When you buy pads or tampons in Pakistan, grocery-store owners double-bag the purchases, ostensibly so people on the street can't see what lies within layers of brown-paper bags.
This culture of secrecy and shame around women's lives and bodies is an apt parallel of life for women in Pakistan. Conversations about everything from sex lives to physical health are "brown-paper-bagged." If women do speak, they do so in hushed tones or they're immediately shouted down.
The Internet is opening up spaces for women, leading to private Facebook groups like Soul Sisters, a space for women to seek advice from their peers and talk about personal issues, with over 16,000 women who discuss everything from workplace issues to marital dilemmas.
But despite the apparent freedom of 140-character updates, Pakistani women are still slut-shamed and criticized and silenced online. The Pakistani author and researcher Ayesha Siddiqa was subjected to an organized trolling campaign accusing her of being a spy. In 2016, the social-media star Qandeel Baloch was allegedly killed by her brother because he objected to her posts and said her behavior was "intolerable."
Nighat Dad, 36, is trying to make the Internet a safer open space for women in Pakistan. Dad is a Pakistani lawyer whose advocacy is informed by her personal history and politics. After a financial crisis, her parents couldn't afford to keep sending her to a private school, so she had to study at a bare-bones, government-run school. Dad didn't have access to a cell phone or the Internet at law school; her brother curtailed her personal and online freedom by taking away her computer at home and objecting to her going to university. An abusive marriage led to a severe bout of depression.
"This is where my personal politics came from," Dad says. "We're often labeled 'privileged feminists' by critics. I belong to a very lower-middle-class family. I started from zero. I have no privilege. It's very important to set the record straight: that my personal is my politics."
Dad was named a TEDGlobal fellow in 2017 and is also an affiliate at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Science. Dad and her Digital Rights Foundation work on everything from state surveillance to online harassment. Her initiative Hamara Internet ("Our Internet") aims to instill a sense of ownership over the Internet in women, create safe online spaces for them, and offer a support network, including a help line, for women whose digital privacy is violated.
Saba Imtiaz: I want to talk about online spaces for women. But can you tell me about yourself first?
Nighat Dad: In 2007, the year I got divorced, I got my law license and started working at a law office in Lahore. I had access to the Internet and found this great world. There was a lot happening online. You can speak your heart and mind, make friends, and do whatever you want. After leaving a suppressed environment, when you find this space, you can do wonders.
My friends said they got a lot of unsolicited messages and friend requests and porn-type messages. I started looking at online spaces from a legal perspective: Is this harassment; is it entertainment?
The Internet, especially in conservative middle-class families in Pakistan, was always considered entertainment or a place to find friends. There was always a negative aspect. I think that's why women weren't allowed to use it. This forced me to look into the politics of the Internet: who has access and who doesn't; who is being harassed and by whom.