Stolen Images and Violations of Privacy: How Women in Pakistan Navigate Digital Spaces

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

There is a curious cognitive dissonance that occurs in the digital sphere, a space that is sometimes considered separate from physical “reality.” The usage of terms such as “IRL” (in real life), whether intentional or otherwise, carries the implication that a “reality” exists and it is supposedly outside of the internet. I have always been fascinated with the duality in this particular perception of reality.

As a woman growing up with and on the internet in Pakistan, digital life has always been an extension of “real life,” never separated in the form of some Cartesian binary. Digital spaces are real spaces, and what happens there affects real people.

Mahnoor* is a writer, and like most writers, she aspires for her work to be read by an audience. Her freelance writing job requires her work to be shared and circulated along with her identity for recognition and access to further opportunity through a creative network that is facilitated by fame. And yet, Mahnoor holds herself back, terrified by the idea of being too recognisable.

In her mid teens, Mahnoor discovered Snapchat, along with her sexuality. She took intimate photos of herself and shared them with a few trusted individuals. In her first year of university, she met an older male student who told her that he had seen those pictures of hers, shared with him on WhatsApp through a mutual male friend. She was mortified, especially by the idea that other students could come across them as well. Mahnoor had four years to spend in school, and was haunted by the knowledge that these images existed in the possession of strangers. She spent the larger part of her undergraduate on medication for anxiety, often unable to participate or focus fully in class because of the side effects of the medication.

It would be difficult to argue that Mahnoor’s fears are unfounded, or that her life in so many ways was not shaped by this incident. The anxiety of having your intimate images exposed to the world without your consent is an unfortunately common experience many women share globally. In some places in the world, including Pakistan, the stakes of such exposure have been fatal.

Non-Consensual Intimate Images are not ‘porn’

The past decade has made the internet familiar with leaked non-consensual images of women, including celebrities. The appropriate term for the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent is non-consensual intimate images (NCII). This is commonly known as “revenge porn” – a term in itself contested as problematic for a number of pressing reasons. Firstly, the word “revenge” implies an intention to seek retribution, which is not always the case as extortion, blackmail, and voyeurism may be likely motivations. More importantly, it connotes that the victims may have committed an initial harm, for which vengeance as retribution is being sought, or even owed. This is particularly vicious and ironic in the context of consensual relationships, where it is usually a harrowing breach of trust from the perpetrator who forwards the images shared with them by the victim in the pretence of trust. 

In addition, using the word “porn” oversimplifies the consumption of NCII as consented entertainment, and the term overall perpetuates a narrative built on the exploitation of victims. Furthermore, it misguides government policy and misinforms the public about the root cause — which is violence against the victim.

The existence of NCII online is technology-mediated sexual violence and harassment. While the leaking of NCII is not unique to young women, it is a phenomenon that disproportionately affects and targets them. Posting non-consensual images of women online is rooted in misogyny and functions as an infliction of gendered violence. 

Mahnoor’s case is not unique. It is in fact exceedingly common and familiar.  According to two young students at an A Levels college in Karachi, “most girls in [their] social circle had their nudes leaked before graduating high school”. The implication of this as a lived experience shared by these young people is severe and often longlasting, especially as it shapes the formative years of their lives and affects opportunities well into adulthood. It is another way young girls internalise shame and learn to police and manoeuvre their bodies in social systems that prey on them.

There has also been an increase in private data being stolen from mobile phones or laptops sent for repair or transferred in ownership, or through various other methods such as spyware in apps or intercepting through public Wi-Fi networks.

When these images are made available to the public, a pre-existing narrative that centers victims as the perpetrators of their own harassment is utilised and replicated. This also includes NCII or video footage where women are not aware they are being recorded – which women in Pakistan can attest happens in completely non-sexual contexts as well. As many of these women also happen to be young, this crime is often framed as an issue of naivete and not recognised for the gender-based violence (GBV) it is. It is usually considered an act provoked by the victim upon themselves – a well utilised tool of control that enables violators to continue such criminal offences against women, often without consequence. 

This lack of consequence has also led to the increasing use of AI technology that fabricates realistic looking deepfakes or “deepnudes”, which is synthetic media that realistically grafts one person’s face onto another person’s (naked, in the case of deepnudes) body in images and videos – a practice that predominantly targets women. There is, therefore, an abundance of non-consensual graphic content on the internet, shared through pornographic websites and uploaded on unofficial pornography groups on social media channels. 

Rape culture translating in digital spaces

This is a pervasive extension of rape culture, as the premise is the default lack of consent and the normalisation of this sexual violence against women – which they themselves are blamed for. Women around the world already operate their daily lives according to a rape schedule, and the internet then seamlessly becomes part of this subliminal anxious reality. 

How does one avoid rape? How does one avoid sexual harassment? How does one avoid punishment for their audacity to dissent against systems of oppression?

For many young women like Mahnoor, navigating digital spaces includes the reduction of expression due to an anxiety rooted in the threat of exposure through hacking and then the release of NCII. According to Amnesty International, female activists who are opinionated and express their arguments online are frequently trolled and can be subjected to doxxing. Voicing opinions against the powerful often leads to attempts to hack accounts or coordinated attacks from bot trolls, many of which include rape and death threats. 

Aima Khosa, a journalist who routinely uses social media to speak out against social injustices, recently faced attempts to hack her Twitter account. She says, ”I’m self-censoring constantly when I post [online],” as she has experienced “the most vicious abuse of the most sexual nature.” She mentioned that these graphic sexual comments and threats have made her “pick and choose the moments [she] tweets politically,” keeping the rest of the content as apolitical as possible.

This globally experienced phenomenon where rape and the threat to expose private information and images is used to intimidate “loud” and dissenting women into silence makes the internet another space for women to negotiate their freedom for safety.

This perpetuation of rape culture into the digital sphere enables gendered violence and shames women into silence, as the larger framework has always been similar. Women witness and experience this narrative shape policies, legislation, and their everyday interactions. This narrative exerts insidious control over the choices they may make and dictates the way they may experience their own bodies, and therefore forces them to modify their behaviour in digital spaces, which are dominated with similar social systems. Like Mahnoor*, 70 percent of women in Pakistan are afraid to post their pictures online as they fear misuse of their images, and therefore limit their social media presence or operate through various forms of private or anonymous profiles accessible only to known associates. 

Of internalising abuse

Alishba*, now 25, recounted an incident from when she was 15. She was made aware that her pictures, most of which were in school uniform, were stolen from her profile and uploaded to a public Facebook page where men frequently commented vulgar things on them. Her friends tried in vain to have the page reported and the images removed, but they were unsuccessful at the time since the images were not overtly of a sexual nature, even if all the comments were. 

Alishba mentions that she has been sexually harassed online since she was a child, with her pictures stolen and “uploaded for public consumption or used for fake accounts presumably made for catfishing purposes”. This has made her “afraid of the internet”, compelling her to delete most of her friends list or deactivate her profiles each time there is another leak. For WhatsApp specifically, she chooses to not add her face to her display, and selects a setting that only allows for added contacts to view it. She has rarely been successful in convincing Instagram and Facebook to delete those impersonating profiles. These profiles with stolen images of her still exist – some of them with doctored nudity. She says, ”I’m afraid that I have brought shame onto my family, and this may negatively affect my chances at a good match for marriage.”

In 2017, 22 year old Naila Rind committed suicide in her dorm room at the University of Jamshoro, Sindh. She was harassed and blackmailed by a man who possessed videos of her and 30 other girls. Many victims like Alishba* and Naila internalise this blame and are unable to seek professional help. A study titled “Blame attribution in sexual victimisation” reveals that self-blame usually falls into the following categories: “putting oneself into a bad situation, not resisting enough, sending mixed messages, and being too trusting”. It is difficult to escape this perception when the overarching narrative regarding the violence inflicted on women’s bodies is centred around acts of sexual aggression resulting from provocation, instead of them being acts of aggression stemming from a need to exert dominance and power.

Pakistan’s constitution enshrines the right to privacy and the dignity afforded by that privacy as a fundamental right in Article 14(1), which is sedimented through Article 8 to ensure this takes precedence over any inconsistencies in domestic law. This is an interesting contrast with recent developments in both digital and physical surveillance – which Pakistani citizens are subjected to by both public and private bodies. 

Surveillance of women’s bodies

Surveillance by CCTV cameras has fast embedded itself as a norm in our urban infrastructure. Despite the effects of this being well known and debated, it is worthwhile to consider the particular side effects for women that have been recently uncovered in public light. Images from the surveillance cameras of the Punjab Safe Cities initiative were leaked on to social media sites in 2016 and then early 2019. These images had little to do with public safety, and mostly consisted of couples, with the leak of 2016 specifically including images of young girls. If legally pursued, this breach could be covered under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), also known as the “cybercrime law”.

In August 2019, a CCTV footage was released by a cinema in Lahore that only consisted of couples on dates. In September 2019, students of the University of Balochistan protested against sexual harassment that female students faced by officials of the university who placed secret cameras in washrooms and smoking areas of the campus along with general CCTV surveillance that specifically targeted women. This footage of a “personal nature” showed female students “mingling” with male students and smoking, and the affected students claim that these were used by the university to blackmail and harass them.

Most of the leaked videos and images were immediately spread through WhatsApp and uploaded to Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that post stolen and non-consensual content indiscriminately. Once mass reported by concerned users on the platform, in the rare event that they are taken down by the respective site, they pop up again the next day through a new account with the same content. They have regular followers and members in the thousands, each time. 

Of the three most popular social media platforms, Twitter’s policy allows for the uploading and sharing of pornographic content, provided that it is marked as sensitive, and that it is consensual. Instagram does not allow for nudity at all, yet reports show that pornographic content still appears to thrive there. Facebook’s policy claims a “nuance” and restricted allowance for nudity. Non-Consensual Intimate Images (NCII) of young girls and women exist on all of these platforms, often with victims not even aware of the specific pages. 

In order to rectify the repeat uploading of NCII content, in March 2019 Facebook stated that it utilizes its photo-matching technology to track and ban such content – using machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to remove the images even before they are reported. While this appears to be a much needed measure to protect victims of a privacy breach, one must question if such social media corporations already in breach of user privacy are entities one can trust. Many have advocated that these platforms routinely fall short in protecting victim’s privacies, especially in Pakistan. 

These policies mostly deal with images and videos of a sexual nature that include nudity. However, what constitutes a “sensitive image” (images flagged for graphic or upsetting content, according to Facebook) can be far more complex and variegated within contexts such as Pakistan’s cultural landscape. 

Closed spaces as places of violence

Minhal*, a 17 year old student from Gujranwala, shared that she and her middle school female batch-mates discovered a WhatsApp group called “Singles” composed entirely of male students. The purpose of the group was to share images of their female colleagues to collectively discuss their sexual attractiveness. According to Minhal, these images were “sneakily taken when the girls did not know they were being photographed, or [were] stolen photos from official school pages or private profiles.” Minhal first became aware that her photos were circulating when she was sent a Facebook friend request by a man from a different city she had never met, but who sent her private photos to her in a greeting message.

When a former member of this incel WhatsApp group entered a relationship, he was removed from the group as punishment. This group was once exposed when another former member revealed it to his girlfriend, who then alerted all the female students of her school. Minhal relayed that most of the young women who were being discussed in this group “immediately removed all male friends from their profiles, with several deleting their own profiles entirely”, or adopting anonymous personas. Despite these measures, boys used their female friends’ Instagram accounts and took screenshots of the girls’ images and continued spreading them. The victims did not bring this to the notice of any school officials since the admins engaged in “victim blaming” and often slut-shamed female students. The students did not believe they would receive any support, and their lives would only be made more difficult. Life imitates internet.

In 2012, five young girls were murdered due to the sharing of a video recording of them cheering on two male dancers at a wedding in Kohistan. In June 2013, two girls and their mother were killed in Chilas due to the spread of a video of the girls enjoying the rain. In May 2020, two girls aged 16 and 18 were murdered by their family in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to a viral video of them being kissed by a man. Many women fear exactly this outcome by male members of their family across Pakistan for any kind of media that includes them.

Amna*, a 24 year old university student, recounted an incident of domestic violence where her father saw a digital photograph of her with a group of friends, shared with him by a family member added to Amna’s Facebook profile. He abused her because he considered the proximity of “a male friend standing next to her indecent, and threatened to remove [her] from school”. Sarah*, a 27 year old HR manager, mentioned that a photograph of her with her boyfriend at a school event was taken by an unidentified person and then mailed to her house when she was 16 years old. She said, “I’m only alive right now because my mother received the mail instead of my brother or father.”

Legal recourse to counter online violence

A 2016 study conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation found that 72 percent of the women surveyed were “not aware of the laws relating to online violence in Pakistan”. I asked the women who shared their stories if they had ever pursued legal action. Most of them said no, while some had attempted to begin the process, but changed their mind due to what “seeking justice” entails.

It took 9 years of court proceedings for a young girl who was raped, and then subjected to a video of the incident uploaded to YouTube and other social media platforms to finally have her rapists convicted. Legal proceedings concerning incidents of gendered violence are notoriously sexist and traumatic for women, with only a fraction of even the most heinous crimes convicted. The current legal infrastructure does not seem a viable option for women, especially young girls who first and foremost fear their families, let alone the public that may vilify them. Many of these women stated that a long court case with a side of a witch trial and further attention to the images makes them unlikely to want to pursue legal justice – which they doubt exists.

In late 2019, private and intimate images and videos of singer Rabi Pirzada were released on social media. These NCII were quickly spread on the internet, with a majority of social media users expressing glee at this violation. This leak had followed a string of criticism posted by Pirzada directed towards powerful state officials across the border and at home. After a brief hiatus, she returned to the internet, turning over a new religious leaf, abandoning her career, and seeking forgiveness from those she had wronged.

The case of Rabi Pirzada is a particularly frightening instance of gendered cyber violence. It is a grim reality of the current digital landscape of Pakistan that affords little privacy to women, and appears to deliberately seek to punish them for their bodies — and their lifestyle and political opinions.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) enacted in August 2016 is the main law that pertains to online harassment and abuse.  It is, however, a double edged sword that appears more useful to criminalise political dissent and enforce censorship than allow for a momentum to be gained in online data privacy or security for women online. Mahnoor never reported the theft and circulation of her images, as under PECA the FIA is provided the authority to seize all gadgets of persons involved and gain unfiltered access to all data. The FIA faces severe criticism for its handling of cybercrime cases, and it may be a big ask to expect women to trust authorities and systems that do not prove to serve their interests. Pakistan’s internet, like some of its neighbours’, is heavily policed and monitored – yet victims of NCII do not receive global collective justice.

With the increase of surveillance and a lack of cohesive privacy laws, women and young girls are at continued risk of abuse and harassment. In June 2020, the Digital Rights Foundation reported a 189% increase in complaints to their cyber harassment helpline during the pandemic. Of these, the majority of the cases “pertained to blackmailing through non-consensual sharing of information, intimate pictures and videos”. 74% of these complaints were by women. 

The variation of the context that dominates women’s behaviour and choices, especially with regards to technology and digital spaces is pervasive. The risk appears inherent to women’s bodies, and rooted in endeavours to attach shame to it. It is a strange predicament to understand that women are validated when they upload their images online, or simply behave in the way femininity is demarcated for them – mostly through intrinsic sexualization or objectification. Yet, it is this performance and participation that puts them at risk – thereby signifying time and again that the internet, much like any space in the “real world” is a space of gendered violence.

From public spaces, to universities and schools, to private spaces, and then to digital ones – we must ask the urgent question: where are women safe?

* Names and identifying details have been altered to protect privacy.

Sana R. Gondal is a feminist activist and student of Urban and Environmental Planning. She tweets at: @SanaRGondal

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