The privacy of online safe spaces for women is constantly at risk

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

After moving to Lahore from Toronto in 2001, it took me some time to recover from the cultural shock. Even though I visited Pakistan regularly, the idea of living here permanently was hard to absorb, particularly as a girl, especially the cultural shock that was part and parcel of moving from a free society to one where women were subject to  patriarchal beliefs. I wanted to explore new places in Lahore, to experience and address the culture, to discuss issues I did not know were a taboo in society; however no one was open to these talks and I was told to ‘stay within limits of a woman’, a phrase that made me question my identity as an equal resident of Pakistan. What are the limits of a woman, I always wondered.

I made a Facebook account in 2007 that allowed me to engage with people on various topics, however discussions on issues related to women were still not welcome by people on the internet. So when in 2018, I received an invitation to an all-women closed group on Facebook, it seemed like I had found the support I needed. Since then I have joined multiple  women oriented groups that helped me learn, share experience, and even vent after an exhausting day.

Many women-only groups on Facebook have thousands of members from across the world, and some are moderated by Pakistani women. These groups are like offline communities where women from all walks of life, age groups, beliefs, and ideologies find space to express their opinions and thoughts. These places allow their members a safe space to learn from each other, and some even find the room to earn financial stability through these groups. They empower women into asking questions about menstrual health, pregnancy, guidance in marital issues, raising children – topics that are otherwise forbidden for women to discuss in the open, to entrepreneurship, politics, questions on religion, sharing memes, or just to share experiences to help others who are coping with similar issues.

Online spaces:

Even though there are countless benefits of the internet and social media platforms, however, the internet is far from a safe space. The lack of awareness around privacy and the impact that the breach of security can have on people’s lives contributes towards how women experience the internet and closed online spaces.

Currently there are two ways of maintaining a group, a public group which can be joined by anyone by sending requests, whereas its members are searchable. The second way of maintaining a Facebook group is by making it hidden or private. These kinds of groups are not searchable, and members lists cannot be seen publicly. Women-only groups mostly opt for the latter kind of setting because they  provide some form of security. 

Even though Facebook has its own content moderation rules that apply on closed groups as well, admins of all women-only groups also set some parameters for the discussions in the groups, and a separate set of rules for moderators to vet profiles before accepting membership requests. 

Despite various levels of security by the moderation teams on these groups, incidents of privacy breach are a common occurrence that lead to conversations being compromised, screenshots making their way out of the groups, and often on other platforms. These instances have led to not only minor inconvenience for the people whose conversations have been leaked, but severe repercussions like harassment and blackmailing have also been faced by the members and admins of the groups. Due to these instances, women started sending queries to the admin with requests to post them anonymously, offering them some level of privacy. Another reason for posting as anonymous is that people don’t want to be stigmatised by their family and friends if they are part of the group as well.

Online Women Groups:

Some of the popular women only groups on Facebook host discussions related to political, economic and social aspects that they are otherwise excluded from. There also are groups especially geared towards feminism, creating awareness and providing a safe and tolerant environment for members to exchange ideas, discuss issues that are not appreciated in offline spaces or even on their own Facebook walls. These groups follow strict community rules, and request members to respect others’ privacy. However, despite all precautions there have been incidents where the groups’ privacy was infringed, and sensitive discussions were leaked causing trouble for the posters in their lives outside of the internet.

Hanieh Bilal, a clinical psychologist and a mother of two, is running a Facebook group called ‘Mommies Has Solutions’. At the time of writing this article, the group has over 63,000 members. Hanieh started this group three years ago after giving birth to her second child while she was undergoing postpartum depression.  She says that there was no group for women that she knew of which discussed postpartum depression, or simply on parenting and motherhood. She adds that ‘Mommies Has Solutions’ is for mothers to interact, learn and advise. Through this group, she has also helped women in starting their businesses and lets them advertise it without any charges.

Hanieh thinks that the group’s moderators have the responsibility to protect its members’ privacy. Talking about the group rules and privacy, she said, “Every person who requests to join, has their profiles carefully scrutinised. Even if the person does not have their own picture, we go through their pictures, comments and timeline to see if the people in the list are genuine and only then we add them in,” she adds, “Luckily the group has never faced an issue of screen shots nor has any conversation been leaked. There are rules for everyone to follow to keep it a safe space for everyone so no one is hurt. If anyone crosses the line, is rude or uses abusive language they are muted and if needed even blocked.” 

Pakistan Feminist Discussion is another very interesting group with diverse group of people as its members. One of the group members, Fatima, works in digital media. According to her, “This group is unique in the way that it allows men who identify themselves as feminists to be members. We personally review every profile and ask additional questions as necessary. Besides the real profile policy, we give priority to members who other members can vouch for.”

She says, “This is a feminist discussion group, in which feminists of any gender and feminist allies – [provided] they make a conscious choice to be called that instead of male feminist – can be a part of. How you behave is a lot more important to us than who you are. Men that can’t keep their privilege in check when engaging in a discussion don’t last in the group, but thanks to the age, nature of the audience, and the approval process, we haven’t had any untoward incident in years.” 

Rabeeya Seemul Latif, created an all-women Facebook group called Soul Bitches in 2016 as she felt that there was not a safe online judgment-free space for women in Pakistan where they had the freedom to discuss everything under the sun without getting censored. She explained the concept of the group, and the criteria of adding members, and said, “When the group was initially made we did not realise that people from all over the world will join it and it will go viral in such a short time span. The platform was created to help Pakistani women have a safe space where they may connect, communicate and debate issues important to them without the fear of being judged.” Rabeeya emphasises that privacy is of utmost importance on Soul Bitches. “We have only one rule for members to join, that is you have to be a woman. As privacy and security of the group members is important, a team of admins and moderators checks the profiles display pictures, mutual friends, timeline and tenor of posts, and if all seems original content only then we allow them in.” She adds, “We can never be 100 percent sure about anyone till after joining their actions give them away. At times some profiles are catfishing so perfectly that it’s hard to identify them.”

Catfishing: Catfishing is a deceptive activity where a person creates a sockpuppet presence or fake identity on a social networking service, usually targeting a specific victim for abuse or fraud. – Wikipedia

There have been incidents where screenshots of conversations were shared on other platforms like Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp to harass women for voicing their opinions in a closed space. Acknowledging this breach of privacy, Rabeeya says, “Men think that they are in control, and cannot imagine women being empowered or have a say on matters that they consider are only related to men. However this mindset is also seen in some women who consider men as a superior gender which is basically not their fault as they have been brought up that way. So if we find people who have shared screenshots we make sure we block them and their friends who were party to such behaviour.”

Men generally want women to feel afraid and chained to their male chauvinistic mindset, which is why they try infiltrating these groups, take screenshots, and later blackmail women or those who dare step out of their ‘limits’ defined by the patriarchal notions. These power tactics are adopted to force women to step away from online spaces, however, those who confront this abuse head on not only stand up for themselves, but also support those who cannot immediately speak up. These closed spaces give women a sense of community that often does not exist in the offline world.     

Ujala Ali Khan is a US-based writer and performer who originally hails from Karachi, and a member of numerous all-women groups. She says that she particularly enjoys being a part of Soul Bitches as it allows her to openly express herself, and makes her feel comfortable in its environment. She thinks that every member in the group has a responsibility of making the space safe for everyone. She says,, “It’s unfair to place all the blame on admins and moderators, they work hard to check profiles, posts and comments to keep groups running smoothly but members also need to realise that online spaces are public platforms where one can never be sure of who is watching you. Anything posted online means it is out there forever. It’s an irreversible action.”

Ujala talks about her posts that were shared on various other platforms. She adds “My posts have been shared numerous times and I have handled them well because I live abroad so I am not pressurised the same way as women in Pakistan are. Once I shared a post on sex toys in a group and someone leaked it. When I came to know of it, I did not back off. Rather I shared it on my page with context and explained that I was not ashamed of what I had posted but it was meant for that group only so it should have stayed there.”

In June 2020, a famous group on Facebook found itself in a situation where a woman shared the problems that she was facing in her marriage based on her looks, and it got picked up by an online tabloid with her picture. When the admin came to know of the incident, she contacted the editor of the tabloid and after a lot of to and fro it was removed. Such incidents are not uncommon. In fact, recently another renowned women-only group faced a similar experience where screenshots of members’ conversations about seeking advice in marital issues, were leaked and shared on another group with explicit language with direct character assassination of women. When incidents like this occur, admin intervene to attempt to take the post down when they can. However, in many instances, this goes beyond the controls of the moderation team.

Tanzeela Mazhar is a journalist who is managing a WhatsApp group particularly for women journalists. She believes, “There is no way one can really ensure that screenshots will not be taken, people are just careful in not expressing themselves as they know how unsafe things are. But it’s time that people are given training on basic ethics of social media platforms, privacy, and how to maintain the secrecy of groups. Till that is not done we will keep facing such issues.” 

Admins at risk

Online communities should be a fun and safe space to connect with others and discuss anything under the sun. However managing large groups can be a tedious and risky task for the administrators. A lot of labor goes into managing groups, and it is often love’s labour lost. While this breach of privacy directly affects members of the compromised groups, the admins are also not safe from trolls and stalkers, and face a lot of pressure while running the group from external and internal foes. They not only have to manage the groups, but deal with resulting abuse and threats at times when they enforce privacy rules in the group. 

Kanwal Ahmed is the founder and admin of Soul Sisters Pakistan (SSP) that currently has more than 200,000 members. Speaking at a webinar organised by Media Matters for Democracy, Kanwal said, “Despite maintaining rules and regulations I still find a lot of hate being thrown at each other in the group. People take screenshots and share them in other groups and make fun of us or the person who posted. Many times people accuse me of being the reason of divorce in families.” She further says, “Being the founder of this group comes at a personal cost [as well]; many people have a negative impression about SSP and they dismiss arguments of women by saying ‘go and whine in SSP’. If I did not have support from family and friends I would have shut down SSP a long time ago.”

Sana Rizwan Gondal, a feminist researcher and a panelist on the same webinar, believes that women who do not feel safe in offline spaces, join these groups to feel safe. However, incidents of sharing of screenshots can scare them away or silence them as there are chances of their access to the internet being stopped. “Women are constantly policing themselves and creating anonymous or semi anonymous profiles to remain in such spaces to speak about what they go through, something which they can’t do at home. Many women are not allowed to use their names on social media, or share pictures so they opt for some random picture to hide their identity.” She adds, “Unsolicited messages in the inbox can also be a cause of trouble for women and result in their death. Men don’t have to go through such fears, rather they are the cause of it, and want women to not only stay within the four walls of the house but also in a veil.”

Sadaf Khaskheli is the founder of Women Castle, a Facebook group that at the time of writing, has 12,000 members. She formed the group during COVID-19 lockdown with an aim to assist women in growing their business. She believes that no one can be 100 percent sure about the privacy of the group as she was also harassed for managing her group. Sharing an incident regarding how her live video was recorded and her family pictures were shared in various groups, Sadaf said, “There was some misunderstanding in another group and I had apologised to the admin, but while I was doing a live video in my own group, a part of it was recorded and shared in that group. Later my family pictures were also shared in the group. My family supported me but still it was very stressful as members of the group were watching what was happening, and being a divorced woman with a young son, [it] created more stress in my life.”

Security of groups

Aisha Sarwari is the founder of Women’s Advancement Hub – a Facebook group that works with grassroots women’s rights activists, writers, journalists and activists to advocate on the protection of women’s rights in Pakistan. She talks about how speech on the internet is heavily policed and is used against people where privacy violations have often had fatal consequences. She says, “The Internet is one big landmine in Pakistan – you can be lynched like Mashal Khan for practically anything. You can disappear, you can be targeted for simply being in a public place online by having your pictures morphed. These groups are evolving and admins are not clear on how much responsibility rests with them. I would use these cautiously but also post openly issues that do not touch the sacred cows of Pakistan.” 

While Shmyla Khan, Director Research and Policy at the Digital Rights Foundation, believes that despite all-women groups being safe spaces for women, it’s important to consider what a person posts anywhere on the internet. She says, “After a certain age women resort to such groups because they are not provided with safe spaces in their daily lives. But the real danger is that nothing is really private in these groups. Security is very important in cases where you are posting something really sensitive like an incident of abuse and also naming the person, one can get into a legal battle like a defamation case, if people take screenshots or pass stories around.” Shmyla further adds, “If you are talking about taboo subjects, people in your social circle can outcast you or hold your comments against you.”

She explains how moderators do put in a lot of effort in maintaining the rules and privacy of members, but the fact that these spaces are not devoid of internalised patriarchy cannot be ignored. 

It is a fact that once something goes in cyberspace, we lose control over it. Even reporting incidents of abuse to authorities fails to be very helpful.

The ‘secret agenda’:

There have been incidents where women who are part of such platforms were chastised for joining women-only groups. Tahira, a house wife says, “I had not told anyone in my family that I was part of such groups but a friend of my fiancé told him that I am also a part of this group and he refused to talk to me for a while. He [believes that] such groups are leading women astray with their foreign agendas.”

Whereas, Karishma, a student of ACCA, is hesitant to accept that the groups are entirely safe and expresses discomfort while navigating all-women groups as she self-censors. She says, “With religious intolerance on the rise I try not to comment on topics related to faith as I am afraid of how it will be interpreted. Even though these are all women groups, I still don’t feel very safe in expressing my thoughts as I have seen fundamentalists being very aggressive with moderate Muslim women.”

Humeira Kazmi, a novelist, is a member of various women-only groups. She shared her experience of being in a space that hosts diverse thoughts. She says, “I am mostly trying not to grind my teeth to dust over the majority of comments [and] posts. The content is straight out of the 7th century and which doesn’t speak to the women but to the regressive society that constantly forces them into living like this.” Humeira thinks that where these groups are helping its members, there are often posts that fail to make any sense to other people who want to help. “Even though the group [helps] in venting and guiding as most posts read like, ‘Hey, abusive husband beats up in front of everyone, toxic in-laws, I have trust issues, but divorce is not an option, please advise!’ Like, okay behen, would you then like a list of murder plots? Matlab advise what? Most commenters are left scratching their heads.”

According to Humeira the groups are safe spaces but privacy is an important issue in such groups, but this does not stop her from sharing her thoughts. She says, “I’m against screenshots. These forums promise a safe space and members pour their hearts out so breach of that trust is immoral to me. However, if anyone paraphrases a post in another forum to gather more opinion, that’s a different story. But regarding religious issues I’m dheet. I’m usually saying all those things on my own social media too so I’m not afraid of repeating the same in a closed group.”

Today women are trying to reclaim their space and voice their opinions in the online world. Even though there is a long way to go before patriarchy can be rid off, if at all, it is important that women identify patterns of internalised misogyny that may lead to the eradication of patriarchal notions that rot our society. A good start is by educating women about their rights, being able to read red flags, defining boundaries, knowing what consent is, and respecting others’ personal choices, privacy and experiences. These groups are a platform of forming networks and raising their class consciousness even if women do not agree on the precise politics of how this should be done. Patriarchy has limited women’s interaction only to immediate family members and friends. However, members of these groups are able to engage with other women living in different time zones and continents. They are gaining confidence and slowly realising their right to navigate public spaces, both online and off.

R Umaima Ahmed is a journalist. She tweets @Umaimablogger

No comments

leave a comment