Social media brings Pakistan’s persecuted women rare justice after the violence
Sarah Gill, Suman Ali – aka Acid Survivor – and Khadija Siddiqi represent a growing movement using the internet to demand justice for the shocking crimes they have suffered. Will it trigger long-awaited change in Pakistan?
Last month, Sarah Gill – a 27-year-old Pakistani trans activist who is about to become Pakistan’s first transgender doctor – sent out a distress call over Facebook:
“Three men just followed me to my home, grabbed me from my hair and started hitting my genitals and put a gun to my lips … They told me next time I would have to sleep with as many people as they say and if I don’t, they would first burn my breasts and then kill me … I have no protection here. If anything happens to me, please don’t give up, my lovely community.”
“That post saved my life,” Gill now says. “The way my online community came to my rescue gave me the confidence I needed to stand my ground.”
Gill believes she was targeted because she had roused people to take action against a transphobic gang in Karachi. “This gang was carrying out abductions, assaults and rapes, and putting videos of their crimes on the internet. But members of my community saw no sense in going to the police, who treat us just as brutally.”
One decision by Gill – at a demonstration – would prove crucial in her pursuit of justice. “We had organised a protest and the police were trying to disperse us by force, as they always do,” Gill says. “I considered filming these violent scenes but realised they would confiscate my phone and delete everything. So I started broadcasting a live feed instead.”
Unaccustomed to being made accountable, the police immediately retreated. As word of Gill’s protest spread, the authorities started to take notice, and charges were eventually filed against the man said to be the gang’s leader for allegedly committing violent criminal acts against transgender people. After lifetimes of injustice, Gill says the trans community were “utterly shocked”.
The violence that Gill and many other women in Pakistan face – including forced marriage, domestic violence, acid attacks, “honour” killings and rape – is described by Human Rights Watch as “routine”. The vast majority goes unreported: though an anti-rape law was passed last year, convictions remain close to zero.
But while the country has one of the world’s largest digital gender divides (70-85% of internet users are men), more and more women are claiming their space online – and harnessing it against patriarchy. “We are not going to bring social change by appearing on one morning TV show,” Gill says. “We need a continuous platform to speak for ourselves.
‘I didn’t want to be a victim’
Like Gill, 20-year-old undergraduate Suman Ali has used social media to take control of her selfhood. Having already subjected her to years of sexual harassment, in January 2016 a close relative took her to a secluded spot and threw acid in her face when she again refused his marriage proposal.
“Some of my own family members testified against me; others disallowed me from speaking to the press or using social media,” Ali says.
A few days before the courts convicted her perpetrator, however, she joined Facebook under the name Acid Survivor. “Mainstream media in Pakistan reduces victims of acid attacks to a fleeting headline,” Ali says. “They force us to feel like victims, stuck behind closed doors, but I didn’t want to be a victim.”
She began sharing selfies of her recovering scars – sometimes stark and raw; sometimes carefully angled and Snapchat filtered, asserting her prevailing beauty. Replying to a photo comment complimenting her eyes, she wrote: “The monster who attacked me wanted to remove my eyes cuz every one likes my eyes …but Allah saved me.”
Her Facebook posts documented not only her physical recovery but her court case too. Ali believes she is the first acid attack survivor in Pakistan to use digital platforms in this way: she hopes posting a copy of the final ruling against her perpetrator – seldom mentioned on mainstream news outlets – may deter further attacks by highlighting the full consequences of his act.
According to Ali: “The trauma of disfigurement makes you feel like you have no say in defining your identity, which is why most survivors withdraw from social spaces.” Being Acid Survivor on Facebook has, she says, given her a magnified sense of justice: “When I look at my selfies online, I feel powerful.”
‘Social norms took priority over justice’
This summer, another survivor of patriarchal violence gained justice by employing social media in a stabbing case that was beginning to look hopeless.
When law student Khadija Siddiqi originally presented solicitors with her allegation – “On 3 May 2016, I was ambushed and stabbed 23 times by my classmate, Shah Hussain” – she was given a wide berth. The tightly-knit Pakistani legal community shunned the case; her attacker, it transpired, was the son of an influential lawyer.
“I almost gave up,” Siddiqi recalls. “Social norms took priority over justice, even for lawyers.”
Even when she eventually found lawyers who would listen, several advised her to drop the case, suggesting that “compromising” photos – of her socialising with male friends – might be leaked to cast doubt on her claims. “Somehow, it was not about what my attacker had done but who I was,” Siddiqi says. “I felt like my soul, my character, my patience, had been put on trial.”
She took refuge in online discussions with human rights activists, one of whom – a budding lawyer and political worker, Hassan Niazi – offered to take up her case. According to Niazi, “Khadija had tried every conventional option available to her” – so he proposed an unconventional approach: a strategic social media campaign, designed to counter judicial bias and raise a public outcry.
The day Niazi posted graphic photos of Siddiqi’s wounds on his Facebook page, her case was transformed. Condemnations and condolences overshadowed the apologists and deniers. Facebook groups demanding “Justice for Khadija” were launched, and the hashtag #FightLikeKhadija started trending on Twitter. Prominent TV anchors invited Siddiqi on to their prime-time shows.
Her trial became a linchpin for a much-needed national discourse in which the issues of gender inequality, rule of law, class politics and democracy converged. The defence made one last-ditch attempt to discredit her case with attacks on her character, but it was too late: “All the mudslinging proved they didn’t have a leg to stand on,” Siddiqi says.
Her attacker was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for attempted murder – an unprecedented victory in a country where violence against women is mostly ignored, especially when carried out by influential men. “Social media turned my case into a nationwide movement,” she says.
Together, Gill, Ali and Siddiqi represent a growing movement of Pakistani women using the internet to demand justice for the crimes they have suffered. This month, the #MeToo campaign – in which women globally have used social media to condemn sexual harassment and assault – has also trended in Pakistan, with one media commentator noting that, unlike previous popular campaigns against patriarchal violence, the #MeToo movement has gained “alarmingly high traction” in the country.
“The replication of offline violence against women online, including cyber harassment, abuse and blackmail, makes the internet an embattled resource for feminist activism,” she says. “But when I fight for women’s safety online, I fight for their freedom to use this resource to its full potential.”
If these three women’s cases set a precedent, it could trigger long-awaited change in Pakistan and far beyond.
By Farhad Mirza and Sophie Hemery
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