2014: Take Back the Tech! – Campaign: Forming online spaces in Pakistan

– By Zoya Rehman, Coordinator GenderTech, Bytes for All, Pakistan –

Take Back the Tech!, our flagship, award-winning campaign[1] that we brought to Pakistan in collaboration with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), is an initiative that is extremely important to us and our organisation. The campaign has been integral for Bytes for All, Pakistan, in leading the conversation about gender rights and online spaces, and we want this conversation to keep going – with or without us. We want stories from all corners of Pakistan to be shared as much as possible – these stories must be mapped, seen, and discussed, so that justice is achieved, in one way or another, when people join hands and try to find solutions for the larger issue of online abuse. This is essential if we want Internet rights to flourish in Pakistan.

About us

Bytes for All, Pakistan is a human rights and research organisation which focuses on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and their relevance for strengthening human rights movements in the country. We conduct research for evidence-based policy advocacy on civil liberties in Pakistan. The organisation’s field projects are focused on Freedom of Expression (FoE), technology-driven gender-based violence, and security of human rights defenders – for this, our digital security department has been expanded so as to include a more holistic programme, which also includes physical and psychosocial security now.

The problem: tech-based violence in Pakistan

Pakistan is rife with technologically driven gender-based violence. Such cases are taking place just about everywhere: at home; at the workplace; in public spaces; and now through the Internet, mobile phones, and social networking spaces as well. Online misogyny and violence against women (VAW) in Pakistan is a reflection of the patriarchal mind-sets that already exist in our offline spaces. Pakistani women, girls and sexual minorities are being silenced everywhere – whether it is through actual violence or discouraging, abusive language meant to hinder them from claiming spaces that are rightfully theirs.

The problems we have to address in Pakistan exist everywhere else in the world, but we have to address Pakistan’s problems with unique solutions, keeping the country’s cultural context in mind. We cannot formulate these solutions without the stories we wish to collect. We cannot address tech-based VAW without ample voices and counter-narratives.

In 2014, we compiled a report comprising three case studies that proved how technology-driven violence against women was present in Pakistan. This was done to contribute to a global evidence-building exercise, led by APC, regarding online gender-based violence. Our pilot case study was about a young girl, Aisha, a survivor of physical and technology-based violence. In short, an intimate act between Aisha and her lover, Sadiq, was recorded with mobile phones. That recording was subsequently used by Sadiq’s friends to blackmail and rape Aisha repeatedly over several months, and was allegedly also uploaded on Facebook as ‘revenge’.

The other two case studies delved into the stories of two women who, unlike Aisha, had agency because they were more independent, more vocal about their convictions, and also hailed from upper-middle class, liberal families. Bayhaya and Baaghi were subject to sexualised violence and abuse online because of their progressive views. Bayhaya was even branded as a blasphemer by Islamist vigilantes for simply challenging conservative views online.

Take Back the Tech!

During the international 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign that takes place each year, we call for everyone, particularly women and girls, to reclaim technology and fight gender-based violence. Participants ‘take back the tech’ with the help of their cell phones, social media accounts, blogs, and other technological mediums to raise pertinent issues that can help the ICT capacity of women.

In our previous campaigns, we delved into the way ideas of public and private spaces affected online abuse and violence. Our discussions were about issues such as the right to privacy, the sometimes arbitrary ‘private’ versus ‘public’ distinction in online spaces, and state surveillance. We always wanted to change Pakistanis perceptions about the Internet, primarily how many Pakistanis believe that the Internet is a bad space which women should always avoid, just like the media is no place for women to be seen. These arguments are specious and only end up reflecting the inability to accept women in any public space whatsoever.

For this, we held our campaign activities in both online and offline spaces to guarantee more visibility. We led various events, devised eye-catching graphics, published pioneering research, initiated long, heated Twitter debates, held poster competitions for college students, exhibited their work, held trainings, organised hikes – the works. We engaged various human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists, as well as the general public, so they could join us to raise awareness about how abusive and intrusive social media can be. We did all this while realising that networking will always be a key component of our gender work. We facilitated committed local campaigners in sharing their ideas and learnings, so they could raise awareness online – and globally – as well.

We turned #TakeBacktheTech into a national trending topic for hours during our tweetup[2], which eventually led to an intense debate among prominent feminists about what online violence entails. Our activities ranged from conducting a digital security and privacy training session for a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) group to popularising the Young Activist Award for school children to encourage them to create art to address tech-based VAW.

Bridging the gap between offline and digital movements

This year, in 2015, we will be focusing on sharing survivor strategies to amplify the need for more confident voices in finding solutions to the problems we are facing. Advocacy on the pending cybercrime bill is also going to be a huge part of our campaign this year – so much work has been done by some fantastic activists and civil society organisations in relation to violence against women, yet there is an evident gap when it comes to legislative progress related to cybercrimes against women.

There are already many gender rights defenders in Pakistan doing incredible work to end violence against women in offline spaces. There have been some notable achievements in Pakistan in terms of new gender-sensitive legislation during the past decade or so. However, we need to expand our understanding
of such issues to realise that tech-based violence is actually a digital extension of the same kinds of abuses that most people, particularly women and sexual minorities, experience offline.

Hence, we wish to engage gender rights activists in reviewing the Government’s policies on ICT governance, and want to hold wider consultations and workshops regarding the formulation of laws and policies governing the Internet, to highlight the freedoms and rights of Pakistanis, particularly women, online.

Bridging the gap between offline movements and digital rights movements is extremely crucial – we must find solutions together as allies to further inform our work as gender rights activists. Patriarchy must be ripped to pieces by all of us! Let’s keep talking about what can and cannot be done together.

We wrote an open letter to the National Commission on the Status of Women, Pakistan (NCSW), urging the Government to take action to address this growing problem of online VAW. We always want local activists to echo our responsibility to defend and support Internet rights.

Moreover, the relevant cases being reported in the news media everyday must be brought to light. We have been mapping cases of online violence on our country-level map, VAW Map, and anonymising all these stories, to help others understand the gravity of technology-related violence against women and sexual minorities.

Demonstrating the effects of online abuse

We have always done our part in demonstrating the effects of online abuse in a digital world, and how to combat it, be it through research or media monitoring. Ideally, we want all existing stories in Pakistan to be documented so they could inspire conversations and help in chalking out a way to end genderbased violence.

For this, the stories we share during the international 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign usually present the way technology affects women around Pakistan. We try to do this by being inventive and humorous, but most of all, by humanising our efforts and the overall Take Back the Tech! campaign. Our aim is to imagine a world without online violence with the help of representative, powerful stories. We try to highlight transformative stories that need visibility and are less easily heard, so we can help in correcting the imbalance of power.

The recent cyber-attack on #TakeBacktheTech by misogynists, trolls[3] and various other people linked to #Gamergate[4] is a stark example of the kind of backlash and abuse feminists face online when they express their opinions. It demonstrates how detrimental gender-based abuse and sexist expression can be, which is why we must keep collaborating on this issue and speaking out against the harmful effects of technologically driven genderbased violence.

The sky is the limit

That is the thing though – we know we are nowhere near done in fighting this struggle. The continuous need to be inventive makes us want to reach out to people even more, and in as many ways as possible. We realise that our campaign needs to be more fun and engaging. We want to utilise videos, podcasts, and comic strips, reinvent science fiction stories that already exist, urge people to share poetry and blog posts, so that there are as many individualistic responses to such issues as possible.

We must keep finding new ways to dismantle patriarchal norms in Pakistan, and also help women from all walks of life in fearlessly interacting with the outside, ‘non-familial’ world. We are convinced that Pakistanis are not talking about online gender-based violence as much as they should, and for that, we need to keep finding more challenging ways to address issues related to access and agency, as well increase capacity building around areas of privacy and security, to change the conversation around tech-based VAW. Having a meaningful, understandable discussion about the harms of online violence also means that men must be engaged and made to question conventional notions of masculine identity and patriarchy.

The Internet is ultimately a transformative space, and a feminist one too. Our Take Back the Tech! campaign must always reflect this to help in bringing an end to the culture of impunity associated with gender-based violence in Pakistan.



Zoya Rehman, Coordinator GenderTech, Bytes for All, Pakistan

Zoya Rehman is a lawyer and gender rights activist working for Bytes for All, Pakistan. She studied law at University of London and Pakistan College of Law. Before joining Bytes for All, Pakistan, Zoya worked, among others, as a Research Associate for the Supreme Court of Pakistan and as a Programme Officer at Shirkat Gah, Women’s Resource Center, Pakistan. Zoya joined Bytes for All, Pakistan in May 2015 as Gender Tech Coordinator.


Bytes for All, Pakistan TBTT! Resources: click for Mapped stories

Case studies/country report: click here for pdf of the case studies and pdf of the country report

Our baseline studies: click here for pdf

Awards won: click here for more information

Click here to download the story (PDF)