There is a lot of talk at the Stockholm Internet Forum 2015 (SIF15) about how Internet rights are synonymous with human rights. It may sound like a #FirstWorldProblem but here why it is not. The Internet is this one unique opportunity where the developing world can become the emerging world and the emerging world developed. It enables you to leapfrog a few decades into a future where many can self-teach themselves some of those very basic life skills that ought to have been learned. Where this becomes even more crucial is when we think of women’s access to the Internet – after all it is them that need to do all the leapfrogging to survive, sustain and protect themselves.
When it comes to women and the Internet, the key theme for this year’s SIF15, it is important to note that just like in real space, online space is also being rationed for men alone. For countries like Pakistan where it is a norm for the biggest piece of protein to be saved up for the boy child, the computer too now also is securely owned by the men in the household. Understandably middle class families, the bastions of morality, have recognized the value of the information superhighway, but with it they have also developed restrictive thinking about how many women should ride on that highway. Blocking the Internet or parts of it is like burning down libraries and women need that access the most.
This is perhaps why many women in conservative societies have to hide their Facebook accounts from their families. Oftentimes women are found deactivating their social media accounts because their significant other’s asked them to – taking pissing on fire hydrants to a digital level. Women then have fake accounts, which violates Facebook policy and undoes the importance of online presence – it serves as an equally important identity as your real life identity does. Tragically, many women are unaware of how important it is to know your online terrain, to use the internet safely and to understand privacy.
Despite the fact that there are many Pakistani organizations working on digital literacy with a gender focus such as Bytes for All, Media Matters and others, the fact remains that fighting the cultural restrictions on women who need access to the Internet continues to be a daunting challenge. It is time for those with bigger muscles to step in – The government of Pakistan, and those well-meaning organizations campaigning for more access for women in developing regions.
More access for women on the Internet means more rights awareness in terms of reproductive rights, legal rights and the right to education and health, and also more means to reach these very basic necessities of life. However access alone does not guarantee that change will come. Sometimes women after eons of chauvinism become proponents of misogyny – they block other women, they perpetrate patriarchy, like the famous Pakistani MNA who wished her husband would remarry and that she’d welcome the second wife. In those cases there is nothing worse than a mouthpiece to retrogressive ideas.
The net is neural, it works just as much for the people who support the decline of women as it does women who need to be at the command position of their destinies. It goes to whoever uses the tools better.
One of the opening SIF15 panellists said that activists should work to remove some of the broader structural inequalities from the Internet when trying to work towards equal access for women. These structural inequalities involves being policed by men, slut-shamed, victim-blamed, harassed, trolled and character-assassinated. Until we can cure the misogyny that ends up online we will just be as restrictive towards women online as we are with them in public space in real life. In that case there will be no leaver that will progress women in developing countries to overcome on ground blocks to education.
The internet is the future landscape of existence and identity. It will be the dimension where political thought and expression will thrive and it will be where women will get a chance to learn about and campaign for candidates with pro-women policies. There will be more accountability and more to answer for in the event of discrimination. This is the way the world is headed. Pakistan has a choice. In the web it is propagating with Youtube bans and blocking of subjective political content the road it is taking seems to be the opposite one.
Just because we have a women fronting the IT case in Pakistan does not necessarily mean that great strides are being made. If the policies are retrogressive towards open access to the Internet then they must be fought out just as you’d fight misogyny: Fiercely and like a 21st century woman.