logic seems as sinister as the ingrained patriarchy that exists within women which leads to us seemingly consenting to our oppression at times.

Privacy for us is not just a right but essential for human dignity. Surveillance hurts the vulnerable, especially females, more than it does the powerful. The patriarchy has absolutely no interest in ending any violence against women online – rather, it needs it to flourish in order to maintain its power in the world whether offline or online.

Cross posted from Pakistan Feminist Watch. Written and blogged by editors Nabiha Meher Shaikh and Adnan Ahmad (which is why I seem to be referring to myself in third person).


Introducing Pakistan Feminist Watch

I’ll be launching Pakistan Feminist Watch on 12th February, 2013 which is also women’s day in Pakistan. It is also the 30th anniversary of Women Action Forum’s epic rally in 1983.

Here is what Pakistan Feminist Watch is about and why many feminists feel it is necessary. Comments & feedback are welcome. However, as per my policy, I won’t be approving any hate speech or sexist & unsupportive comments. I will, instead, screen capture them and feature them with an analysis on Pakistan Feminist Watch.


At Pakistan Feminist Watch, we wish to expose how we are all, collectively, part of a problem. We all make casual sexist statements, sometimes without even realising why they are problematic. By doing so, we strengthen patriarchal norms and allow them to flourish.

Most of us encourage and empower those who make sexist statements on social media by following them on twitter and facebook, which validates social acceptance on line. We turn a blind eye when it comes to influential people, especially men in power. We protect our own. We don’t speak up when sexist jokes are mass circulated for fear of being labelled “humourless”. We shut down and say nothing knowing we’ll be the ones who will be told off for not having a sense of humour.

The world tells us that we are supposed to sit back and take it. We should find being stereotyped and degraded funny. Indeed, some of us are now immune and hardly blink an eye when faced with sexist jokes or memes.

No more. At Pakistan Feminist Watch, we wish to expose why sexist humour and everyday sexism is problematic. We hope to show just how rampant it is in the Pakistani context and we wish to debate how we can address this problem effectively. We realise that is common in a patriarchal world but the repercussions of ignoring this issues for the future of feminism are too bleak to ignore.

Why launch Pakistan Feminist Watch?

  • Because enough is enough.
  • Because we are tired of this game.
  • Because we do not wish to live in a world where one has to become immune to heinous rape threats for expressing an opinion.
  • Because our bodies are not the issue – our argument is.
  • Because women don’t have it easy in a patriarchal world.
  • Because “humour” that degrades half of humanity is unacceptable.
  • Because trolling is distressing and must end.
  • Because men need to become aware of their male privilege.
  • Because the internet is the dark side of the dark side of humanity.
  • Because social media should not be a battlefield.

Policy on naming and shaming

At Pakistan Feminist Watch, we do not wish to name and shame individuals because we want to show how we are all part of this problem collectively. Naming and shaming deflects on individuals and diverts attention away from the issue: that this culture is allowed to flourish on line due to our collective apathy and participation in it.

We cannot deny that we all contribute not just through our silence, but often inadvertently because patriarchy in ingrained in all of us. We perpetuate it without meaning to. We don’t even realise just how responsible we are.

Repeat Offenders

We will be keeping track of repeat offender and will take action against them. This policy is currently a work in progress and will be updated when it is finalised.

Submission details

Email any complaints, stories of abuse, accounts of being trolled and screen captures of everyday sexism to pakfemwatch@gmail.com. We also welcome essays and opinion pieces with a theoretical feminist analysis of on line misogyny.

If you would like to share a story of on line abuse, but cannot or do not want to write it yourself, we can assign someone who will write your account for you. If you wish to remain anonymous, your identity will be protected.

Pakistan Feminist Watch is a not for profit blog run by volunteers. Email us if you’d like to volunteer or join our movement at pakfemwatch@gmail.com

Pop patriarchs

In a patriarchal world, there are many tools used to promote misogyny and pop culture is one of them. Mass media and pop culture influence us deeply in today’s world; very few can escape this influence for very few are active viewers/consumers of pop culture.

Most of us are passive viewers who take in mass messages that perpetuate the cults of masculinity and femininity, especially through TV shows and advertisements.

We define ourselves and our reality based on the images we are inundated with and those that are repeated more tend to leave a more lasting impression on our psyches.

Gender, itself, is performed and not innate. We perform our roles as female and males. We dress the part, act the part and behave the way we are expected to as men or women.

This is learned behaviour which starts from birth and is constantly reinforced on a daily basis. Advertisements, for example, reinforce the notion that women belong in the kitchen and are responsible for feeding their family a good (wholesome) meal.

The woman is the one in charge of maintaining traditional womanhood in these ads: she is the one who cleans the clothes and dishes, changes the nappies and looks after the kids. TV ads glorify this role and cultivate a passive acceptance of the female as belonging to the domestic sphere.

In many TV shows, women are portrayed as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Khirad from Humsafar was one such example. The same show had an example of the stereotypical ‘bad’ woman in the character of Sara.

The ‘good’ woman is one who dresses traditionally and looks very feminine often with long flowing hair that is kept covered; obeys her husband no matter how abusive he is; sacrifices herself and her happiness for man and family; and romanticises traditional womanhood.

She is portrayed as a role model – a woman to look up to and a woman to emulate.

The ‘bad’ woman, on the other hand, is often portrayed as a more modern and independent woman. She has shorter hair and doesn’t cover it. She dresses non-traditionally and works. She values her independence and doesn’t worship any husband and then she suffers for it in the end.

In other words, she is exactly what the patriarchy fears which is why she is often punished as a message for young female viewers. These TV shows teach them not to go against the grain, to conform and blindly accept the cult of femininity. The repercussions for disobeying this are grave. Sara, for example, commits suicide.

Pop culture teaches us how to be ideal women. It teaches us that being a traditional woman will be rewarded. It scorns upon those of us who challenge any notion of femininity.

It also reinforces gender dichotomies by perpetuating the cult of masculinity. Fashion and beauty cults also join in to regulate how we look through pop culture. Accepting them (these cults) leads to popular acceptance.

None of this is likely to change in a patriarchal world. The media is mostly owned by men or controlled by a patriarchal state. Even though we have women writing and acting out these roles, they continue to perpetuate patriarchal norms because women have historically been responsible for propagating this patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a system that necessarily relies on the oppressed to be in charge of their own oppression. Patriarchy has been called a perfect system because it turns woman against woman, teaching them how to hold themselves back.

In a patriarchal pop culture industry, the women who get to the top or the women who are rewarded are the ones who accept patriarchal norms without challenging them. And the cycle continues…

Published in The News.


Imagine you’re a person with an opinion who one day voices it online or in print. Now imagine waking up to an inbox full of threats, of details on how you should be raped and degraded sexually simply for having an opinion. This doesn’t just sound horrific, it actually is. And worse still, this is quite common.

Just about every woman who has ever expressed an opinion that goes against the grain will have faced this scenario. Just about all of us who write are subjected to vicious online assaults and when we choose to speak up, we’re accused of whining unnecessarily. The freedom to offend is a dear one and should be protected. The right to free speech demands it.

However, what this ignores are some ethical aspects of this issue. In a pervasive rape culture, trivialising violence against women has severe repercussions. ‘Rape culture’ allows for the degradation of women, which, in turn, manifests itself through the actual practice of violence against women. And the acceptability of this kind of rape culture in the media allows victim blaming to flourish, which prevents women from speaking up or seek justice.

Those who say rape culture doesn’t exist only need to take a look at statistics as well as the attitude within the police force, which is supposed to be protecting rape victims. We live in a culture where women hesitate to report any violence done to them because of the traditional view that a ‘good’ woman would not be raped and if she is, will never go public with the fact or speak up against it. In essence, their trauma is heightened.

Years ago, when I was an intern at an NGO that was conducting a training session with the heads of jails across Pakistan, I experienced just how prevalent such a culture was. One of them argued that if I was raped on the street, it would be my fault for I would be “asking for it” by wearing short sleeves and baring my arms.

These attitudes are common globally and are strengthened through pop culture. Rap songs are especially notorious for promoting misogyny. TV shows also strengthen stereotypes where the ‘bad woman’ is blamed for her suffering and the ‘good woman’ is one who endures abuse and embraces it. Misogyny in pop culture reduces women to mere objects worthy of violence.

Take the example of Honey Singh, a rapper whose lyrics have caused an uproar in India. A song attributed to him from 2006, which he denies writing, glorifies rape and romanticises male power over women. In the song, a man dreams of raping and beating a woman. Should we seriously turn a blind eye to this and pretend that he has no impact on young men and even women who may think violence against them is normal and acceptable?

Some say Honey Singh is being targeted in a world where rap culture finds misogyny acceptable. It is, after all, a product of the industry. Some argue that the fact that he didn’t write the lyrics means he shouldn’t be held accountable. But even if Honey Singh didn’t write these lyrics, the fact that he sang them seems like an endorsement of such violence. Unless we want to turn a blind eye to rape apologists, we need to start somewhere.

Perhaps it’s just Singh’s bad luck that his work has caused uproar but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start this desperately needed conversation now. In fact, let’s embrace this and continue talking in the hope that we can change the world by actively fighting against the forces that oppress us. And yes, that includes music, which humans connect with emotionally.

Published in The News.