No cyberspace for women?

Luavut Zahid and Nighat Dad on the risks women face online in Pakistan and how threats can spill into the offline world

No cyberspace for women?
“As a women we must stand up for ourselves..As a women we must stand up for each other...As a women we must stand up for justice,” Qandeel Baloch wrote in a Facebook post on July 15, the same day she was killed.

The social media starlet is the most recent casualty to Pakistani’s skewed sense of honour. The tradition of men wedging their ‘ghairat’ into the unwilling bodies of their sisters, wives, mothers and more continues.

Baloch was having none of this rhetoric as she took over Pakistan’s social media fabric. People who hated her loved to do it, which made people who loved her love her even more. Her posts were everywhere. She was like the wind - inescapable.

While Baloch’s murder itself had precedence, an honour killing of a social media celebrity has none. This is a first - and it’s a reminder that violence against women is amplifying in disturbing ways within the country.


She may have begun her journey through provocative videos that got people’s attention, but of late Baloch’s posts were bearing witness to a new narrative - one that she was authoring herself. A woman owning her own sexuality, telling her haters to place their hate where the sun couldn’t see it - and doing so without apology - was a little too much for plenty to stomach.

It’s not surprising that in her death many have experienced a watershed moment where they have vowed not to let her spirit die with her. However, it’s also not surprising that a vast number of men and women continue to either blame her for her own death or believe that her exit from the world is a fitting one.

The head of Strategy and Client Servicing at a major digital and social media agency is a brilliant example of the Pakistani mindset. The celebration of Baloch’s murder drew enough backlash for the young lady to shut her Twitter account down, but not enough to issue an apology. The apology did come, however, from the company itself, which sought to distance itself from the employee’s views. The problem isn’t one person though - it’s the prevailing mindset in the country. A death is celebrated, a loss of life is merely felt, and what is seen as a watershed moment elsewhere is nothing more than a joke at home.
She started with provocative videos, but of late Baloch's posts were bearing witness to a new narrative - her own

These very attitudes can also be found offline. Take a poll and you will find that many men and women are okay with honour killings. The people who are sad about Baloch dying also ensure that they highlight that they never supported her, but she should not have been killed. In doing so, they undo whatever sympathy they have managed to squeeze out of their conscience for the young woman.

Beyond a shadow of doubt, violence against women has travelled to the online realm. While it restricts itself to verbal threats - and at times visual assaults - in the digital world, the likelihood of threats finding their path from the online world into offline spaces continues to grow each day.

The kind of abuse that Baloch has faced is nothing new for many women that traverse the digital world. With the slain model the excuse was her ‘raunchy’ videos and the content of her posts. But the reality is that the excuses can vary depending on the victims. The argument against Baloch is the content that she was promoting, but what of the many other female activists, journalists, and even students that are regularly targeted?

Take the example of Malala. On July 12, Qandeel posted in favour of #MalalaDay. She said one female could make a difference and the official account for Malala on Facebook responded by showing solidarity, punctuated with her own #YesAllGirls hashtag.


While Malala and Qandeel had but one thing in common, that they were both fierce young women, their similarities stop there. The abuse that they receive, however, does not.

Malala is a proponent of education and wants liberation for the young women of Pakistan. Outside of the country she is a revered activist, a Nobel peace prize winner, and just a young girl. Within the country she is one of the most hated people around. At a glance a person sees Malala’s message for Baloch and thinks ‘well there’s 247 likes’. It takes another three seconds to see the replies on the message, the majority of which are abusive and derogatory.

We can even ignore Malala and say that she gets hate because she herself is a controversial person in Pakistan (although what part of asking for education is controversial is itself a point to ponder). But the reality is that women who are vocal in online spaces do not feel safe in them. They are routinely threatened. One step outside the bounds of the status quo is enough to invite a barrage of abuse.

Cyberspace can at times become a terrifying space for outspoken young women - especially in Pakistan
Cyberspace can at times become a terrifying space for outspoken young women - especially in Pakistan

The unhealthily popular page ‘Cartoons by Naazgul Baloch’ is another example of this very fact. From human rights defenders to lawyers, the page spares no one. However true it may be that it targets all alternative voices regardless of gender, there is no questioning the fact that the worst of its vitriol is reserved for women.

In one of its most recent posts, the page is literally attacking an A-level student. The dissemination of her images without her explicit consent is criminal enough, but the page doesn’t stop there. As has been the case before, the personal information of this young woman is now being leaked. Where she lives and the institute she studies in is up for the world to see. The next time some overly zealous person decides to take matters into their own hands there will be no one to help this young girl - just as there was no one to help Baloch when she asked for help.

An example of the vitriol Qandeel Baloch receieved after her death
An example of the vitriol Qandeel Baloch received after her death

When the Malala Fund interacted with one of Qandeel's posts
When the Malala Fund interacted with one of Qandeel's posts

One online post can have offline consequences for women. A short survey of the page can show the most vocal deniers of electronic violence against women that a majority of this page’s actions are taken against women.

Any time women decide to get vocal online, they are faced with abuse and harassment. In online groups where they coexist in with men, they find themselves subjected to constant sexism and harassment. At times men simply don’t get what harassment is and what their actions are leading to, and other times it seems like they simply don’t care.

More and more ‘women only’ groups are now popping up as a result. Women, even in the online world, have found ways to exist without being noticed. What we’re doing is nothing short of a digital cloak, and it’s an unfair box that women are expected to fit themselves into. And those that refuse to partake in this cloaking face another reality. The reality is one that a young, unknown student faces everyday when she thinks that she can get away with having an opinion that is entirely her own. Pakistan has its fair share of problems for women, and the online world is no different.
Women, even in the online world, have found ways to exist without being noticed

Unlike the young girl targeted by ‘Cartoons by Naazgul Baloch’, and even Malala for that matter, Qandeel was already expecting problems. The model, whose real name was Fauzia, was using a pseudonym. Like the page that is run by ‘Naazgul Baloch’ targets alternative thought, the media targeted Qandeel over and over again. Anchors invited her on their shows for their ratings, continued to put her in harm’s way, taunted and harassed her to claim their imaginary moral high ground and then chucked her aside. Information about her past marriages and details of her passport were lapped up by just about everyone. The details were plastered all over newspapers and TV channels - people made memes around the ruckus. It made killing her all the more easy. Had her brother not done it, popular sentiment surrounding her death shows that someone else may have taken up the task.

Malala Yousafzai found herself facing the online hatred of much the same demographic that targetted Qandeel Baloch
Malala Yousafzai found herself facing the online hatred of much the same demographic that targetted Qandeel Baloch

What happened to Qandeel did not take place in a vacuum. Things are slowly getting crazier for girls online. A new type of radicalisation is taking root where women and young girls that are often seen as soft targets and are subjected to a barrage of abuse. Their data is stolen, death and rape threats are issued and in the worst cases they end up limiting their own lives and are forced to disappear from the grid to remain safe. Unfortunately, though, not all women are safe even within their homes. If Qandeel taught us anything it was basically this.

Before her death, Baloch had said that she needed security. She had said that she needed help. She had said that she was going to move away. She was afraid for her life, but even she had no idea that it would be extinguished by someone close to her.

Before her death she was trying to find her brother Waseem a wife - the same brother who didn’t think twice before drugging and strangling her. The same brother who stood in front of a media audience and impishly smiled as he fumbled through his explanations of ‘ghairat’ and how he had far too much of it.

Read more: The meaning and legacy of Qandeel Baloch