For women, access to the internet is more than simply having a device

Featured illustration by Aniqa Haider

Like access to safe public and private space, access to virtual space for women is also riddled with intricate systemic hurdles. I don’t have a room of my own, which means that despite having the privilege of a reliable internet connection in the house, I have to struggle to create space for myself to do online research work, as well as engage in the reading and writing process. 

In the house, I also have to manage to get hold of a laptop device, as we are five laptop users, three of them students, with two laptop devices available. On top of that, I can’t use the internet cafe near my house as it is only open for men.

Along with this being a class issue, in terms of having the money to afford this 21st century necessity, leading to a global digital apartheid, having the privilege to use the internet is also a geographical and patriarchal issue in this country, with confusing overlapping complexities.

Lookouts, personal space and a room of my own

During the lock-down I restarted using social media as a political tool of communication after almost a two-year break. Shazina, a progressive young woman who hails from a conservative family in a small village of Sindh, was the most consistent person I have interacted online with during this time. 

We met online when I was tweeting about the lack of internet services for Baloch students to attend online classes in their respective areas, and she tagged me in one of her tweets about weak internet connection in rural Sindh as well. I noticed that she was using my public picture from Faiz Mela as a profile picture on her Twitter account. It was the same time when there was a very active fake Twitter account that was using my picture and my name to often make controversial political statements, sometimes confusing people and reporters.

Shazina is a student of  Commerce who had been pursuing her degree from a university in Karachi. I heard her actual voice after almost 3 months of online interaction. She is not part of any political organisation due to lack of agency in mobility, but has a strong online presence on social media platforms especially highlighting the issues of domestic violence in Sindh.

When I contacted her, she was at her grandparents house in the village to attend a wedding, she expressed the general sentiment about the internet which is the first hurdle women have to cross to gain access. She told me, “People here don’t like the internet for women. They say the internet will ruin you, it will ruin us women. People in the village are different from the people in cities and urban areas in how they see and treat women. Over here, even when women talk, I don’t know what happens, they don’t like it.”

The call was short, in secrecy, interrupted by bad signals, and it ended when she was signalled by her younger sister on the look-out, that her mother might be approaching. This is reflective of how a lot of women end up conducting conversations on their phones, with look-outs in place due to the complete lack of privacy.

During the call, she casually mentions, “My attendance [in online classes] is not being marked. I haven’t attended any class since the lockdown. There is an internet connection in my house, but my family says don’t use the internet. I can use the [data] package on my mobile phone, but the majority of women here can’t. It’s like that for my female friends from my extended family, village, and college.”

She is not worried about her degree, she laughs followed by silence when I ask her what will happen if she is not attending classes. After a pause, she adds, “I am talking to you while hiding from some of my family, my sister is keeping a lookout. The women over here don’t get their [basic] rights, so the internet is less of a concern. House members are saying, don’t attend classes, only Allah knows what will happen to my degree.”

When we reconnected on call, a day later, she mentioned that her uncle and brother are concerned about her online presence mainly due to the conservative people in the village. “You asked me if I wanted to use a pseudonym for the interview? I think it will be better if you just change the name of my village.’’ Given her security concerns, I decided not to add the name of her village at all.

Muqaddas Afzal, who is a student in Lahore and hails from a village in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK), expands on the concerns mentioned by Shazina, especially highlighting the spatial tension in constantly trying to find space to simply work and how it affects her utilising the internet.

‘’I can’t find much space, I can’t attend online study circles, and because it’s a joint family system I have to do household chores. I have to be occupied with unimportant things, otherwise I will have to listen to taunts like my parents made a wrong decision sending me to a city for education,’’ she says, encapsulating the dilemma that many young women have faced in the lockdown. Where the avenues to access the internet remain limited for them, distant learning has proved to be a challenge to attend when coupled with domestic work that they are expected to invest time in, while not being able to prioritise education.

Muqaddas says that living in a joint family system further restricts the time she has on the internet so she has to constantly negotiate time and space for herself. She shares, “I used to attend study circles on Zoom with my fellow comrades. But then as soon as my siblings and cousins started coming back, the personal space and internet access to attend a Zoom meeting was snatched.”

She further elaborates  how a weak internet connection in her area due to state negligence adds to the gendered anxieties of having access to the internet in the house. “Mostly a family has one connection that will be used by all, and AJK has 4G only on paper, which means there is no speed and no reliable internet connection.” she says. 

When the lockdown started, Muqaddas was the first one to come back home. Things were easier for her then. “If I used to watch any learning videos they would start after some delays and pauses,” she says recalling the slow internet speed in the region, adding, “But as soon as my siblings and cousins were back, I didn’t get preference to use the internet, even if I have to work to submit my assignment. I had to request other family members to disconnect the internet from their devices so I could study, and it depends on their mood if they would listen to you that day or not.’’ A decent internet connection is still not available in most of AJK resulting in people negotiating the usage amongst themselves in attempts to access a working connection. 

She mentions that a phone call from abroad or her brothers using social media is preferred over her using the internet for her education.  “If I am studying, and we get a call from an aunt or an uncle from abroad, then I have to give up my connection because the signals are already weak. Being a woman, it’s more likely that you will be denied your access, you are not given preferential privileges. But boys in my family have much easier access to the internet than me, even for entertainment and social media, and especially to use the internet for their education or job.”

Despite all this, just like Shazina, Muqaddas also considers herself lucky while comparing herself to the state of girls’ education in Pakistan, and especially in her village. She reveals that even with all this luck, education is still a privilege that can be revoked anytime because of one wrong calculation. Her family, though, is considered progressive in the area because unlike many other girls, Muqaddas was allowed to pursue an education and has a functioning internet connection accessible to her at her house.

“My mother wants me to study in my free time, she thinks that most importantly women must know how to cook and handle a house, otherwise they would have problems in their married life,” she says clearly aware of the lines that exist for her and ones she navigates every day in her access and use of the internet.

Similar is her agency on social media, where most women of her area don’t even own a personal mobile phone, she is one of the few lucky women who have the privilege of access to the internet.

On one hand, Muqaddas values her access to a world outside of the four walls of her house and her village. On the other, she is also critical of the misogyny that women still have to face in the public sphere, and its implications on her education privileges. 

It’s this reflection of the general misogyny of the real world, in the public sphere of the online world, that doesn’t allow her to feel free to engage in online debates of her interest, like women’s rights and minorities rights, which further makes it difficult for her to use the internet as a political tool. 

“On the internet, people will insult, humiliate, and abuse you if your opinion doesn’t match with their specific opinion, especially if you are a woman,” she says.

Forced silences due to the patriarchal values embedded in the family structure, general society, and online ecology leads to self-censorship and watering down of women’s voices and their dissenting tones on the internet.

“What happens as a result is that you go silent, because you can’t keep on fighting armies of trolls when they start using extremely abusive language… so you have to be silent. There are laws but they are not respected or implemented. Even if you register an FIR then your family won’t support you, they will ask you why did you engage in the first place? Did we send you to get education or to do politics,’’ says Muqaddas.

She is conscious of the boundaries marked for her, by her family and society, so she manages her presence in these spaces accordingly. She seems fully aware of her societal position of being on the margins but hints towards her personal political will to break out of the structure altogether.

‘’You are told that as a woman you don’t have any business interfering in political matters. You face backlash from all parts of society. If someone from my village sees me engaging online in something that they consider ‘not a woman’s business’ like giving opinions, people will come to my house and tell my parents about what I have been posting. And then I will have to answer to my family for causing them humiliation.’’

She points out that being a woman, no space is safe, not even online, but we need such spaces that claim to be  “inclusive” nonetheless.

As a woman, having or not having a supportive family significantly affects our nature of struggles in Pakistan. Like to get education instead of getting married at a young age, to invest in our learning and professional development, to pursue our passions or careers, to explore and practice our free and political will.

Laiba Zainab, a journalist and activist from Multan currently working for a digital multi-media platform, highlights this through her experience. She mentions that having a supportive family as a woman meant that there was one less hurdle for her to focus on her independent development.

Unlike Shazina and Muqaddas, both of them students, who were confined in their personal, social, economic, and political agency mainly due to familial expectations, Laiba’s family’s support acted as a factor in nourishing her creative growth that further helped her to start her own Youtube channel.

Despite this support, she also has to censor herself online and negotiate her online engagements. She says, “I think a lot before posting a picture online… about reactions from my extended family, reactions from trolls, and then society. I worry that someone would misuse my pictures to create a fake account, or edit them. It happens.” 

Access to technology

Having specialised in digital journalism, Laiba points out that not only are women far less likely to own a personal mobile phones, which affects their access to the online world, but even if they do own a personal phone they are still far behind men in terms of knowing how to utilise online resources and digital platforms, due to their lack of digital literacy based on limited resources for them to efficiently access the internet. 

She says that boys can depend on their mobility and social networks to learn more about the internet, which is not the case for most of the women. “Boys have more information about the digital world, they have more doors open to them to acquire the required skills and knowledge, they have much easier access to unsurveilled smartphones, they also get the chance to take help from each other, they have wider access to social life, they can go and buy the gadgets, ask the shopkeepers and stay up to date. They can have the gadgets fixed, they can go to the technical institutions to learn softwares, digital skills, and get a respective diploma,’’ Laiba sums up the exact problems that prevent women from accessing technology and as a result the internet. 

Technological markets like Hafeez Centre or Hall Road in Lahore and other places of the country are largely dominated by men, where being a woman is an anomaly. So the main question then is if I can’t get a broken laptop fixed without relying on a male family member, then my access is already restricted in some ways. 

Recently, the ‘Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020’ revealed that 81 percent Pakistani males have ownership of personal mobile sets in comparison to 50 percent females. Women are 49 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet, where family disapproval prevents 29 percent of sampled female non-users of mobile internet from getting online, compared to only 2 percent of men. Pakistan had the highest male-female gap ratio among all the other 15 low and middle income countries, according to the report.  

Shmyla Khan who is a digital rights expert working on the online safety and digital advocacy of women says that having a device to access the online world in itself is a space of its own. 

She shares her observations from talking to students about the problems they faced due to the online classes in the pandemic. “All the girls were saying that they got lesser priority to their house device to attend the online classes. If there is only one shared laptop device that a family is using and there are two, three, four siblings, and if all of them have to attend the online classes then who will get the device and when, this is something that the educational institutes didn’t think of. I guess they just assumed that everyone would have a device of their own.”

The violent consequences for trespassing boundaries

Shmyla  further links women’s access to ‘’freedoms’’ dependent on familial permissions and patriarchal bargains, where their control of privacy is used as exchange currency. Even if a girl is to get her own device, most have to share their password as part of the negotiation of getting their device from the family. 

She says, “Within the home girls are not granted much privacy, likewise women’s online presence is seen in a similar way, as if you are less deserving of it. They are doxed easily. As we also see in the case of women journalists, politicians, or any female public figures.’’ 

We saw how Qandeel Baloch’s privacy around her identity was usurped, she was using a pseudonym for her online presence, and her real name was used as a weapon by the trolls and the media. The breach of her privacy ended up triggering her brother’s toxic and fragile masculinity to murder her in the name of honour.

Shmyla adds, “After Qandeel, there have been more honour killings related to online spaces. During May in Waziristan two teenage girls were shot dead in the name of honour because of a video that was leaked online. I don’t think those girls had any online presence of their own. The patriarchal control of family manifests itself in the online spaces in very insidious and unexpected ways.’’

For women to occupy space and express themselves freely on the internet there is an additional and often the primary layer of patriarchal control with real world consequences.

Again, drawing from Shmyla’s insights as a digital expert focusing on women’s online presence, helps us understand the performance of patriarchal anxieties in online spaces.

She says, “Some women don’t want to use their real name online, as the real name because of being associated with the family, comes with a certain kind of surveillance. When we see women making two profiles, one for family and one for friends, with two different personas, it reflects the suffocation women feel around their identity. That’s where pseudonyms come in, but these identities can collapse quite easily as well, something we saw in the case of Qandeel Baloch.”

There are consequences of having a digital footprint that does not align with a woman’s family values. Like the girl who brought the original “Mera Jism, Meri Marzi” poster in the first Aurat March of 2018 in Lahore was not allowed to attend the next two Aurat Marches by her father, as the picture went viral on the internet. Her online trolling aside, her mobility also got restricted. So there are consequences of women’s online presence that extend the online world, and the family can take away granted privileges and freedoms.

Learning, jobs and friendship on the internet

The impact of having a nurturing environment from one’s family to utilise the internet’s resources can’t be better described than through Aleema Karim’s experience, who I contacted on Twitter after following her researched Twitter thread for the #Internet4GilgitBaltistan campaign. 

On call, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Aleema is a high school student, and she had started doing an online part time job with a think tank during the pandemic. Like Laiba and Shmyla, she was encouraged by her family to pursue her education and to learn and develop new skills. Unlike most girls in Pakistan, she was supported by her family to get an online job at the age of 18. 

She says, “My parents and siblings have always supported my education. I have had wifi & internet devices at my home from a young age. I have been taking free online courses to develop my skills, for example from Coursera. I can see that my age fellows probably didn’t get the same opportunities that I have… that’s why they haven’t been able to invest in certain skill-sets.”

She says that apart from her learning and work, she uses the internet to rant on Twitter and be connected to her friends. Her main barrier to utilising the internet remains the solvable problem of lack of a stable connection in her geographical area, which for women also creates another dependency on their family members for mobility to get to a more stable connection.

“There are areas in GB’s peripheries where there is no internet at all, not even 2G. For me, sometimes we go to an internet cafe in Karimabad, sometimes we go to offices with an internet connection, to find a stable connection. Usually my brothers or any other family member will drop me in a car. I understand that if you don’t have the required resources and the support from your family, you can’t do anything at all. There is a lot of dependency in our society for women,” she says.

The blocks of class, geographical region, access to private space, and access to a device affect the struggles of accessing platforms, utilising resources, and expressing oneself on the internet. Patriarchal surveillance, familial expectations, societal pressure around performing gender, online attacks from toxic and fragile masculinity, and capitalist appropriation are all forms through which women’s presence, expression, tone, and language is framed, managed, and policed online.

In this complex matrix of structural hurdles, maybe Maya Angelou’s words can guide us in demanding our freedoms, online or otherwise, “The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”

Arooj Aurangzeb is a graduate in mass communication, a theater artist, and a political worker.

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