Harassment, Power Dynamics and Fear of Defamation Laws: Young Girls Struggle to Seek Justice on Campus

In the summer of 2020, Lahore’s elite education institutions witnessed a wave of harassment allegations. Innumerable young girls came forth recounting incidents of their male teachers breaching boundaries or displaying problematic behaviours, some with photographic evidence. However, some of these cases mysteriously disappeared off the internet’s memory as fast as they popped up — testimonies were taken down, screenshots stopped circulating, and the students quietened down once again. The magnitude of the allegations was such that the damage had already been done, but why did the original evidence suddenly vanish?

The answer is as sinister as one would expect. Yet, it lies within the bounds of Pakistani law.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) is a federal legislation meant to thwart cybercrime, and its Section 20 criminalises “offences against the dignity of a natural person” — in other words, it criminalises defamation. Rights activists have long been arguing about the misuse of this law against criticism and its weaponising against freedom of expression, however, despite credible proof of its misuse, the authorities did not express intention to amend or withdraw it. But part of the section 20, along with a recent amendment titled PECA Amendment Ordinance that made it more draconian by expanding the scope of the punishment, was struck down by the Islamabad High Court on April 8, 2022, and the Court termed it unconstitutional. As a result, over 7000 complaints were dismissed by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in the following days.

In the hands of harassers, equipped with knowledge of the law and influential connections, this law has provided an official channel to sanction survivors of harassment. Present victims are forcefully suppressed, future survivors are deterred from speaking up, and the result is a contribution to the widespread culture of silence that surrounds gender discrimination in Pakistan.

Mahnoor*, an alum of one of the Lahore-based highschools, helped other women in her batch share their testimonies of harassment at campus and faced a fair share of backlash as a result. She says, “I remember [locking] my public account which had the testimonies, and changing my username to prevent a civil defamation case.”  Mahnoor took the lead in compiling the victims’ statements and proofs on her Instagram account, as they were coming out.

The all-girls high school where Mahnoor studied saw multiple faculty members exposed for problematic behaviour. One of them, who was also a famous actor, uploaded a public post threatening to take legal action against the victim under section 20 of PECA. However, there was no actual defamation case filed against any student or against Mahnoor herself that she knew of. She adds, “Part of the reason why it didn’t escalate was because one of the main victims who called him out asked us to take down the screenshots. She was afraid of personal markers in the stories.” The accused or perpetrators of violence often use existing laws to threaten and intimidate victims and survivors into silence, and section 20 of PECA has routinely been used for this purpose. 

Jannat Ali Kalyar, lawyer and digital rights expert, says, “In Section 20, you have an offence which is very loosely worded, where you can bring in any form of defamation, though the word defamation has not been used. Criminal defamation is mostly used all over the world against dissidents, human rights activists and such, to regulate political speech.” 

The punishment, too, deters women from sharing experiences of gender based violence on the internet — three years in jail and a fine worth a million rupees can incite great fear, especially in women who already lack faith in the legal system.

Mahnoor’s batchmates were considering pursuing a harassment case against one teacher, since they had indisputable evidence, but problems still arose. “The legal system here is terrible,” she says. “Cases get dragged out, so we were advised against it.” These laws, built to protect women, only serve to emphasise their vulnerability in a heavily patriarchal society. As a result of the lack of thought and planning given to them, they are more likely to do harm than good.

When these girls aged between 18-20 years old are faced with just the threat of criminal prosecution by older teachers with influential backgrounds, it is understandable that they desist just to avoid getting into trouble. Mahnoor said that the teacher they wanted to take to court belonged to the same family as an important political leader, and they were repeatedly warned about the consequences if they were to take action.

Another teacher who was called out through Mahnoor’s public Instagram account, was a professional lawyer who threatened many students with legal action. “I was getting so many messages from people defending him. No other teacher had as many people defending him as he did,” Mahnoor informed. The fear these teachers incited in their students clearly depended on their social power and connections, and thus how they could use these to punish their victims.

About yet another teacher who she called out, Mahnoor mentions, “He threatened [with] legal action in a direct message to me, so I took down posts [about him]. He even put up a Facebook post asking his old students to testify how great he is.” Even if they were not using the defamation law to take these girls to court, the existence of such legislation in the first place gives harassers more than enough room to intimidate and pressure their victims.

Jannat mentions how PECA Section 20 is disproportionately used to target women, and says, “Women who post harassment allegations are often threatened and forced to remove their posts. The law is used as a silencing tool, where the harasser says to the victim that if you don’t take your post down, we’re going to file a criminal defamation complaint against you, adding, “Section 20 has been used in call-out culture to muzzle the voices of young women in multiple cases, and it has been largely effective.”

She further adds, “Because it’s a criminal law, the [victim of harassment] has to come to court on certain dates. It is so easy to intimidate a woman and to use the law against her by first harassing her pre-trial to remove her post, then filing an FIR to bring her in court and harass her.”

The path towards justice then seems impossible, a battle not worth fighting.

Apart from the law, the harassers had an arsenal of unofficial tactics at their disposal as well, like threats of expulsion from the school, grades being affected or further harassment. Keeping in mind these were girls studying in O/A’ Levels, they had their entire academic careers in front of them — additional leverage that could be used against them. This is why most girls who came forward through Mahnoor were alumni who had little to no pressure to endure from the administration of the school. “Current students didn’t want to get in trouble because they were scared of their grades, teachers’ recommendations, or even expulsion,” Mahnoor shared.

Kinza*, who belonged to the same batch year and school as Mahnoor, emphasised how the victims had their academics and finances jeopardised. “One of the men [who was] called out was the head of the accounts office, which meant he was in charge of our fee slips. I heard the girls who spoke out against him had their scholarships revoked, or random additions into their fees. They didn’t even need legal threats when they could threaten us in other ways.”

The risks around reporting harassment are immense. But reporting harassment as a student, against a faculty member, is an unimaginable struggle given the unprecedented power imbalance. A defamation case is the last line of attack against these students, an avenue for decisive legal action against someone who has finally mustered up enough courage to share their experience of abuse knowing the repercussions. But it usually does not come to that. Multiple factors prevent survivors from gathering this courage at all, let alone speaking loudly about it.

The schools’ misogynist social culture and the administrations’ complicity act as an unofficial deterrent, silencing young women from the start. Fighting against these seems pointless, because at the end, they have the power of the law on their side. Their authority allows them to maintain a culture of fear through the immense power that they hold over the victims that involves blaming them or undermining their experiences, and to take measures that would make these fears valid.

The institutions’ reputation is assumed to be associated with that of the harassers, and damage to the former is the reason behind filing a defamation case and various other intimidation tactics that schools adopt. If an elite school is in fact revealed to have hired a harasser, predator or groomer to teach young girls, its reputation is significantly tarnished. As much as it may claim to champion equality of opportunity and diversity, this progressive garb is ripped to shreds once people are made aware of what was happening behind closed doors. Thus, these institutions do everything in their power to maintain pressure, usually invoking their own defamation policies.

A circular dated 2012 that was posted on the school’s notice board read, “Anyone found defaming the faculty, the administration or student body of [the school] on Facebook or any other public forum will be expelled from school.” Clearly, the emphasis is on keeping the silence, even to the victim’s detriment, rather than protecting them or helping them seek justice.

Most institutions have a similar rule where students are threatened to remain silent rather than highlighting the many incidents of harassment and gender based abuse that happen on campus.  A notable example of this rule in action was seen in 2021, when a final-year student at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi was expelled for revealing the harassment faced by a female staff member. The National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad has also denied reports of the alleged rape of a female student on campus.

Students in IBA staged a protest demanding the administration to reinstate the student who was expelled for reporting harassment on campus. Source: Muhammad Jibran Nasir, Facebook

Laws like PECA legitimise these frameworks that already exist to sanction victims, in the form of these schools’ authoritarian, sexist practices. Saima*, a student from the same school as Mahnoor* and Kinza* says, “It was like, ‘here’s the rule. Follow it or you’re out.’” She adds, “I can see how it was not a friendly culture where women could bring up issues and be supported.” Even though the administration was almost exclusively female, they favoured the prestige of their institution — and by extension, the harassers’ careers — over the safety of their students.

This was the reason behind their victim-blaming attitudes, and the intense gaslighting and public humiliation. Kinza* says that when the students told their A’ Level coordinator that one member of faculty had repeatedly made them uncomfortable, Kinza quotes, “The coordinator responded, ‘He’s so old, he doesn’t know any better.’” Taneer*, who studied at a different branch of the same school, mentioned that their Principal responded to the allegations by holding the girls responsible for their own harassment. According to Taneer*, “[The Principal] said, keep your hands off the male teachers. They’re old enough to be your fathers.”

Extremely patriarchal and misogynistic as they are, these dialogues also prove another way in which this power dynamic plays out: the older man is considered honest, faithful and family-oriented, while the girl is conniving to ruin his life for personal gain, through a false allegation. The perception of victims of harassment as malicious liars is the primary reason why defamation cases are filed against them and why the harassers are trusted over the victim, and why the victims have to suffer damage to their own careers – in the shorter and longer run.

Taneer says that the students had discussed reporting the incidents of harassment on campus at the hands of their teachers in great detail but, “we were afraid of not being believed or how to say it at all.”

Their hesitation is not entirely baseless. Laws that criminalise defamation are deeply flawed, and one loophole is that in order to counter the defamation claim, the victim has to prove that the information was not false, and that the incident of harassment indeed took place. Considering that harassment is almost never planned or expected, victims can rarely provide indisputable evidence. And without evidence, they can easily be called liars. Jannat says, “The Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act contains no criminal offense, but it criminalises false accusations. And the most common argument is that women making harassment claims are liars.”

The law puts the onus of proving that the crime had happened on the victim rather than on the perpetrator as should be in cases of gender based violence, as Jannat mentions, “In criminal cases, the threshold for truth is very high, beyond reasonable doubt. This makes harassment cases impossible to prove. But if you want to prove criminal defamation against a harassment survivor, then that is very easy, even if you’re just picking up a few tweets.”

The defamation claim thus turns into a sexual harassment claim, where the court will determine whether the problematic behaviour actually happened, before they proceed to determining whether there was defamation involved. Salwa Rana, a lawyer and human rights activist, says, “For example, with the Meesha Shafi case, all the news reports we saw weren’t even about the defamation case. She had to prove that [the harassment] did happen, and that went on for so long. It wasn’t Ali Zafar’s team trying to prove that Meesha knew that this information was false. It was Meesha, who had the burden of proof that it’s not false. So it becomes a trial within a trial, when defamation should ideally only be about each other’s reputations.”

Another way in which the law raises questions is its vague wording. “The words ‘intimidation’ and ‘harming’ can be interpreted quite subjectively. What you might think is intimidation, I might not. If someone’s spreading information about me that I think is harmful, they might just consider it their freedom of expression,” Salwa says. This lack of clarity means the law can easily be used to strike fear in young girls, and to favour influential men with innumerable connections and facilities at their disposal.

Since the passage of PECA in August 2016 until January 2020, only 14 convictions have been handed out under section 20 of PECA. Angbeen Atif Mirza, a lawyer and director of the Office of Accessibility and Inclusion at LUMS, says, “In order for someone to be convicted under Section 20, there are three conditions that have to be satisfied. They need to prove I did it intentionally, that I knew it to be false, and that I did it to harm the person’s reputation.” She adds, “That’s really, really difficult to prove. But the average woman filing a harassment case doesn’t know that. Just the fear of getting a legal notice is enough to silence someone.”

Salwa adds, “Trials rarely produce enough evidence to get a conviction, but people get scared. [They] are scared of the criminal justice system, the police, and the FIA.” Harassers thus prey on these girls’ lack of familiarity and trust in the legal system, lengthy and traumatising court proceedings, and another aid for them is the punishment stipulated in the law: three years jail-time and a monetary fine for defamation. Salwa informs, “A defamation notice itself has no value. It’s only a big deal when you file a case. But the notice becomes very intimidating because of the punishment, [and] the criminal nature attached to it.” With the latest amendment in section 20 of PECA through the Ordinance that was struck down by the Islamabad High Court in April 2022, the possibility of an already draconian law to become more extreme was realised. Additionally, the FIA rarely follows proper procedure when conducting an investigation.

Before PECA 2016, defamation was still illegal through civil law, under Section 499 and 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). However, the punishment under civil law is much less severe, so for the purposes of intimidation, harassers usually resort to using the criminal law. The inclusion of defamation under criminal law is problematic in itself, because of how it can be misused and how it actually plays out. “Criminal defamation all around the world is highly discouraged, and many countries in the past decade or two changed it into a civil-only offence,” says Salwa, adding, “The problem with criminal defamation is that it discourages freedom of speech because people will self-censor.”

Two Pakistani male journalists, Asad Ali Toor and Shahzaib Jilani, were threatened with defamation notices that resulted in severe consequences. But the privilege of having a voice, support and familiarity of the legal system helps in handling the intimidation that comes with these notices. However, young girls like Mahnoor and Kinza have fewer connections, privileges and information at their disposal. Salwa shares, “Even when men—cisgender, heterosexual, Punjabi Sunni men, who are the most powerful in society—had defamation cases against them, the threat was enough for them to lose their jobs or had to leave the country. For a young female student considering reporting her teacher, just the mere thought of getting a defamation notice is enough to shut her up.”

Not only do other countries advise against criminal defamation, but some also make an explicit link between defamation and harassment to silence survivors. Attacking victims with a defamation claim in response to their formally filing a complaint of harassment is an act classified as a SLAPP suit, or a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, in the United States. Angbeen points out, “California, for example, has an anti-SLAPP law, which says if a harassment claim is pending, you can’t file defamation.” She says that the anti-SLAPP law is only valid if the victim files a complaint of harassment first, which rarely happens, but the existence of such a law is still reaffirming. She adds, “If it happens in national law [in Pakistan], it’s an easier argument for schools and universities to make: hold onto your defamation claim if you have one because there’s currently an inquiry pending on your harassment behaviour.”

In the end, even if defamation cases rarely amount to anything, Section 20 of PECA is a massive deterrent for victims and survivors of harassment and other vulnerable groups, even if that is not what the lawmakers intended. “I can imagine that the people who were drafting it meant for it to protect women and vulnerable groups, but I don’t see it protecting them at all,” Angbeen shares. “It’s a law that’s playing very easily into the hands of people who want to misuse it because it’s worded so broadly, and slightly irresponsibly.”

Section 20 of PECA 2016 is just one example of the damage ill-thought-out laws can do to vulnerable social groups in the country. Even if they are passed with the intention of providing legal recourse, the power dynamics present in society allow those in authority to misuse these policies to their own advantage. In the case of harassment, it is imperative for survivors to be granted freedom from negative consequences, after all that they risk by coming forward. Creating these safe spaces and more open dialogue is imperative to eliminating the fog of silence, because only then will more and more people come forward about their true stories.

As Saira*, a former student at the high school in Lahore, mentioned, “If you got five complaints of sexual harassment, that’s a clear indication that something’s off. Five complaints of sexual harassment mean there are at least fifty girls who didn’t come forth, because they didn’t have courage or weren’t positively encouraged to do so.”

Munema is a sophomore at LUMS, working towards an English degree. Her research interests lie at the intersection of gender, digital spaces and public policy.

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