Pakistan hotline offers safe space for women harassed online

LAHORE: When Pakistani social media starlet Qandeel Baloch was found strangled, a crime to which her brother proudly confessed, thousands of women posted messages denouncing her murder — only to face abuse and threats themselves.
Nighat Dad, a human rights activist who founded Digital Rights Foundation, which advocates for free speech and against harassment, said her phone began ringing off the hook with women seeking advice, fearing they could be targeted next.
She had offered counselling and legal guidance to such victims since setting up her organisation in 2012.
But the volume of requests shot up after Qandeel’s murder last summer.
In an effort to deal with this fresh wave, Dad decided to create a hotline in December that began operating from her office in Lahore and now handles up to dozens of calls a day.
Eman Suleman, a 25-year-old undergraduate student at Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University, found herself at the receiving end of a concerted hate campaign when she and her fellow students put together an exhibition featuring women’s issues. Instead of the passionate debate they had hoped for, they received threats.
“These anti-secular pages started putting up pictures of us with our personal information then people started messaging us with threats like burn them,” she said.
Suleman then got in touch with activist Dad, who was able to draw on past experiences to offer a non-judgemental perspective and provide her with emotional support as she rode out the torrent of abuse.
For Dad, helping the vulnerable makes her work worthwhile.
A lawyer by profession, the 35-year-old single mother has championed the cause of women in the online space for almost a decade, and last year received the Atlantic Council Digital Freedom Award and the Dutch government’s Human Rights Tulip award for her pioneering efforts. — AFP