One would have thought that social media would become a tool for empowering women, but research has proven otherwise.
Emerys Schoemaker, a PhD scholar at the London School of Economics (LSE), conducted research in Pakistan and published some findings this month at LSE’s South Asia blog. He is of the view that Internet adoption is following established gender lines and this may reinforce established family dynamics. For Shoemaker, the narrative around social media is very simplistic. He questions technology’s potential to ‘liberate oppressed women’.

The numbers back the claim. A survey of 900 mobile data users in three Punjabi cities concluded that 85% of male respondents reported that they mostly use Facebook, compared to only 47% of female respondents. By contrast, 45% of women say they usually use WhatsApp compared to only 13% of men.

To understand the story behind these figures, Schoemaker interviewed mobile Internet users Punjab. He narrates the story of Saima, who wears a full-face covering niqab, who saw WhatsApp as private or, “‘Ghar ki bat” (‘Of the House’). In contrast, Facebook was public. Shoemaker has termed this phenomenon “Digital Purdah”.

And its not just the women who maintain the gender difference, men do too. Men often have multiple accounts, with a Facebook profile for their male friends (and in most cases nearly all their friends are male) and another account for their family. The reason? To maintain everyday segregation in digital life as well. They don’t want other men to see family pictures, especially of female family members. “This is our culture,” said one of the respondents to Schoemaker during his research.

Though some women also have multiple Facebook accounts, mostly used to contact and communicate with men outside their families, the dominant behaviour maintains gender segregation. Women are kept hidden in public life, and stay hidden on the Internet as well.
The way that women use Facebook has much to do with privacy concerns. The ‘context collapse’ format, where one page hold a single, easily viewable timeline, puts too much of our lives together in one place. Additionally, there are issues with a user managing their privacy on Facebook.

The problem may seem benign but there are growing numbers of cases of cybercrime against women in Pakistan. Men have been arrested for creating fake female accounts and blackmailing women. Women regularly have their pictures stolen and photoshopped onto pictures of naked women to be used for blackmail. There have been more than 170 complaints of cybercrime against women this year in Punjab according to the Federal Investigation Agency (no figures were available for the remaining three provinces). None of the cases was successfully prosecuted because women usually reached a compromise with the suspect.

The more one explores the issue, the worse the situation seems to get. According to a human rights organisation that focuses on communication technology, Bytes For All, in one case an online hate campaign urging the rape and murder of a prominent human rights defender resulted in shots being fired at the woman and her husband. She had to suffer death threats and photos of her family were found and posted online. In another case a 14-year-old girl was blackmailed into submitting to repeated gang rapes after her boyfriend threatened to post online a video he had secretly shot of the two together. The police instead of helping her, got her date of birth wrong and then refused to term it statutory rape.

Sites like Facebook have huge potential, from being a platform for entrepreneur ship to a space for advocacy of issues. To be so scared that one cannot engage in discussions online, from the safety of ones own home, is a new low for gender equality in Pakistan.
This does not and cannot mean that women should start deleting their Facebook accounts. The problem is not in the women and their desire to communicate and share online. The problem is the male mind-set that sees women as fair game to be hunted. It is already bad enough that Pakistani women have restricted mobility, need the permission of male family members to work and travel, have limited access to education and jobs, and are easy targets for abuse and violence. At least men can leave them alone on the Internet!